Managing An Aggressive, Fearful, or Reactive Dog

<A version of this article was published in Barks from the Guild, a publication of the Pet Professional Guild  on Nov. 2020, pp.29-31>

< Updated 29DEC20 >

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When you have a dog that is exhibiting aggressive behavior, you have a responsibility to keep yourself, your family, your pets, and your community safe. A dog that is behaving aggressively is experiencing some form of emotional stress, so it is your responsibility to identify and keep him away from the stressors that trigger the behavior while working with a professional who can help you.

#1. Get Help from an Accredited Professional As Soon As Possible

Helping change aggressive behavior is not a Do-It-Yourself project, nor is your dog likely to “grow out of it.”

Aggression is an emotional response. That response could be due to fear, anger, or frustration and may be intensified by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Working with a dog trainer and teaching your dog behaviors like SIT, LEAVE IT, and more are extremely unlikely to change how your dog feels.

As such, I recommend you immediately seek help from a Veterinary Behaviorist, Applied Animal Behaviorist, or credentialed behavior consultant (PCBC or CDBC). The earlier you get professional help for your dog, the sooner you can relieve his suffering and the greater probability you have of changing their aggressive behavior.

Resolving this behavior will very likely require behavior modification and, potentially, medication as well. A Veterinary Behaviorist can provide you with both.  FMI –,,

#2. Ensure Safety

Preventing your dog from hurting you, another person, another animal, or themselves must be your priority.

  • Please keep your dog physically isolated from people or animals that could become the target of their aggression.

This may mean keeping him crated, preferably in another room, or closed/locked in another room when you have guests in your home.

  • When the dog is outside of your home, make sure that you can safely handle him. When he is outside of your home and in an unfenced area, he should be on a regular 6ft leash.

Please do not use a Flexi or retractable leash, as they do not provide adequate control. The leash should be securely attached to a front-connect harness.

  • Consider using a muzzle if you can do so safely. It is essential to gently condition your dog to wear a muzzle before using it. Seek the advice of a trained professional in helping you accomplish this task.

Muzzles can be a useful management tool; however, in my experience:

1) a determined dog can get out of any muzzle;
2) putting on the muzzle can cause the dog stress;
3) muzzling your dog and having them around others is tantamount to advertising that you have an aggressive dog and thus may change the people’s behavior which can cause a reaction by the dog;
4) a muzzle may make the dog more fearful; and
5.) A muzzle can limit your dog’s ability to breathe correctly, causing additional distress.

A muzzle is, at best, a temporary solution and does nothing to address the source of the dog’s behavior or his emotional state.

  • Do NOT leave your dog outside, unattended. Being tied-out can be very stressful to a dog and can be a frequent cause of fear aggression.

When a dog is tied up, he knows that he cannot flee or fight, which are both typical reactions a dog would pursue if afraid. Even if you have a fenced yard, I recommend you remain with your dog anytime that he is in the yard, as no fence can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.

  • If your dog does not need to go with you, leave him at home.

A dog that is reactive while in the car can be a threat to your safety and that of others. If he becomes reactive wherever you take them, you may make yourself unwelcome, and you are probably making him more likely to react in the future too.

#3. Prevent the Behavior from Getting Worse

  • This is a given but I will mention it anyway. Refrain from using any training and management tools that have the potential to cause your dog distress, discomfort, or pain. This includes alpha rollovers, shock collars, choke collars, prong collars, citronella collars, anti-bark collars, spray bottles, or anything else that has the potential to cause your dog distress, discomfort, or pain.
  • Avoid placing your dog in situations where there is a potential for him to display the behavior of concern. Preventing him from acting aggressively is essential to ending this behavior.

Each time the dog has the chance to engage in the behavior, it can make it more likely to occur again and to increase in intensity. Events like this can affect the chemistry and anatomy of the brain, making future reactions more likely.

  • Limit movement when your dog reacts. An activity can increase arousal, and this can increase the probability of aggression and reactivity.

If your dog is barking and running back and forth from window to window, either in your home or car, try to restrict movement either with a crate, a leash or if in the car, a seat belt.

If your dog chases people or other animals along your fence line, keep him on a 6ft leash.

  • Carefully consider safety issues and the possibility of making your dog’s behavior worse if you walk him away from home.

