Aggressive Dog? Fearful Dog? Your Choices Matter

Changing a dog’s emotional response to an object or situation is challenging. There aren’t overnight fixes because you are changing the dog’s feelings about what scares him or sets him off:  people, cars, dogs, bikes, kids, etc (triggers). Think of it as similar to you overcoming a fear of spiders, or stage fright.

Take the image below as a basic way of how this works. It is the classical Pavlov “bell makes me salivate because food is coming.”  In the basic sense, when a dog sees a trigger we are changing his emotional response from scared to “Hey! Where is my cheese? Let’s play again!”


For more tips on helping fearful and aggressive dogs, go to

Now, let’s think of this diagram another way. What if, instead of cheese, you wait until the dog reacts and use a shock from an e-collar or a jerk of a prong collar. The fear of the collar becomes greater than the fear of the “monster” and so the dog stops responding. You get a shut-down dog instead of a truly rehabilitated dog.

The most important thing to take away from training a dog with behavior issues is that it will be a lifetime of management – keeping your dog on a leash, setting them up for success, not putting them in situations they can’t handle yet. Training needs to be consistent and ongoing, so you don’t lose the progress you’ve made. Training gives you a safety net for when management fails. The question isn’t if the management will fail, because it will, but what my dog will do when it does.  Punishment suppresses behavior – it doesn’t change the desire to do the behavior. By changing the emotional response to the trigger you get success not failure. They no longer need to react. You get to be proud of your dog, not devastated by the outcome.  Consider these two stories:

Both dogs are reactive to various triggers, but in the examples below one is reactive to people and the other is reactive to dogs. One dog was trained using only counter-conditioning and desensitization, the other was trained using a shock collar.

Here is an account of a positive trainer going to a client’s house to help a dog with polite greetings when people walk in the door.

“I got bit by a pit bull. I was contacted to come to the house because he jumped on guests. When I walked in, they had him in his crate and when they let him out he attacked me. ‘He’s never done that before!’ ‘When was the last time you has guests over?’ I asked.  ‘It’s been awhile.’

Then I saw the e-collar on the table. ‘When do you use that?’ ‘When we’re on walks and he barks at people.’

They shocked him every time he saw a person, then when he finally had access to a person—me—he took it out on me. He ripped through layers of clothes and I have scar. They ended up putting the dog down.

This second example is a pit bull who was trained using the counter-conditioning methods with her reactions towards people and dogs – she is scared of both.

It was the first night of Rally-O training and she was stressed out and had a hard time sitting still and focusing. Right after learning a new exercise she began to tug on the leash and ripped it out of my hand. She went running toward the other dog but stopped instantly when she got to the dog, she turned to look for me. I was right there, took her back to our seat and praised her, fed her treats, and loved on her. She did exactly what a year of training taught her: when she finds herself in an uncomfortable situation she looks to me for help. I taught her, ‘I got this’ and kept her safe.

In training there are choices. It is our job as guardians to research and look at the effects that a training method can have on your dog. Look past the flashy results to the “man behind the curtain”. Why is a method working? Is your dog comfortable? Are they changing for the better? And when your management fails – your leash breaks, your battery wears out, someone leaves a gate open – will your dog look to you, or finally be able to take out their frustration on their “monster”?

Pit bulls in our Barky Dogs reactive dog class learning to walk past each other calmly.

Pit bulls in our Barky Dogs reactive dog class learning to trust their owners and walk past each other calmly.

If you need help with a fearful, aggressive, or reactive dog, please contact our trainer at

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