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Our younger dog Luna is quite the social pup, except when it comes to really big dogs. She almost always becomes afraid around dogs who are larger than her. We aren't totally sure why, (especially since her older brother is a big dog), but have a theory. She has a scar on her face from before we brought her home and think she was bit by a larger dog at her foster who was known to have occasional issues with female dogs. But it made us want to dive deeper into the matter to answer the question "why is my dog afraid of bigger dogs?" and what to do about it.
While we may never know for sure why some dogs are afraid of bigger dogs, there are a few potential reasons:
To figure out if your dog is afraid of bigger dogs, observe your dog's behavior and body language. Fear behaviors are rooted in a dog's fight-or-flight response. If your dog is on leash, they won't be able to engage in a flight response and may turn to a fight response. Signs of fear include:
If you see any of these signs, you'll want to step in to prevent a negative experience that could exacerbate your dog's fear response.
First things first, it's important to remember that dogs can read our emotions. This means you'll want to try to stay calm and avoid showing signs of fear yourself. Don't yell at or punish your dog for being fearful, as that will only add to the stress.
There's debate about whether comforting your dog is helpful or harmful. On one hand, people say avoid comforting your dog because it only reinforces fearful behavior and is thus counterproductive. They believe that dogs will see your affection as a reward for their current fearful behavior and encouragement to continue it. They also believe dogs could learn to anticipate stress and become afraid before encountering the stressor, just from hearing comforting words such as "it's okay." The recommendation here is, instead of comforting your dog, remain calm. Don't reward your dog for the behavior but don't punish them either.
On the other hand, there is a belief that comforting your dog in stressful situations is helpful. One reason is that fear responses are instinctual and subconscious emotional reactions, rather than learned behaviors. So comforting them can't really reinforce such an instinctual behavior. Another reason is that fear interferes learning (have you ever tried to give treats to a fearful dog but they wouldn't take them?). Once a dog is in fight-or-flight mode, their ability to pay attention and respond to cues decreases. Moreover, many dogs turn to their owners for comfort in stressful situations because you are their leader and a form of security.
Comforting your fearful dog has also been shown to be a successful form of counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a method for modifying behavior that seeks to change a dog's negative emotional response to a trigger. This is often done by encouraging an emotion that is incompatible with the negative one. The technique appears to be more successful when your dog is experiencing a milder form of the stressor and is thus "under the threshold." Overall, counterconditioning has been shown to reduce behaviors related to fear, such as barking, growling, snapping, lunging and increasing distance. Examples of ways to use counterconditioning include:
If your pup is afraid of bigger dogs, or dogs in general, you'll want to avoid certain situations. That way you can prevent your dog from having negative experiences that build on their fears. Things to avoid include:
Helping your dog overcome their fear of other dogs isn't easy and will take time, patience and love. This is due to the fact that fear is an emotional response. Counterconditioning and desensitization are commonly recommended to help your dog gain confidence and tend to work well for many pups.
1. Identify your dog's threshold (how close can your dog get to another before exhibiting fearful behavior?) and start your training below that.
2. Allow your pup to see other dogs from a safe distance that is under their threshold. If you see signs of anxiety or nervousness, stop and don't get any closer.
Pro Tip: If you have a friend with a dog, you can ask them to help you work on your pup's fear. Just make sure your friend's dog is well-behaved, calm, cooperative and friendly enough to achieve your goals. You can also work with a dog trainer or behaviorist who uses positive reinforcement methods.
3. Begin to change your dog's negative perception of other dogs to a positive one. Do so by giving your dog plenty of treats in rapid succession whenever another dog is in sight and only stopping when that dog is out of sight. This will start to teach your dog that the presence of another brings about something desirable and thus begins shifting the association to the positive side.
Pro Tip: Use high value rewards so that your dog can't resist the treats. You can use your dog's favorite ones or smelly goods, like freeze-dried liver training treats.
4. Repeat this process over and over. Use every opportunity to practice this counterconditioning and desensitization. Dog walks are a great and easy time to practice, but you can also do it from home in your yard. Just make sure to always keep your dog under their threshold.
Pro Tip: When out with your dog, always have high-value treats on hand in case a training opportunity arises. Planning ahead and being prepared is a big key to being consistent in your training.
5. Slowly decrease the distance to other dogs as your pup's threshold increases. You'll know their threshold has increased when your dog stays calm while watching others pass without showing signs of fear. Continue the method of rapidly dispensing treats whenever another dog is in sight, no matter the distance. If your dog starts showing signs of anxiety or nervousness, you've gotten too close and need to increase distance.
Pro Tip: If your dog becomes anxious, back off and walk around to distract them. Once they are calm again, begin dispensing treats until the other dog is out of sight.
If your dog's fear leads to severe anxious behaviors or aggression, or your training hasn't been successful, it may be time to turn to a professional. Your vet can provide help by ruling out any medical problems or injuries that may be contributing to the fear response. They can also recommend next steps including a trainer or medication. Pet trainers and behaviorists who practice positive reinforcement can help you achieve your goals more quickly, efficiently and effectively.