If you cannot walk your dog safely or if you continue to expose him to his triggers, you are better off staying at home. If you do take him for walks, choose locations and times when you are least likely to encounter his triggers.

When walking a dog with reactivity/aggression issues, you must be constantly aware of your environment. It is not a time to be daydreaming, thinking about tomorrow’s schedule, chatting on your cell phone, conversing with a friend walking with you, or listening to music.

Alternatively, you can find other ways to provide your dog with physical and mental stimulation, such as playing in the yard and feeding him with a Kong.

  • If your dog is aggressive towards people or dogs, you need to keep your dog away from places where people and dogs congregate. Dogs with aggression issues will not get better if you take them places like; pet stores, dog parks, dog events, charitable walks, or any site where people and dogs gather.
  • Prepare people before allowing them to interact with your dog, and do not force your dog to interact. Remember, it is not just your dog’s behavior that will determine the result of a dog/human interaction, but also the actions of the person.

Do your best to teach people that come to your home how to interact with your dog. Providing them with a copy of Dr. Sophia Yin’s How to Greet A Dog (And What to Avoid) handout is an excellent first step FMI

Allow the dog to decide if he wants to interact with people, and if he declines, allow him do so. You need to be especially prepared if you have a breed that some people readily prejudge. If someone is anxious around your dog, it will likely make you and your dog nervous as well.

  • Be especially cautious in these situations:
    • whenever your dog is around large gatherings of people. Large groups are likely to increase his excitement/anxiety/fear/frustration, which increases the probability of an inappropriate response.
    • Anytime your dog is around children. Most children do not understand how to behave around dogs. Children and dogs ALWAYS need adult supervision.
  • NEVER punish your dog or get mad at them for growling. While a dog’s growl can be upsetting and disheartening to us, it also serves the beneficial purpose of alerting us to the fact that the dog is feeling threatened or uncomfortable.

It is the dog’s way of saying, “If something in this situation does not change, I may feel threatened enough to bite.” If your dog growls, calmly remove them from the situation. with as little fanfare and emotion as possible. FMI

  • Consider how your emotions and those of others may be affecting your dog. Dogs are very adept at reading the emotions of people through a person’s body language and scent, which may change how the dog reacts to them and/or you.

Since our emotions are always part of the dog’s environment, any anxiety and frustration we, or others, feel may cause our dog to become more anxious.

If your dog detects someone is angry, it may cause them to become angry or afraid. He will not inherently know why a person is angry or scared, but may react out of self-preservation.

If you are having difficulties with your emotional response, it may be beneficial for you to seek assistance. Your dog may also benefit from seeing a veterinary behaviorist that can help him temper their emotions.

#4. Reducing Your Dog’s Stress

  • Learn how stress affects your dog’s behavior. Stress, either the detrimental kind, distress, or the beneficial type, eustress, is frequently a component in undesirable behavior for people and animals.

Our bodies react very similarly when experiencing distress or eustress, producing hormones, and other chemicals that make us more likely to be reactive and irritable.  People often think of adverse events or memories of adverse events as being the cause of stress.

Even a particular scent may cause your dog distress and trigger an emotional response such as fear or anger. A scent can affect our dogs and us because smells have a more direct link to memory and emotion than any of our other senses. Knowing about the dog’s powerful sense of smell and the role of smell in emotional memories, we must consider scent when looking for a potential trigger for a reactive dog. I have worked with clients where cigarette smoke, deodorant, and cologne have triggered reactive behavior.

Even things our dog enjoys, such as playing fetch, can also cause stress.  When something our dog likes is allowed to the extreme, reactive behavior can become more likely. FMI

  • Minimize Unpredictability and Be Consistent. Unpredictability in our behavior can be a significant stressor for our dogs. As a family, you all need to commit to working together and using the same training approach with your dog.

Getting a different response from each of you only stresses the dog more. You all need to have consistent expectations, but they do need to be reasonable.

  • Work with an accredited professional to consider options for helping reduce your dog’s stress. A veterinary behaviorist may recommend prescription medications and non-prescription products that may help alleviate your dog’s anxiety. Holistic veterinarians that practice Chinese medicine and homeopathy may also help as may other types of credentialed practitioners.

#5. Document Your Dogs Behavior

  • Keep A Daily Journal. Behavioral issues are seldom straightforward. However, if you keep a detailed journal of what happened and when, your chosen professional will be better equipped to help you help your dog.

