fearful dogs

Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to the unexpected?

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I had a great question recently:

“Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to quiet and ‘the unexpected’?”

The person who posed this question was puzzled that their dog seemed able to cope with busy or noisy situations, but would react violently to any sight or sound when the environment was otherwise empty or quiet. The owner was worried that his dog may be unusual or wrong in some way.

As I answered, it became clear that quite a few owners of reactive dogs are puzzled by this. So I’m giving you my answer as it may answer a question that you have too!


This is a good question! It baffles and misleads a lot of people.  

Picture this: you are visiting your local shops. It’s afternoon, the shops are busy, there are mothers with pushchairs, delivery vans, people with shopping bags, boys on bikes … How do you feel?

Absolutely fine and comfortable, I’d bet.

Now imagine you go there at 1 in the morning. The place is deserted. You hear footsteps getting louder, and peering into the gloom you can just make out a figure heading towards you. How do you feel?

Most of us would be on high alert at the very least, possibly really alarmed.

The same man ambling through the crowds in the afternoon probably wouldn’t have bothered you at all.

There is a technical name for this - it’s SEC or Sudden Environmental Change.

Dogs are designed to spot things which are different, things which shouldn’t be there. They can single out something amiss and focus intently on it. This is one reason why they have earned their place in our homes down the ages. They are alarm sensors!

So your dog is behaving absolutely normally.


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Sudden Environmental Change? Wha’?

There is a reason so many of our working dogs are so useful in their work. Take German Shepherds for instance, who can spot an intruder or an escaping criminal in a split-second, and take action.

Border Collies, those wonderful sheep-herders, can instantly spot a ewe whose ear is twitching in the wrong direction, indicating that she’s about to break and take the flock with her. The Collie can get round in an instant to block the ewe and make sure she keeps going in the right direction.

In the image at the top of the page, young Coco Poodle just has to check out this strange sign in an otherwise green and empty landscape.

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Sighthounds can spot the tiniest movement in a still place at a huge distance. Something moving in the landscape could well be dinner!

Dogs searching for evidence may not have a specific scent or object in mind - they’re just looking for something that shouldn’t be there.

And this is why your dog may react dramatically to the doorbell, or a car door slamming outside your home.




For this ability alone, dogs have earnt their place by our fireplaces for so many thousands of years - it’s about 30,000 years, in fact.

Dogs’ gifts

The fact is that the hearing and sight capabilities of the dog so far outweigh our own. When it comes to their noses, they are unparalleled, and are the reason dogs are an important tool for the police, and in airports and ports worldwide. They’re far quicker at discovering evidence and identifying contraband than much of the sophisticated machinery also in use!

Is it possible for a dog to be reactive to quiet?

Are you thinking of neutering your dog?

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There’s a lot more to neutering than just preventing procreation. A huge lot more. But people seldom consider these side-effects in their dogs when deciding to get them “fixed”.

I actually hate that term “fixed”. It suggests that the dog arrived in some way faulty and has to have his or her insides rearranged to make him or her acceptable. This is crazy!

The dog arrives in a perfect state. If we want to alter our dog to suit ourselves, we should be prepared to admit this to ourselves and not in some way blame the dog for being wrong.

There are times when neutering is a good idea and times when it is a very, very bad idea. I’ll break these down for you, in terms of the effects.

How will neutering affect my dog’s body?

There are some medical issues where neutering is the wisest or only course to keep the dog healthy - or just alive. Infection of the uterus in a bitch, and an undescended testicle in a dog would be two of these. One is acute, the other chronic.

There are arguments that this or that cancer or condition is more likely in an unneutered dog. But there are arguments of equal weight which say that this or that other cancer or condition is more likely in a neutered dog. The percentages are tiny in either case.

The other thing to consider here is how removal of the sex hormones affect the physical development of the dog’s skeleton. The growth plates close with sexual maturity, somewhere around 9-18 months of age. So the effect of early neutering - before this age - can be relative elongation of the long bones and consequent disruption of articulation in the joints. The net result can be less efficient movement (no good if you got your dog for working or performance) and then joint problems in later years (no good for anyone).

