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Canine Behavior/fearful behavior


I have a 12 month old Australian Shepherd. (my 3rd, I'm familiar with the breed). He has been rock solid and is just now displaying unsteady/fearful behavior.  He is well exercised, very obedient, trained with praise. I take him to work with me at my antique store. He has always been good with the public. I take him into stores and he has always been very good. Four days ago I had him on leash in a downtown area and something spooked him. I don't know what. He jumped out of his collar, barked, hopped around like something stung him.  This is December, not too much stinging this time of the year. Yesterday at dusk, he got out of my car and saw the 2 neighbor kids (one is 13 the other 15), didn't recognize them and barked. Made friend again with one, but with the other kid he was nervous, wasn't sure he wanted to be petted, then was ok. Just a few minutes ago in my antique shop, a lady came in with flowers wrapped in a bag, Cooper jumped and barked. Spooky behavior. I'm looking to resolve this before anything becomes a habit or bigger  problem. Help, Please!

When we see a sudden change in behavior such as you're describing and there is no clear motivation for it (no obvious injury, illness, something in his environment that clearly scared him - something new and unusual), then our first order of business is a complete vet checkup including blood work - which should include a thyroid check. Low thyroid levels can affect anxiety and reactive behavior. Injuries, soreness, illness can all affect overt behavior such as touch sensitivity/wariness at interacting with people, startle response, etc.

If this were my dog, I'd be starting there if I couldn't pinpoint the reason for the sudden change in behavior that you're now seeing in multiple environments under multiple circumstances. I agree, you will want to nip this in the bud before it becomes an ongoing issue.

If your regular vet gives him a clean bill of health, then you may wish to consult with a veterinary behaviorist (there are several in CA, especially if you're up in the Davis area as UC Davis has a veterinary master's program that churns out veterinary behaviorists...). Vet behaviorists are trained specifically in behavior issues and to diagnose less common medical issues that can affect overt behavior. Think of them as the psychiatrists of the pet world, or maybe the Dr. House's of the vet world. By observing your dog in person, noting his subtle body language, testing him with different objects, surfaces, people, etc, they may be able to find a pattern to his behavior that will tell us what is motivating this sudden spook-factor you're seeing. If we can pinpoint the triggers and the reason why they are suddenly triggers, it will make it much easier to change his perception of those things so they no longer cause him to feel spooked.

It may have been something as simple as a bug bite/sting - even at this time of year, there are some out. It may have been a car backfire that you tuned out or someone may have stepped on his toe or tail when you didn't notice and now he's wary of strangers. It may be that some other thing startled him, but it coincided with a particular perfume or sound and so now things like the smell of the flowers (if it's similar to the scent) or the rustle of the plastic/paper they were wrapped in is concerning him.

In the end, the most likely thing is that you'll need to do some basic counter conditioning with him to help him feel more secure again. He may need a little break from his public duties to let him settle for a week or two, and then you should be loaded up with his very favorite treat. This should replace a meal as he's going to get a lot... Every new person he comes across that day should be invited to offer him a treat in the flat palm of their hand - held out about 6-10 inches away from him so that your dog is approaching them to get the treat, not the person invading his space. While he's taking the treat, if he seems relaxed, the person can be invited to scritch under his chin, or pet his chest or side. If he seems tense, anxious or nervous, the person should not make any contact with him. If he's hesitant to take the treat, then the person should just drop the treat on the ground and keep right on walking, allowing your dog to go get the treat when he feels it's safe enough to do so.

You may need to just sit on a park bench and give him treats every time he notices someone passing by. Because this is such a new behavior, it may resolve quite quickly with just a couple days of this kind of work. But, we first need to make sure there's nothing physical or otherwise medical contributing to this change in behavior.

Vet behaviorists can be found here:

Good luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.

Jody, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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