A journal has the added benefit of allowing you to see improvements in your dog, which is positive reinforcement for you continuing to follow the program you are using.  FMI

#6. Train Your Dog

Training your dog to offer specific behaviors when cued will not necessarily change his emotional state. However, teaching him certain behaviors may make him easier to manage, especially if you can intervene well before he starts reacting.

Training your dog is also a great way to build and maintain trust, provided you use only rewards and do not use any aversives.

If you are unsure about how to train, find a professional, credentialed dog trainer (PCT, CPDT-KA). FMI &


Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog
(  )

Do I Need A Dog Trainer or a “Behaviorist”

Where Can I Find A Humane and Ethical Pet Care Professional?

How To Greet A Dog and What to Avoid – Dr. Sophia Yin

What Should I Do When My Dog Growls?

Understanding, Identifying and Coping with Canine Stress

Keeping A Daily Journal

Help! My Dog is Aggressive, Reactive, Fearful, Anxious, etc. –

How Can I Tell When My Dog Is Anxious or Fearful?

Introduction to Canine Communication –

The Body Language of Fear in Dogs (Dr. Sophia Yin)

Dominance: Reality or Myth –

the misunderstanding of time by Nancy Tanner

The emotional toll of a reactive dog by Jay Gurden-Dogs Today

Dog Training – Reward Based Training versus Aversives

Other Resources

Dog Training by Kikopup . (2013). Teach your dog to wear a muzzle [Video File]

Pet Professional Guild: Find an Expert

Muzzle Up Project. (n.d.). Muzzle Training

Yin, S. (2011). Preventing Dog Bites by Learning to Greet Dogs Properly


Dogs In Need of Space

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( ) in Bangor, Maine, where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is also the founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. Don is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG). Don is committed to PPG’s Guiding Principles and the Pain-Free, Force-Free, and Fear-Free training, management, and care of all pets. He serves on the PPG Steering Committee and Advocacy Committee and is the Chair of The Shock-Free Coalition ( ). Don produces and co-hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show, that airs on Z62 Retro Radio WZON (AM620) and WKIT 103.3-HD3 and is streamed at every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at, the Apple Podcast app, and Don’s blog:  The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.

©2020, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>

Dog Training – The Four Essentials For A Great Dog – Part 2

< A version of this article was published in the March 2016 issue of Down East Dog News>

Don and Muppy-Fall 2015-1Last month I told you that I believe that every dog has the potential to be a great dog if their person; 1) has adequate and up to date knowledge about dogs, 2) is committed to developing and nurturing a relationship with their dog, 3) understands the importance of managing the dog and its environment, and 4) is committed to training the dog. All of this needs to happen throughout the life of the dog, as just like us, the dog is a living, breathing entity that is constantly learning and changing.

I discussed the importance of obtaining key pieces of knowledge before you even start searching for a dog and explained that the relationship between you and your dog will be the foundation of all that you will do together. This month I will address the remaining two essentials to having a great dog; management and training.


Management is one of the simplest ways to resolve a behavior issue and in my experience is ironically, one of the hardest things to get many clients to consider. Far too often when someone has a behavioral issue with a dog they look for an elaborate training solution when all they need to do is to change the dog’s behavior by manipulating their environment. Management is simply taking the necessary steps to ensure your dog is not placed in a situation where they may not behave appropriately. In its simplest form, it translates to: If you do not want your puppy chewing on your new shoes, then do not leave the puppy and the shoes in the same room unsupervised.

I believe that management is essential to your dog’s training because every dog has, at least, two trainers; 1) their guardian and 2) the environment in which the dog spends its time. While you may spend an hour per day training your dog, your dog has the potential to learn from their environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The environment in which your dog lives may consist of; other people, other animals, noises, odors, tastes, and visual and tactile stimuli that all have the potential to reward your dog. If you do not initially control your dog’s interaction with its environment, he may quickly learn behaviors that you do not want, such as tearing up magazines,  chewing on bedposts, or jumping up on people. While providing this management may seem incredibly time consuming, when done properly it will pay off as you will eventually be able to give your dog free access to your home.

