Should you startle your dog out of an overreaction?

Many dogs overreact to things out of fear.  Fear is an emotion, and is therefore not voluntary.  If you see something that scares you, your stomach might turn over, or you might turn in the opposite direction.  If a dog sees something that scares him, his reaction might be to bark, and if he’s on the lead, he doesn’t have the option to get away from it like you do.

In some humans loud noises can induce physical pain, and we’re not sure whether this is a possibility in dogs too.  Regardless, many fearful dogs are also noise phobic.

Let’s say that your dog is barking aggressively at another dog.  Your dog is likely to be telling that other dog to keep away as he’s afraid.  If you shake a can of coins next to your dog or throw something metallic on the ground, you’re likely to get the effect you want; you’ll startle your dog out of his reaction.  But what have you actually taught your dog?

  • You’ve taught your dog that he was right to be afraid; scary things happen when strange dogs are around. 

But is that all he’s learned?  Hopefully yes, but what if your dog now associates other things with that experience?  What if there was a child in the dog’s line of sight when it happened?  What has your dog learned from the experience?

  • You’ve taught your dog that he was right to be afraid; scary things happen when strange dogs are around. 
  • Strange dogs cause frightening noises.
  • Frightening noises happen around children so children are scary.
  • There are lots of children in a school playground, the school playground is very loud, so schools are scary.

So now not only have you got a dog that’s afraid of other dogs, you’ve also got a dog that is afraid of, and barks at, children and he’ll now no longer walk past a school.

Not is there only no point in punishing your dog for acting out of fear, as fear is an emotion and therefore not voluntary, but you’re actually doing more harm than good by punishing your dog.

Instead of punishing your dog for this behaviour, you need to look at why he’s behaving in this way, and what you can do to help your dog overcome his fear, which is not to force your dog to face his fears.

Let’s say that your dog isn’t barking at the other dog out of fear, that he has some other motivation.  If your intention is to startle the dog out of the reaction, that’s done by scaring the dog.  This is what your dog could learn from this situation:

  • Frightening noises happen around strange dogs so strange dogs are scary.

You’ve created a problem that wasn’t there before.

If you have a dog that overreacts to things in his environment, get in touch to see what you can do to help him cope.