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Not one of us—human, dog, cat, hedgehog, elephant or otherwise—is completely free from fear. Biologically, we are hardwired for it. Fear is our brain’s way of keeping us safe by making us hyper-alert and preparing us to fight potential threats or escape from them.
But what if your dog’s biggest fear is other dogs? Dogs are everywhere! Outside of the home, it’s virtually impossible to prevent your dog from at least seeing, if not occasionally interacting with, the thing they fear most.
It seems daunting, I know, but it’s possible to help your dog feel more confident and less fearful around other dogs. As a professional dog trainer, here’s how I suggest helping a dog who’s afraid of dogs.
How do I know if my dog fears other dogs?
Sometimes it can be hard to identify fear, especially if your dog reacts to the presence of other pups by barking and lunging. Behaviors that look “aggressive” are often rooted in the fight-or-flight response. When your dog is on leash, for example, they can’t run away from an approaching dog. When “flight” is not an option, the next course of action is to “fight.”
These behaviors may mean that your pupper is afraid of other dogs.
- Your dog barks, lunges and/or snaps at other dogs
- Your dog yawns or licks their lips in an exaggerated way when other dogs approach
- Your dog attempts to move away from approaching dogs
- Your dog hides when another dog is present
- Your dog shivers or whines around other dogs
- Your dog refuses to take treats or play around other dogs
What should I avoid if my dog is afraid of other dogs?
If you suspect your dog is frightened of other dogs, the first step is to prevent them from having negative experiences that may build upon the fear they already have. Remember that dogs are animals—even the best-trained pup in the world has unpredictable moments. In order to avoid any nasty surprises, stick to these rules in the beginning.
- Don’t take your dog to a dog park or crowded off-leash space.
- Give your dog a safe buffer zone on walks. Cross the street, wait at the top of a driveway while another dog passes, or put a parked car between your pup and the approaching dog by stepping (carefully!) into the street.
- Never yell at your pup or force them to interact with other dogs. Comfort your dog instead.
- Be an advocate for your dog’s needs. If someone asks if their dog can say hi, politely tell them no and move on.
Does comforting my dog reinforce their fearful behavior?
Short answer: no. Reassuring your dog with kind words and affection doesn’t reinforce fear the way that praise or rewards reinforce other behaviors like coming when called. Fear is not a response born of logic. Rewarding a behavior only reinforces it if the dog is consciously acting, not if their bodies are responding to a threat.
Think about it in human terms. Is it logical that some of us are afraid of spiders when most spiders are perfectly harmless? Or, that some of us are afraid of flying when it is far safer than driving? No. Fear comes from deep-seated emotion, not logic.
If your fearful friend is next to you on a flight, which is more likely to make them feel better: yelling at them and telling them they’re being ridiculous or reassuring them with funny stories and plenty of chocolate and wine? If you go the route of kindness and understanding, chances are that on the next flight they’ll remember the positive experience they had with you. Keep this up and, over time, your friend’s fear of flying is more likely to decrease than increase.
The same principle applies to comforting a fearful dog.
How do I help my pup overcome their fear of other dogs?
Because fear is such a deep-seated, emotional response, helping your dog overcome it can be tricky. There’s no clear, easy path to becoming fear-free and every dog will move at a different pace.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are the best options we have for helping a dog through their fear. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:
- Identify your dog’s threshold. How close can your dog get to an unfamiliar pup before they begin displaying outward signs of fear (see the list above)? That distance may be 100 feet or it may be 5 feet. Whatever it is, do your best to never allow your dog to get any closer than that at the start of your training.
- Change your pup’s opinion about other dogs. Right now, other dogs trigger a negative emotional response in your pup. We want to change that to a positive one. Do this by making your dog think that the appearance of another dog at a safe distance predicts that something wonderful will happen. If a dog appears, you become a Pez dispenser with your treats. Give them rapidly one-at-a-time until the dog is out of your pup’s line of sight.
- Use the highest value rewards you can. Boring old kibble or packaged treats aren’t going to get you very far in this kind of training. Pick some extra special foods that your dog goes crazy for and allow them to have it only when you are working on desensitization-counterconditioning. Stinky things tend to work best (hot dogs, liver, etc.) and meat-flavored baby food is always a hit.
- Practice, practice, practice. Use every opportunity you can to practice your desensitization-counterconditioning. As long as you have the right treats with you, you can work on this while walking (make sure you’re staying behind your threshold distance), sitting in a park, or even while hanging out on your stoop or in your front yard.
- Decrease the distance between your dog and other dogs. Once your dog is able to calmly watch another dog pass by at their beginning threshold, decrease the buffer zone. If you started at a distance of 100 feet, try for 75 or 50 feet. If you started at five feet, try three feet. From your new distance, work on changing your dog’s opinion with your rapid Pez-dispenser-like treating when another pup is present. Continue to decrease the threshold distance over time, letting your dog tell you when they’re ready to progress. If they can calmly watch a dog pass without showing signs of fear, they are probably ready to move a little closer.
Will my dog ever be able to play with unfamiliar pups?
We humans seem to feel very strongly that dogs should play with other dogs. But really, what your dog probably wants more than anything in life is to be close to you and your family. For a lot of dogs, playing with others of their kind is not all that interesting.
Even dogs who overcome their fear of other pups aren’t likely to want to go to the dog park or doggy daycare and that’s okay. You shouldn’t feel like a dog who doesn’t want to interact with other dogs is living an unsatisfying life. That’s not to say your dog may never have friends of his own kind but, chances are, they’ll continue to be selective about who they want to interact with.
Shoshi Parks, Ph.D. is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-ka) and Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT). She owns Modern Hound Dog Training in San Francisco and teaches dog training classes at the San Francisco SPCA.
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