Part of managing your dog also involves meeting their physical, emotional, and social needs. These needs are; 1) making sure your dog adequate access to water and appropriate food, 2) ensuring that your dog is free from physical and emotional discomfort and things that may cause them harm, 3) making sure that your dog has access to veterinary care and is free from pain, injury and disease, 4) ensuring that your dog is free from fear and distress and 5) making sure that your dog is free to express behaviors normal for their breed. The latter is especially important to consider before you get a dog, as not all normal behaviors are always appreciated by dog guardians.

Management is simple and profoundly effective. Just do it!


Training involves teaching your dog and controlling the learning process. The objective of training is to have a happy dog that fits in with your lifestyle. I believe that every dog will benefit if they are trained to:

  1. Allow you to take away items that may pose a danger to them.
  2. Allow you to brush and groom them.
  3. Come when called.
  4. Walk politely on a leash.
  5. Sit or down when asked.
  6. Leave things when asked.
  7. Allow you to be near them when eating.
  8. Cope with being left alone.
  9. Quietly welcome our guests and us without jumping,
  10. Tolerate teasing children.
  11. Only urinate and defecate in specific locations on our schedule.

These are all foreign concepts to a dog and may be dangerous to them if they behaved this way in the wild. A feral dog that waited to be offered food and allowed it to be taken from him would not survive long. We must remember that dogs have instinctual needs to protect their food and themselves.

It is our responsibility to make sure our dog is trained to understand our world. When we do so, our family and friends welcome our dog and our dog is accepted in public places, and thus is allowed to be with us more frequently.

Working with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer/Professional Canine Trainer-Accredited (CPDT or PCT-A) can be one of the easiest and most effective ways to learn how you can best train a dog. Whether you work with such an individual in a group class or private one-on-one training, these highly skilled individuals can show you how to get the behaviors that you want through rewarding the dog. Equally important, they can help you learn how to extinguish the behavior you do not want; things like jumping up on people and stealing socks.

When choosing a trainer look beyond how close they are to where you live, the day of the week that classes are offered, and the cost of the training. The most important characteristic to look for in a trainer is how they train. Insist on a trainer that is committed to force-free, fear-free, and pain-free methods. That means that they will not be talking about dominance and alpha-rollovers or using tools like electronic shock collars, choke collars or prong collars. While these tools and methods were routinely used in the past; organizations such as the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), The Pet Professionals Guild (PPG) and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) are unified in their recommendations that these tools and methods should NEVER be used in the training or the behavioral management of dogs. They are not only unnecessary but are counter-productive as they inhibit the dogs ability to learn and often make a dog reactive and aggressive.

Dogs can be wonderful companions and the best way to make sure that happens with every dog is to; 1) acquire the knowledge to understand your dogs behaviors and the language unique to them as a species, 2) have fun with your dog every day as one part of nurturing your ongoing relationship,  3) manage your dog and their environment so as to meet their needs while preventing undesirable behavior and 4) invest timer and energy into training your dog not only for your benefit, but their benefit as well.

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (

 The Four Essentials for a Great Dog – Part 1 – Knowledge, Relationship, Management & Training

Dogs-Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2)

Animal Welfare – Assessing Pets’ Welfare Using Brambell’s Five Freedoms

Dog Behavior – Introduction to Canine Communication


Podcasts on Don’s Blog

PODCAST – The Four Essentials to A Great Dog

PODCAST – Canine Behavior: Myths & Facts

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate, part 2– 19JUL15

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate, part 3– 26JUL15


Podcasts from The Woof Meow Show (


Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at Don also writes about pets at his blog:

©2016, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>

Podcast – The Four Essentials to A Great Dog

20FEB16-The Four Essentials to A Great Dog 400x400Don and Kate discuss the four essentials to a great dog. In their experience most great dogs are the result of time and effort by both the person and the dog, which is exactly what that they teach students in Green Acres Kennel Shop’s Basic Manners classes. The four essentials are; Knowledge, Relationship, Management and Training. Tune in and learn how you and your dog can become a great team and best friends for life.

You can hear The Woof Meow Show on The Pulse AM620, WZON, and WKIT HD3 at 12 Noon on Saturday. If you’re not near a radio, listen on your computer at or your smartphone or tablet with the free WZON 620 AM app. A podcast of the show is typically posted immediately after the show, and can be downloaded at and the Apple iTunes store.

Listen to the show –

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (


Dog Training – The Four Essentials for a Great Dog – Part 1 – Knowledge, Relationship, Management & Training


©2015, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>