Canine Behavior/dog fear


My new dog is a male standard poodle, age five and a half months. He has always been a bit fearful, so I expose him to as much as possible and try to teach him manners. Today he barked at our next door neighbor and trotted over to her as she passed the house. I saw him nose her hand. She said he put his teeth on her. She already does not like dogs (and maybe me). I leashed the dog and walked him over to our other neighbor's where she was, made him sit and shake hands with her. He licked her hand. She stated she had been bitten before in her life and would kick the dog if he did it again. I said fair enough, but I don't want it to happen again. Can you recommend a course of action to help the dog be less wary? He and I have been chased a few times by dogs while trotting with the bicycle and I think that may have made him anxious about some dogs, but he is usually OK with humans. He is scheduled to be neutered next week. Would that have any effect on anything?

Greetings, and thank you for contacting All Experts,
It's a good idea to expose to novel stimuli, but the biggest key is doing so very, very gradually and making sure that great thing happen during these experiences. Too much exposure at intense levels, end up overwhelming the dog and causing setbacks instead of progress. You want to familiarize yourself as much as you with the terms "desensitization" and "threshold."
In desensitization you expose your dog to stimuli perceived as frightening but in a way that they appear much less threatening. I will provide you an article that explains the whole process so you can apply it effectively or ask a behavior professional o guide you through it.

As mentioned, the key in desensitization is to to go very gradually without overwhelming the dog otherwise we see setbacks and no progress and the dog is stuck in a chronic state of fear. The key to accomplishing this is making sure that the dog is always under threshold when you introduce to stimuli known for causing fearful reactions. This article outlines the meaning of the word threshold and how to keep a dog under.

So once you have a grasp on the desensitization process and keeping the dog under threshold you can further upgrade things by adding another effective behavior modification method known as "counterconditioning". In counterconditioning, you change your dog's emotions about a stimulus for the better. So if your dog barked at your neighbor, you want to change his emotions so that he looks forward to seeing your neighbor versus trying to send her away as I assume he was trying to by barking. This article goes over the process of counterconditioning.

So now with the help of a behavior professional, you can put into place a behavior modification program. You know that you must present your neighbor in a non-threatening manner (from a distance often helps) and you can change his emotions by associating your neighbor's presence with good things while keeping your dog under threshold. A good program that combines all these things is the "look at that" method. See this article about it:

So back to the unhappy event where your dog bit your neighbor, you know now that most likely your dog was too over threshold. Indeed, he was already barking at her when he saw her. Barking is often a distance-increasing behavior, meaning it's meant to increase distance. Your neighbor may have ignored the barks and your dog felt compelled to get closer to her, but was likely in conflict. If your neighbor put her hand near his face as many people do when a dog approaches them, consider that often this is one of the easiest ways to get bit.
So no more hands near your dog's face, at least for now. Work at a distance and never let him approach people he is barking at. It sounds like he may engage in conflicting states where he would like to approach but then feels threatened. Read about this here:

Once you do enough LAT (look at that) work, you can try to move to the treat/retreat game.
Here is also an example of a type of work that can be done with dogs who bark at neighbors:

Another thing to consider is that your dog is now 5 and a half months and he may be nearing a fear period. Something to keep an eye on.

I hope this helps and that the articles help you. Kind regards,

Disclaimer: Behavior modification is not easy and takes good knowledge in the methods and a good grasp on dog body language. Behavior modification also comes with risks. Please consult with a dog behavior professional to walk you through the process and so to keep everybody safe. By reading this answer you accept this disclaimer.  

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Adrienne Janet Farricelli CPDT-KA


I can answer questions pertaining dog psychology and general dog behavior. Why is my dog doing this? And what can I do about it? are common questions I am asked. I will not answer questions concerning health problems as this is out of my spectrum, but I can recommend a vet visit if there are chances behavioral problems may stem from a possible underlying medical problem.


I am a certified dog trainer (CPDT-KA) that has attended seminars on dog behavior. I am acquainted with behavior modification programs and have read several books from reputable authors such as Patricia McConnell, Turid Rugaas, Nicholas Dodman and Bruce Fogle to name a few. I have rehabilitated dogs affected by moderate to severe behavioral problems.

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