Staying Safe: Management for Fearful Dogs

If you have a fearful or reactive dog, you need to get good at management. Here’s how it helps.

A woman walks her dog on Britain's Jurassic Coast with no one else in sight
A woman walks her dog along Britain's Jurassic Coast towards Portland Bill. Photo: AlonaK/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

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Whenever a dog is fearful, our priority is to help them feel safe. This can often require management to ensure they aren’t put in situations that are too difficult for them.  

What is management in dog training?

Management means making changes to the environment that help to solve behaviour issues. Sometimes management is the solution in itself, such as when you put a lid on the trash can and stop leaving food on the kitchen counter to prevent your dog from foraging in those places. 

Another example would be putting the dog behind a pet gate when there are visitors to the home to stop your dog from jumping on them. Or using a no-pull harness (one with a front clip attachment) to stop your dog from pulling you over on walks.  


Using management with fearful dogs

In the case of a fearful dog, management is unlikely to be the whole solution. Because we don’t live in a perfect world, we typically cannot remove all of the triggers from a dog’s life. And since fear, anxiety, and stress can be a welfare issue, we need to do something about it. In this case, management is an important part of helping the dog that we do alongside training. 

Often the training we do with a fearful dog is desensitization and counter-conditioning.  This is very effective but it’s not an instant fix. You have to go at the dog’s pace which is often slow in the beginning (or at least slower than most people who aren’t dog trainers expect). So we use management to help protect the training and to keep the dog feeling safe. 

If you’ve got a dog who is reactive to other dogs, you’ve probably had the experience of an off-leash dog running up too close to you. This experience can cause your dog to ‘go off’ or lunge and bark on leash. Unfortunately this can also cause a setback in your training because your dog has just had a bad experience (and perhaps, so have you).

The types of management that can help to prevent these situations from happening may involve:

  • Walking at a time of day when your dog is unlikely to come across the people, animals, or things that trigger them
  • Walking in a place where they are unlikely to come across their triggers, for example sticking to locations where dogs must be walked on leash (and people respect the rules)
  • Using the environment to help your dog not see their triggers if they are there, for example using a parked car or tree to block your dog from seeing another dog go by
  • Having set phrases that you’ll use to help other people understand that you’d like them or their dog to stay away from you (this can, admittedly, be tricky; I’ve known people say ‘my dog is sick’ when it’s not true, just to make people leash their dog)
  • Finding other activities to do with your dog whilst you work on training, such as sniffaris in your yard (if you have one) or snufflemats, training, and other enrichment activities at home while you take a temporary break from dog walks

Management can make for easy dog training, but not always

I think sometimes people think of management as boring; they wanted a training solution to a problem in which the dog gets ‘fixed’, and instead they find they have to do something. And maybe putting the lid on the trash can, remembering to close doors, etc. can feel like a chore, but in many cases it’s much less work than training. It can make things easy (after all, training is a skill you have to learn).

Management with a reactive or fearful dog involves some effort on your part. You have to pay attention to your dog so you know what their triggers are, e.g. whether it’s big dogs or all dogs or just dogs that look similar to that one that attacked them that one time. Then you have to walk with your senses alert for the sight, sound, or smell of those triggers, ready to take action as soon as you notice them. 

You might even have a running commentary in which you’re thinking, “Okay that dog’s fine because they are far enough away, but that other dog is being a bit bouncy so my dog needs a bit more distance…we can just wait behind this parked car until they are further away”.

Or, “That dog is at a distance where my dog feels safe, but they’ve noticed them so I’m going to feed them some yummy treats” (this is the training part).

Since you’re combining management with training, you have to be ready to train when needed. You can’t always completely avoid all other people/dogs/bikes/whatever it is, even if you walk your dog in the middle of the night. In those instances, you need to leap into action and do your counter-conditioning anyway. 

After management fails

Because it’s real life, management won’t always be successful in avoiding all triggers.

Doing management well means you also need to think about those times when a bad experience happened to see what you can learn from it. After all, it’s a learning experience for you as well as for your dog. Ask yourself how you can improve your skills in dealing with that kind of situation and what changes you might make to your routine to prevent it from happening again. 

Seeing these moments as a learning experience can help you stay on track (Williams and Blackwell 2019).  

And also take note of what you did well so that you can remember to do it again, because that’s not always easy in the moment when your dog is going off. For example, you had your treats to hand in a pocket or bait pouch, and what’s more they were great treats that your dog really loves. Or, you successfully put some distance between you and the other dog, even though the other dog’s person yelled at you about it. 

Training and management work together for fearful dogs

The good news is that ad-hoc counterconditioning can really help. For example, for dogs with a fear of fireworks, people report that ad-hoc counterconditioning to other loud noises that might be scary makes a difference (Riemer, 2020).  

In this way, training can rescue you from management fails. And I started this piece by saying that management will protect your training. For a fearful dog, the two go hand in hand. 

Training without management risks making the training slower or ineffective. Management without training leaves the dog still fearful and afraid.

So it’s important to know how management can help. 

If you need help with your fearful or reactive dog, find a good dog trainer. And for any sudden behaviour change or serious anxieties, speak to your veterinarian.  

Not sure if your dog is afraid? Many people miss the signs. Check out how can I tell if my dog is afraid.  

March is Management Month at the Academy for Dog Trainers. Follow their Facebook page to find lots of great information about management in dog training. 

References

Riemer, S. (2020). Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2020.04.005

Williams, E. J., & Blackwell, E. (2019). Managing the Risk of Aggressive Dog Behavior: Investigating the Influence of Owner Threat and Efficacy Perceptions. Risk Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13336


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and the forthcoming Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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