Helping A Reactive Or Scared Dog

The more we know of dogs, the more we can meet their needs, which is excellent, particularly when we expect them to live in a human dominated world. General needs include a good diet, sufficient and suitable mental and physical exercise, a safe place to rest, the ability to communicate their needs and freedom from pain, suffering, fear and abuse.

The Environment

Environmental factors that trigger fear/anxiety are important to consider. Management is key to helping a worried dog in the first instance. We must remember that even when the dog only reacts to things outside the home, things within the home could be pushing him close to threshold because they are taking the dog out of balance. If we maintain a dog’s ability to stay balanced to the best of our ability in all areas of his life, the dog is much more likely to be able to cope in general.

An example of management could be the introduction of gentle music to drown out sounds from outside the house. Often dogs that suffer with anxiety and sound sensitivity can relax with the right kind of music playing in their environment. Studies show that classical and soft reggae music have the most calming effect on dogs.

Another way we can manage the environment is to take away access to visual triggers. For example, dogs that can see through the window into the street are likely to expand their need to control the environment out into the external environment too. So even if they can relax in the home, the option to look out into the external world will usually become a compulsive behaviour, that they simply cannot stop. Moving furniture, or even using a frosted filmlike cover on windows may be enough to prevent the need to watch the outside world.

Calm Interactions

Calmness during interaction is important when teaching a dog that we would like them to be calm. Any petting needs to be slow, long strokes and even some TTouch touches. This is particularly useful in the chest and shoulder areas. The place where touches are delivered will depend on what the dog can handle and we should look out for signs of enjoyment or unease when the dog is being touched. Remember to always get consent before you touch your dog, or you might just make things worse.


Common reactive responses are quite animated anyway, yet the dog who is highly anxious alongside being reactive, may also be highly vigilant. Another thing this dog may do on walks is act highly animated on the lead, grabbing at the lead and our hands. Vigilant behaviours are giving biological feedback to the dog’s body and brain. The heightened state of physical movement will match the heightened state of mental awareness, and the biological feedback will continue to loop between the two – confirming the dog’s idea that he really does need to be worried.

Checking In

The first step then, for teaching focus, is not with the dog but by assessment of our own emotional state. We must make ourselves create a state of calm and confidence that the dog can learn from. We must be able to offer the much needed calm confirmation that everything is fine. Incorporating deep breathing into our own lifelong habits is as important as teaching it to the dog. Then when the human is ready we can start teaching the dog to check-in for confirmation that everything is fine. Checking in is taught early for reactivity because it naturally meets the dog’s need to gather information from the environment. The aim of this lesson is that we bring the dog’s attention away from all potential triggers (dangers) and towards their person as their safe space. With this in mind it’s vital to start where there are no distractions and grow the dog’s confidence in us, which will naturally grow our confidence in them.


Eye Contact

A dog who is very anxious may not be able to make eye contact initially or for long in the beginning. Avoidance of eye contact is a common sign of anxiety and in many ways this is perfectly natural. In dog language eye contact with an unknown other is easily interpreted as a challenge. For example, if two unknown dogs walk towards each other and one stares directly at the other – attempting to make eye contact – he’s often looking for trouble. Because our anxious dog is highly alert and vigilant, he is likely to avoid eye contact with strangers at all costs. If this is the case don’t expect the dog to make eye contact initially for more than a split second when checking in. Just looking the way of their human when they see a potential trigger is a great thing – because they have progressed from vigilance about the trigger. This dog is now replacing information gathering from the environment to checking what their person thinks about the environment instead.

Later in a confident, bonded relationship, eye contact becomes a bonding process between a dog and their guardian. With trust, the look of love will appear and that type of eye contact naturally triggers oxytocin between our two species, building our bond further still.

To teach a dog to check-in is simple using a mark and reward process. Marker use is pretty straightforward and bridges a gap between the choice and reward. A word is fine. For example, if the dog is learning with cheese as their food reward, the marker can literally be the word cheese, so each time the dog checks in with us, we can say cheese and deliver a tiny bit as a reward. Remember though that whatever word you use, will need to be rewarded every single time you use it (even when you ask someone if they would like a cheese sandwich in the vicinity of your dog) because unrewarded markers lose their power. So, choose your marker word with foresight.