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For this reason alone I think that neutering of either sex shouldn’t be contemplated till the dog is sexually mature. For bitches that would mean a few months after the first season at the earliest. Dogs would need to be 10 months to 3 years, depending largely on the size of the breed. The larger the dog, the longer it takes to mature.

I have now reached the limit of my medical knowledge, so I’ll move on to an area where I’m more comfortable!

How will neutering affect my dog’s mind?

The key thing for me is the effects neutering can have on how your dog is, on a day-to-day basis.

Many people believe that neutering their dog will calm them down. In fact, studies have shown that the opposite is true! Your neutered dog or bitch is likely to be more excitable than an intact dog. So please kick that one to the kerb.

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There has been a lot of scientific research over recent years. Studies have to cover a lot of dogs for a lot of years to be of any use, so they take a long time to emerge. I list a load of them in the Resources below. 

My main interest is how neutering can affect reactivity. As you’ll see from some of these studies, neutering can have a big impact on this!

“It has been shown, in a number of recent scientific studies, that neutering - especially early neutering - will increase sound sensitivity, touch sensitivity, fears, and aggression, in both males and females. In some cases that increase is “significant” or “highly significant”. People-directed aggression in females, for instance, was significantly elevated in the neutered bitches studied. (See the Resources Section for chapter and verse on this.) That’s what those studies found. A lot more research is needed to get more answers, and these studies can take years to produce reliable results.

These unfortunate outcomes are - of course - not guaranteed to happen if you neuter your dog! But it’s important to be aware that they just may happen. And if they complicate an already complicated situation, that’s not helpful.

Neutering has the potential to make your dog worse.”

From Essential Skills for your Growly but Brilliant Family Dog

In brief, neutering a dog when he is experiencing fear of anything in the world around him (i.e. he responds to novelty or movement with barking, lunging, trembling, hiding … any action that does not demonstrate confidence) has the potential to make him MORE fearful.

And neutering a female who is already showing fear of other dogs has the potential to make her reactive to people as well after spaying.

You’ll see the facts and figures in the studies below.

If you’ve already neutered your pet, that’s water under the bridge. You can’t change it now.

BUT if you’re happily planning to neuter your dog simply because you think society expects it of you, or your vet suggests it as the automatic next step, please think again.

Once it’s done, it’s done. And if it changes your beloved dog’s nature and makes life harder for both of you, then you’re up the creek without a paddle.

But you have to neuter your dog, don’t you?

And what about the chief reason usually given for choosing to neuter? It’s to do with reproduction. Preventing unwanted puppies. It could also be to prevent bitching, wandering, fighting in males. But responsible management will do this for you! If you’re reading this post, it’s unlikely that your dog is wandering abroad without you knowing where he or she is.

Since neutering became the big thing - the answer to the stray dog problem - has anyone noticed the shelters getting empty? Irresponsible dog-owners will neither neuter their dogs nor contain them. I’m afraid there’s a lot of “preaching to the choir” here. And the fallout is that a lot of dogs’ lives have been unnecessarily altered for the worse, because of only partial education.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

You need to see the whole picture before making what is essentially a fundamental and momentous decision about the future of the dog in your care.

I’m suggesting that you need to change your mindset from neutering being an automatic next step for your puppy to seeing that you have a choice in this.

In some European countries it is considered barbaric to mutilate dogs, and neutering of either sex is usually only done for medical reasons. At the other extreme we have cultures where people are vociferous in declaring that all dogs should be neutered and it is our duty as a citizen to do this. I’ve had people writing to me from these countries asking if that’s a thing? You can actually NOT neuter your dog? Unheard-of.

In case you think I am on a mission to ban neutering, I can tell you that only one of my four dogs is entire at the time of writing. You have to decide what is right for your situation. I just want you to realise that there’s more to this than meets the eye, and you do have a choice.


The effects of neutering on health and behaviour: a summary

Neutering Causes Behavior Problems in Male Dogs

Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris)

Summary of findings detailed in a Masters thesis submitted to and accepted by Hunter College by Parvene Farhoody in May, 2010


Evaluation of the risk and age of onset of cancer and behavioral disorders in gonadectomized Vizslas

AVMA, Vol 244, No. 3, February 1, 2014

M. Christine Zink DVM PhD, Parvene Farhoody MA, Samra E. Elser BS, Lynda D. Ruffini, Tom A. Gibbons MS, Randall H. Rieger PhD


Non-reproductive Effects of Spaying and Neutering on Behavior in Dogs

Deborah L. Duffy PhD, and James A. Serpell PhD

Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

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My dog’s NOT afraid of fireworks! But why?

