On Good Behavior LLC

Will Socialization Help Your Fearful or Reactive Dog?

Dog owners have heard a lot about the value of socialization and happily we are doing a better job socializing our puppies. Puppies age 6-16 weeks are very receptive to new experiences and need to meet lots and lots of people and go lots and lots of places to grow up to be calm, confident dogs. This is why guide dog puppies go everywhere: so that they will be comfortable guiding their charges everywhere as adults.

But what if you have an adolescent or adult dog who is not comfortable with the world? I find that when owners discover that something worries their dog, they make an effort to expose the dog more frequently to that stimulus, hoping the dog will get over it. But is this a good idea? Unfortunately, the answer is, “It depends…”.

Repeated exposure to the same stimulus can lead to either habituation or sensitization. For example, when Jeff and I lived in California, we lived 50 feet from a major commuter train line that caused our duplex to shake every time a train passed. When we first moved in, it made us a little crazy but within a few weeks we didn’t even hear the train. We had habituated, or you might say we tuned it out. However, not everyone adjusts! A neighbor moved in next door and a couple weeks later she was jittery, unable to sleep, and desperately looking for a new apartment.


What determines whether a dog or person habituates or sensitizes to repeated noise, sight, or smell? Several factors make a difference:

  • Novelty: It’s easier to habituate to a new sight or sound than to something with which you have previously had bad experiences.
  • Intensity: It’s easier to get used to living three blocks from the train tracks than to living right next to them.
  • Startle Response: It’s easier to habituate to a noise that doesn’t trigger a startle response. For example, if you use your favorite radio station as your alarm, you are far more likely to sleep through the alarm than if you use a beeping siren.
  • Genetically predisposed fears: For primates, spiders and snakes are things we come primed to fear even if we’ve never seen them before.

So what should you do if your dog is afraid of something?

If it’s a brand new fear, repeated exposure might just solve it. This often works if you have a new item in your house such as a rotating fan or if your neighbors now have a boat parked in their driveway. Showing your dog the object over and over while talking happily and playing or feeding him will most likely help him get over it.

If it’s a fear that has developed over time, you will probably need to more carefully work on counter conditioning (associating the formerly scary object with something good) and desensitization. Avoid triggering a panic attack—if your dog looks more than mildly interested, you are over threshold. See if you can expose your dog to a less intense version of what he fears: traffic noises played quietly on your ipad instead of real traffic; dogs in the dog park 100 yards away rather than a dog coming towards him on the sidewalk.

Most importantly, remember that you don’t want to further sensitize your dog and make the problem worse. If your dog is having a full blown panic attack, whether that looks like tucking his tail and trying to bolt or barking and lunging hysterically, you need to avoid the scary situation for now and get professional help making your dog more comfortable.

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