What anxious and reactive behaviour is really trying to tell us!

There are plenty of people out there that will tell you that you shouldn’t avoid things your dog is scared of. That if you “give in” to them you are somehow rewarding their fearful reaction. In this blog, I will explain why that’s not the case, and why we should all listen to our dogs when they show anxious and reactive behaviour!

The emotional equivalent of pain

Pain is our bodies way of telling us to stop. Whether we are talking about dogs, fish, giraffes, seagulls, or snakes, this response is not just limited to humans. All living creatures are designed to avoid pain and for a very important reason. When we feel pain, it is a sign that something is wrong and we should take action to avoid it. If we didn’t feel pain, we could seriously injure ourselves, or worse!

Fear is how the brain protects our mental health! Just like physical pain, fear means stop, avoid, and protect yourself. And just like pain, if we don’t listen to the fear, we could do serious damage to our mental health. But, instead of risking broken bones, or life changing burns, our dogs confidence and overall resilience is at risk. A lack of resilience leaves your dog less able to cope with stuff in the future. And if we ignore it a lot, or its a very frightening experience, the result is trauma.

Anxious and reactive behaviour, like this, is just your dogs way to telling you he needs space!

How anxiety escalates

When our dogs are exposed to something that is mildly frightening they will try to avoid it, probably by slowing down or pulling away. As they get closer, they might start licking their lips, starring, and display stiff body language. This is their way of communicating that they want the scary thing to stay away. If the scary thing does stay away, or our dog avoids it, the situation would feel mildly uncomfortable, and they’ll probably bounce back just fine.

However, if the scary thing gets closer, either because it moves towards you, or you move closer to it, the situation will become more urgent. His previous attempt to communicate has failed, and the closer you get the less safe he will feel. So, he will have to be more insistent in how he communicates. He might start crying or barking, lunging, pawing, jumping at you, or even grabbing at the lead or your coat.

As each attempt fails, he feels less and less safe, so he will continue to escalate his behaviour. His only goal is to feel safe, and eventually he will escalate his behaviour so much that the only remaining options are to show aggression. When it get’s to this point, he’ll literally do whatever he can to make the scary thing go away. Reactive behaviour happens when the dog bypasses mild attempts to avoid scary stuff and skips straight to the big and loud behaviour. He’ll do this if the situation is escalating fast, or if he believes he won’t be listened to if it’s too subtle.

Two possible outcomes

Both these scenarios have very different end results, and lessons for the dog!

In situation one, everything ended well. The dog was pushed slightly out of his comfort zone, but not too far. As soon as they expressed fear, they were heard. They maintained a safe distance and in this low anxiety state of mind, the dog would have relaxed quickly, and his fear would have been reduced.

However, in the second situation, the dog was taken deep into self defense mode. No matter how good his owners intentions were, or how many pieces of chicken his owner had, he was forced to escalate his avoidance behaviour to a point of aggression. He was not listened to, and was forced into a situation he was terrified of.

Eroding trust

Just imagine being dragged by someone you trust into a frightening situation. Let’s say you’re scared of roller coasters. Your well-meaning friend reassures you loads as you ask not to go on. She offers you digestives (your favourite) as you move through the queue. You beg her not to make you go on, but she has you by the arm and isn’t going to let you leave. Eventually you reach the front of the queue and she tries to force you onto the roller coaster. You are terrified, by now you have tried asking nicely, then you went to begging, pleading, and pulling away, but that didn’t work. She just keeps telling you how much fun you’ll have and how it’s not scary. Now there is only one way to stop her pushing you onto the carriage, so you lash out.

After all this: how do you feel about roller coasters, and how do you feel about your friend? I’m guessing, you aren’t thrilled about either, and next time you are anywhere near your friend and a roller coaster queue, you’ll make damn sure to avoid capture – especially if she has digestives!

Also check out Managing Dog Anxiety or Reactivity: Avoidance Isn’t Cheating!

When did enabling become such a dirty word?

By avoiding the scary thing, (or the roller coaster with your friend), you might be accused of enabling and rewarding the fear. But, why is that a bad thing?

Cambridge dictionary defines enabling as:

to make someone or something able to do something by providing whatever is necessary to achieve that aim

Cambridge Dictionary

Personally, I think that is a good thing! I encourage you to “enable-at-will”. When you start enabling your dog, you start making things possible. You start building up trust. Your dog feels heard and advocated for, and his confidence can start to grow!

You wouldn’t expect your dog to put up with increasing physical pain, just so they can learn to get used to pain. So, next time your dogs asks for space, don’t listen to the people that accuse you of
avoiding or “enabling”. Listen to your dog and respect his need for space.

Advocate for your dog, and you will work through the fear together. Flood him with fear and you’ll lose his trust, dissolve resilience, and erode his confidence!

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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