Before the marker is used to reinforce a choice, the dog must know that means food. This is easily done by delivering the marker with food over and over again, over a few three minute sessions. It’s a good idea to use tiny tasters of food otherwise the dog will become satiated and maybe even walk away. Testing the marker means that we let the dog make a natural choice in the environment – then we deliver the marker and if his eyes light up, he’s made the connection.

When the connection is made, natural check-ins can begin to be rewarded. All dogs look at their person at some point. Whether it’s because we sneeze, say something to them or they are wondering where their meal is, they all check with us. The aim with a dog who tends to be reactive is to reinforce that check-in so it becomes the default choice, first in the home then within a gradually expanding environment. Ultimately we want this to be our dog’s first choice when they see something they currently react to, we want them to look to us for guidance, and we really need to be up to the job.

Looking for guidance can be hard for the worried dog at the beginning because his natural instinct is to keep those eyes on what he perceives as a threat. Yet like any other new choice, the more he makes it and it is rewarded, the stronger this choice will be. The way that check-ins are practised will depend on you and your dog. All dogs are different with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, the opportunity may be immediately available to reinforce a check-in on walks, it may just be a case of checking in at home and building up to walks and other situations. Checking in can be used to teach our dogs to focus. By the time a dog makes the choice to check in regularly with us, we have already made good steps towards a shift in their emotional state.

When we teach a dog to focus and slow down, the body movement ceases to match the chaotic emotional state and, carried out carefully, a slowed body can also slow the mind. This can change the biological and emotional feedback loop to something that better works for the dog. It restores the balance. Teaching the dog who has learned to check in and focus on us is carried out by shaping the behaviour. It’s a matter of lengthening the time the dog looks at us by careful use of markers and treats – we literally shape a focus. The easiest mistake to make when we do this is to hold the dog’s focus for too long before releasing their gaze with a marker and reward. Go gradually, the idea is that the dog learns to focus and relax at the same time, because doing so can naturally settle down the response of his nervous system.

Adding a cue to the choice is not the most important part of this process. The growing confidence of the dog, to check their human instead of becoming obsessed with something in the environment, is the real breakthrough. A cued choice can be useful though, particularly later in the process. Adding a cue to any choice is simple. We first use it when the choice has been made, so the dog links their choice with a specific word, we then bring the cue gradually forward, so the dog reacts to the cue by making the choice. Checking in is an excellent first step for anxious dogs, naturally taking their focus out of the environment and onto their person. It can be rewarded and then, when checking in, becomes the first choice for the dog – it can be used to practise calmness.

Take a Breath

Teaching a dog to take an inward breath is a procedure developed by Dr Karen Overall and works for dogs just as it does for humans, as a tool for calming down the stress response. Before we teach this the dog must be able to focus properly and hold the gaze for at least a few seconds.

We can then simply mark and reinforce the dog’s act of taking a big, deep sniff through his nostrils and add a cue to it – in much the same was as we did for checking in. It’s worth using a good smelly food for this particular lesson and holding it in a closed fist with fingers slightly parted to let some scent escape. Then as the dog takes a big sniff inwards mark the associated nostril flare and open the hand to deliver the food. Then add a cue to the sniff over time, which gives the dog a natural inhale on cue that we can use any time the anxiety symptoms are shown. The ultimate aim for the cued choices above is to slow the dog down. When the basis of focus and breathing are in place, a dog is usually able to cope better. Yet like any other cued choices we can’t expect the dog to make them if the environment is too distracting or the worrying thing is too close to their bubble.

Taking a breath is important for us too. A calming breathing pattern is to take four breaths in, hold for four and breathe out for four. Remember, to help our dogs we must not only be aware of our influence on them, but also change it to an influence which helps them to feel calmer too.


Initially all new choices will be taught in a place where the dog feels safe. They will then need to be generalised into other areas carefully and at a pace the dog can handle. The aim, after beginning to teach a dog effective biological feedback and to seek information from his human when he’s worrying about something in the environment, is to keep him under threshold whilst simultaneously raising that threshold. This approach will naturally enhance his ability to cope.

Generalisation is also called proofing and involves raising motivation and rewards in line with introduction of new triggers. For example, the dog might manage to focus at home where it’s quiet, yet if we ask the same from him too soon somewhere else, we might be asking too much. Remember that the anxious dog is driven by an expectation of danger, our ultimate aim is to help him cope better in a world that he considers a very scary place.

Image by Lucio Liu from Pixabay
Image by Elmer Geissler from Pixabay


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