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Canine Behavior/Cairn Terrier Yokie Mix - Fear Aggression


Hi, I am looking into adopting a dog, and I came across a yorkie/cairn terrier mix.  The foster mom says he is very mellow, quiet and cuddly-- exactly what I am looking for!  However, he snaps and growls at strangers.  I feel confident that I can help him overcome this fear by a) vocal interruption before his fear/aggression escalates and b) reinforcement with treats for being non-aggressive as strangers come closer.  

I wish I could offer more information, but I haven't met him yet (meeting scheduled for this weekend); I am working off information given to me by the foster family.  Additionally, I plan on ignoring him until he feels comfortable coming to me when I meet him for the first time.  

Is this a good course of action to help him overcome his fears?

The idea that you'll go into the dog's space and ignore him until he's ready to greet you is on the right track. You may offer some tasty treats by dropping them on the floor near him or tossing them gently away from both you and him - allowing him to go get them, while still being well away from you. Make sure, if you're tossing treats, that you don't toss toward the dog as the hand movement of tossing can be quite disconcerting to the dog.

As to helping him overcome the fear with strangers, I encourage you to look into a protocol such as BAT - Behavior Adjustment Training. This technique doesn't utilize vocal interruption, which is good as we tend to use a negative tone/word during such a circumstance (No. Quiet. Stop.). This can actually make him more fearful over time.

BAT practices keep the dog far enough away from the scary 'monster' that he is able to think clearly and isn't compelled to react in fear. Then, at that distance, you give him time to take in the scary monster (looking, sniffing, watching) and then when he offers a softer cut-off signal such as looking away from the scary monster, sniffing the ground, checking in with you, etc. you ask him "Done?" in a sweet tone and invite him to move away. You don't necessarily move directly toward and away as that's a very unnatural approach/retreat pattern for dogs. You may use a lot of gentle zig-zagging or meandering toward the monster, paying attention to his body language so that you stop the moment he notices the monster. As you work through this process, you'll find that you'll be able to get closer and closer. In a single session you may be able to work from a distance all the to walking past a stranger.

That doesn't mean the work is done, but it does mean that the next session you may only have to start at, say 30 feet away instead of 50 or 60 feet away. It's all up to the dog. The beauty of this protocol is that it honors the dog, respects his emotional state throughout the process and empowers him to make his own decisions. We are simply there to help him avoid getting too close too quickly, and to help him learn that he can make other behavioral choices and still get that real-world (functional) need met. In the case of your dog, it's almost certainly a desire for greater distance. And as he learns he can control his environment and whether or not he interacts with these gentler behavior choices, we see the dog's confidence grow and he becomes more comfortable being in closer proximity. He may never be a social butterfly, but this protocol will help him learn to cope and be comfortable in normal social situations - though you may always need to protect him by telling people to please not reach out and pet him unless he specifically requests it from them.

You can learn how to do BAT through the book Behavior Adjustment Training - BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression by Grisha Stewart. You can also search for some YouTube videos by her. Be careful, there are lots of people out there who have posted videos calling it BAT and it's not. So make sure it's either a Grisha video or  Grisha approved as that way you know you're watching the actual protocol. You kind of know it's being done right because watching a proper BAT setup is much like watching paint dry. Nothing dramatic happens. You see a handler and the dog walking. They stop. The dog looks at something, then does something else (looks away, sniffs the ground, etc), the owner is suddenly very happy and asks the dog if they're ready to go away and they trot off in a direction other than where the scary monster was. Then they repeat the whole process. The drama is really in the difference between the very first trial (usually at a great distance) and the final trials where the dog is greeting or walking together with whatever used to totally freak him out.

If you're uncertain about implementing the protocol, I encourage you to seek out the assistance of a local professional who is versed in BAT. Ideally they are certified CBATI (certified BAT instructor), or have read the book or attended a seminar with Grisha. If you can't find anyone already familiar with it, you should discuss with positive reinforcement trainers if they'd be willing to read the book so they can help you. Make sure that the trainer you choose is well versed in canine body language and can describe to you many of the signs of stress/anxiety/fear as well as many of the signs of contentment/security/pro-social behaviors. They should be familiar with cut-off signals and appeasement signals as well as distance-increasing and distance-decreasing signals.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to followup if I can be of 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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