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What Does Your Fearful Dog Need?

Updated: Jan 17

What is the most important thing a reactive dog needs from their people?




These special complicated dogs with their extra needs are most in need of our understanding, our empathy, and – most of all – our support.


So often the behaviours seen in reactive dogs can appear, to those who are not familiar with the way fear and anxiety can present, as being ‘bad’, something that requires discipline, that the dog must be stopped from doing.


Of course, as our understanding of learning and the emotional lives of dogs has grown, we now understand that discipline is not what dogs actually need, any dog, whether reactive or not. It can make the situation a lot worse.


Many of the ideas historically found in dog training and behaviour came from flawed studies carried out on wolf packs living in unnatural conditions meaning that they did not behave in the same ways as wolves living in the wild. Unrelated animals in zoos, forced into closer proximity than is natural for them, led to fights. Further compounding the errors, as the closest living relative to the grey wolf, the results were presumed to apply to dogs as well.


This is what led to the ‘dominance’ theory and the creation of alpha and pack leader training. Focused on being the ‘boss’ and making sure the human is dominant over the dog. The sad irony is that, considering the domestic dog’s lack of opposable thumbs and consequent inability to open their food supplies, humans in the home are automatically dominant. We control where and when they eat, sleep, walk, play, and get to go outside.


So, what do dogs need, if not discipline? Without discipline, won’t there be chaos?


Absolutely not.


A lack of discipline and punishment does not mean the dog is running riot or that the dog is ‘in charge’ or topping some mythical hierarchy. We can have boundaries without needing to resort to discipline.  There is a common saying that dogs do what works. If we concentrate on showing our dogs what they can do, and make sure to reward the behaviours we do want to see from them, the choices we want them to make in certain circumstances, then they will make those choices again.


If their needs are being met and they are getting things that they like for doing certain things, they are far less likely to engage in the behaviours we don’t like – after all, why would they?


For our socially sensitive dogs, there are behaviours they show that we find problematic. When we first encounter these behaviours, the lunging and barking for example, the first reaction may be to tell the dog off, because they are being ‘bad’ by carrying out those behaviours. I make no secret of the fact I am a crossover trainer and back when I first encountered this type of behaviour, I thought I needed to tell my dog off, that he was misbehaving.


Because of that dog I have been on a learning path which has shown me the fact that discipline doesn’t need to be a part of the canine-human relationship. There is no need to tell a dog off or punish them. And, in the case of socially sensitive reactive dogs, it could make things worse.


Reactive behaviours are rooted in fear and/or anxiety. If a dog’s attempts to tell the world that they are scared or feel in danger are met with punishment they may stop showing the behaviours for a while, but the emotions are still there and are perhaps even heightened by the added stress of punishment.


What these sensitive dogs need is support to help them feel safer and more secure, more comfortable around the triggers of their fear. They need us to understand why they are doing the things that they do, and they need to know that we understand and will help them, by getting them the distance they need when they are scared and that we won’t put them in positions they are not able to cope with. That we can help them to feel better about the things that scare them.


This can feel like a huge topic and an almost insurmountable problem in those early days of realising that our dog is struggling, of working out what is going on with them. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as it can first seem, however. We can break down what our dogs need us to know and do to help them into manageable areas.


This has led me to develop something I call my Five Ds. Five pillars that work through the process of identifying what your dog struggles with, how to get past that initial stress and repetitive cycle of reactions, and how to work to help them feel safer and more comfortable in their environment.


Each pillar contains useful information to help in understanding what is going on in and for the dog, and how that knowledge can help you to help your dog.


These pillars are explored in a webinar now available on demand, taking you through the information that will increase your understanding of your dog and how you can work with them to increase your relationship and trust in each other, and become more comfortable and confident together.

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