Reactive dog, aggressive dog, fearful dog, dog behavior, fireworks | My reactive dog's *not* afraid of fireworks: Why?  | FREE EMAIL COURSE | #aggressivedog, #reactivedog, #dogtraining, #growlydog | www.brilliantfamilydog.com

Fears have been high up in doggy discussions recently. It’s the Fireworks season in the UK and this is what’s brought them bubbling to the surface again.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November - gunpowder, treason, and plot!

And one thing common to a lot of these discussion threads was the surprise registered by owners of reactive dogs who were not upset at all by the noise. Some of these new owners had got prepared for the onslaught and were expecting the worst - then were utterly astonished that their dog couldn’t care less about it all.

So perhaps a little look at the subject of fear would be helpful here. 

Is all fear the same?

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Humans are born with only two fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. And these fears are stimulated in the Apgar tests for newborns, to elicit the startle reflex and check that all is well neurologically with the baby. All other fears are learned.

So fear of ghosts, planes, spiders, heights, and so on, are acquired on our journey through life. Many of these fears are developed early on, and can be heavily influenced by our family's response. A mother who is afraid of spiders can quickly transfer this fear to her children, while the mother who is happy to pick up an insect and take it to a place of safety is likely to have children who are curious about the other species in their environment and not fearful of them. It’s also true that a natural predisposition to be cautious around predators means that people are more likely to be afraid of creatures than of … bicycles, or trees.

Now the jury is out on whether dogs are born with any fears. Certainly there will be a predisposition to fear certain things, and the social influence of the mother and the environment in which the pups are reared are definitely going to have a big effect. Hence the supreme importance of early and proper socialisation for puppies up to the age of 12-15 weeks (jury is out on the timescale too).  

But we can certainly influence this fear by showing extreme fear ourselves. 

Will I make my dog worse if I cuddle her?

Fear is an emotion. And you cannot reinforce an emotion. It’s either there or it isn’t. You can only reinforce a chosen behaviour. While it is not possible to reinforce the emotion of fear - that is, to reward it and encourage it and make it stronger and more likely to occur - by giving comfort to a frightened person or dog, it’s certainly possible to plant the idea that fear is the correct response to something. Hence the general firework advice to mask the noises and flashes as much as possible (loud tv, curtains drawn, prepare a den) and carry on as normal yourself.  

You can't make your dog more afraid by comforting her.

You can't make your dog more afraid by comforting her.

And this advice also extends to not making your dog afraid of other dogs by being afraid yourself! So many people anticipate a bad outcome at the sight of another dog - maybe because their dog is reactive and has barked and lunged in the past - that they will tense up, breathe quickly, panic, tighten their grip on the lead, winding it six times round their hand to shorten it. This is telling your dog that you are afraid of the incoming dog, and that strange dogs are inherently dangerous. As you’ll see in the Growly posts on this site, your first response at sight of an incoming dog should always be

  • Relax hands

  • Relax shoulders

  • Breathe out

  • Relax lead

This will be telling your dog that you are ok with the incomer. (Whether you are or not is beside the point!)

What’s conditioning? And what’s counter-conditioning?

So fears grow in people and in dogs through experience, through social learning, and from a pre-disposition - self-preservation is all-important, so being afraid of things about to pounce on you is sensible. There’s also genetics to factor in. Some dog breeds are more alert to strange things in their environment than others, and are going to be faster to develop fears - unless that careful socialisation, familiarisation, and habituation, is done.

So your puppy is being conditioned to certain fears through his life experience. A snake appears and mum runs away from it: noted - snakes are dangerous.

Counter-conditioning is when we weigh in to lessen a fear, or lessen the impact the fear will have, by changing the association in the dog’s mind to something good. If every time that pup sees a snake you stuff pork pie in his mouth - his emotional response is going to change, over time! No, we don’t want him getting curious about the snake and approaching it - but we equally don’t want him to panic and run off - into the path of our modern-day killer, a car.

