All Things Dog Blog
Barking Part II: Fear & Aggression

Here’s part II of our series on barking… and more importantly how to curb this ear splitting canine hobby. This is the second guest post from dog trainer John Visconti to address some barking problems.

Fear/aggression barking:  Essentially, these are linked. Fear is the emotion the dog is experiencing; aggressive barking is how the dog manages that emotion.

Here’s the math:  “Spooky item = discomfort = fight or flight”.

When encountering fear producing stimuli, dogs gain comfort by increasing distance between them and the trigger of their fear. One way to increase distance is through a display of aggression; in other words, the best defense is a good offense.

If you and Fido are out for a walk and your dog encounters an upsetting stimulus, e.g., stranger, another dog, etc., your dog’s body primes itself for action; fight or flight. Since your dog is on leash, flight isn’t possible. What’s left? Fight.

“Woof woof..bark bark…I’m warning you…don’t come closer…woof woof snarly woof…back off…grrrrrrrrrwoof..I’m going to count to three…woooooooooooof…..1…….WOOOoOOoOOooof..bark bark…2…snarrrrrlwooooooofsnarlywooof…”

You get the idea.

What to do?

It’s quite simple; change your dog’s emotional response to the fear instigating stimulus.

Let’s take a look at this in human terms. How many parents are in such a rush to relive the “wonderful” experience of being introduced to  Santa Claus that they bring their child to the mall, plop Johnny on Santa’s lap…and…watch in horror as their kid screams and cries in total fear? Parents often forget what it was like to first meet that loud fat guy, with white hair, a long white beard, wearing weird clothing and bellowing “HO HO HO”. Spooky stimulus, indeed. BUT over time, with lots of happy talk about presents and Santa coming etc., we all learn to LOVE him especially after he delivers the goods. Our learned fear of Santa is counter conditioned into total joy at even the mention of his name.

Your dog is no different.

Once you have identified the spooky object, you can change your dog’s emotional reaction to that object by slowly desensitising and counter conditioning your dog. This is done by pairing things your dog loves, often yummy treats and happy talk, to the fear causing stimulus.

Sadly, most ill-informed trainers teach dog owners the exact opposite of what they should be doing. These trainers teach owners to “correct” (euphemism alert: “correct” means, jerk the leash, use a choker or prong collar and jerk it, administer a shock in other words,  correction = cause pain/discomfort). The dog now learns “Every time I see another dog, I get hurt. I hate other dogs even more than I used to”. That the dog might eventually quiet down in order to avoid the pain being doled out by the owner doesn’t mean he/she feels any less fearful and is any less inclined to react the next time. In fact, due to the consequences of the corrections, the dog will often begin reacting more strongly in order to ward off the object that is now associated with pain. (for a discussion of these techniques, please visit my website, risingstardogtraining.com)

Let’s take another look at this in human terms. A child is placed on Santa’s lap. The child starts to cry. The parent YELLS at the child “STOP!” The child still cries. The child is slapped across the top of the head. I don’t know about you but I’m not seeing the creation of a happy relationship between that child and Santa as a result of these methods.

Link something positive to the appearance of the spooky stimulus and your dog will change his/her emotional response to that stimulus.

John Visconti, CPDT-KA, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Rising Star Dog Training coaches dog owners on Long Island. John is a low risk, positive-reinforcement trainer who has written for numerous training publications such as the APDT Chronicle of the Dog and the LI Dog Directory. John is a former chair for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. He is AKC CGC certified. He is also a member ofJean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers.Rising Star Dog Training
Telephone: 516 672-6280
Risingstardogtraining.com

3 Responses to Barking Part II: Fear & Aggression

  1. Monica says:

    Hello, I rescueda 4-7 yr old toy poodle from the ASPCA lat December. This dog has bonded with me very well as I am her primary provider for food, walks, etc. My husband, however, is her worst enemy. When he is around she barks and growls at him. He gives her treats and she will barely approach him so he tosses the treat to her. The barking is highly interefering in our lives. He cannot really come near me without her going ballistic. I am currently, 7 months pregnant and am terrified that I may have to give the dog to my parents because she can’t along with my husband. I am willing to work with her, I just don’t know what to do. I know that this fearful aggression stems from abuse and neglect and the last thing that I want to do is neglect her. I want to fix this. My husband gets frustrated with the high-pitched barking and I know that she senses his frustration and that does not help.

    Please help me! I love her so much and want her to continue to be a part of our family. As of right now it is splitting it apart.

    Kindest Regards,
    Monica

  2. zoe says:

    Hi Monica,
    So sorry your comment didn’t get published for some reason so we didn’t see it until now. I would recommend that you hire a trainer to help you sort out these problems if you are still having them. If you are in the Sydney area I recommend http://www.doglogic.com.au

    I really hope things are going better with your pack!
    Zoe

  3. Monica….please feel free to contact me.

    John

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