Your dog is going to be afraid of things he’s learnt to be afraid of. It follows that without that experience he’s not going to have the fear in place. Of course there are dogs who are so psychologically damaged that they have a generalised fear of everything. But even these can be brought to a level of comfort with patience and dedication, and possibly medication.

So being afraid of snakes is not going to make your dog also afraid of cars. And being afraid of other dogs is not going to make him afraid of horses, or sheep, … or fireworks. 

Cricket will sleep through a thunderstorm!


Cricket the Whippet will sleep through almost anything!

Cricket the Whippet will sleep through almost anything!

In my own household I have two (Lacy and Coco) who will ignore most fireworks, but bark at a very loud bang - it’s an “alert bark” not a panic attack - one (Cricket the Whippet, the professional sleeper) who is not at all bothered, and Rollo the usually independent Border Collie who gets very unhappy and worried.

During the firework season Rollo sticks to me like a limpet, wedging himself under my legs and following me pathetically wherever I go. It’s at least reassuring that I am considered a place of safety. The situation is manageable without medication, as he doesn’t panic and damage himself trying to escape - as some dogs do.

The interesting part - for the purposes of this discussion - is that Rollo is not what is commonly termed “reactive”, while Lacy and Coco most definitely are.

Border Collies are a sensitive breed with superb hearing. So if they’re going to be worried about anything it’s understandable that loud and sharp noises would be up there. But it’s not automatic that a Collie would be noise-sensitive, any more than the dog who is afraid of men in hats, for instance, should also fear children. 

So what you can take away from this is that fears will exist in your dog; you can minimise those fears with appropriate socialisation at the correct age; you can help make those fears manageable with careful training; and that a fear of one thing does not automatically imply a fear of anything else. 

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Keep your distance! Help for fearful dogs

Imagine you’re afraid of spiders. Or mice. Would you be happy to see a spider or a mouse sitting on the table in front of you, or would you feel easier if said spider or mouse were more like fifty feet away?

Your dog is exactly the same!

He’ll feel much more relaxed when he’s a comfortable distance away from something that frightens him. And for dogs who bark ferociously at strange dogs they see on walks, the further that dog is from him, the easier it will be for him to stay calm and not react as if the ravening hordes were descending on him.

It’s a very simple first step to making your poor, frightened, anxious, stressed-out, dog feel happier about the world he has to live in. You may think your dog is aggressive, but the chances are he’s actually just afraid.

Distance is not the total solution to dog reactivity, of course. But just see what a difference this one step made to Chris and her family:

“My husband who walks the dogs has taken on board your tips and is amazed at the change in her. He comes home saying, ‘We passed five dogs and she didn't bark once!’“

When you’ve got this working, and your dog knows you’ll always keep your distance from other dogs, and never make him go right up to them (this perhaps in the mistaken belief that all dogs love to play), life will suddenly become much easier.

How distant is this distance?

This really will vary from dog to dog, and from place to place. There are other things coming into play that will influence your dog’s reactions too, like when he last ate, when he last felt the need to bark at another dog, upsets in the home, fireworks, a change in routine, and so on.

So you have to find out what distance will work for your dog. This could be 20 yards, though it’s more likely to be 50 or 100 yards. Observe him and see when he’s sufficiently relaxed to be able to look away from the other dog, and to respond to you. Now you’ve found the distance to aim for.

Next time he may manage to be a bit closer to another dog (say, 5 yards closer), or he may need to be further away still!

Keep in mind that if your dog is on edge and hating every moment of your walks together, then there’s no need to keep doing them.


There is no law that says your dog must run the gauntlet of his fears on a daily basis. How would you feel if you had to confront all those spiders and mice at close quarters every time you stepped out of the door?

For exercise, you’ll do better having a fast fun game of fetch or chase in the garden. If you don’t have a garden, then drive to a suitably open space - as dog-free as possible - and enjoy your game there.

And for lots more help with your barky, growly, dog - get our free e-course to turn things round without force, shouting, or yanking the lead!

Peace and calm are on their way to you.


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