10 effective ways to help our dogs feel safe

Barking, aggression, destruction, separation anxiety, resource guarding, … Many behavior issues that directly affect the dogs welfare can be attributed to stress and fear. These emotions dominate the dog’s life experience and are often responsible for the human/dog relationship breakdown. Just like in humans, many attribute aggressive displays as signs of strength and character. In reality they’re an expression of underlying feelings of being threatened. We’re most likely to yell or fight at others when we fear that another person will keep us from getting our needs met. A confident and well-adapted person or dog rarely needs to resort to aggression, vocalization or destruction to regain homeostasis.

Scared puppyStudies have show that rage and fear feel bad and given the choice, animals and people try to avoid these feelings. ‘No animal or human enjoys the experience of persistent rage because the affective feeling simply is not pleasant’ (Panksepp, 2012). Many times though, there are no known direct causes to the dog’s reaction. Some dogs will go into a panic as soon as the owner steps out the door even though they’re not in any kind of real danger (from our perspective). The level of fear that some dogs will experience can be compared to a panic attack. Their vocalizations or destruction of property are mostly attempts to relieve themselves from the intensity of the emotion. Dogs will also stiffen, growl or bark at strangers or other dogs; even though they’ve never actually been hurt in their presence. Sometimes genetics, lack of socialization or both can be the underlying cause of otherwise unexplained fears. It’s also possible that aggression or anxiety is a manifestation of physical discomfort, so taking the dog to the veterinarian is always advisable.

There are other times where we’ve directly contributed to the level of stress and fear of the animal. When we chose to punish a dog in any way, including just saying ‘no’, we induce a certain level of anxiety. Let’s be real, it’s the goal. We’re trying to intimidate, in other words, to scare the dog into stopping the behavior. There are different levels of anxiety that the dog will experience of course, depending on his own sensitivities, but also on how often and how much we use punishment to control his behavior.

When animals are anxious or afraid, their number one priority is to feel safe again. We’re no different. Imagine trying to learn a new language while concerned about being yelled at or ridiculed by the teacher. Our primary concern is no longer to learn the language but to avoid the unpleasant treatment. When the animal feels safe, he can be curious, inquisitive and focused on a task. When he’s anxious, he’ll be distracted, less motivated, sometimes even resistant and shut down. When safe, the dog is relaxed and generally confident around people and dogs. When stressed, he can be destructive, hyperactive and reactive to people and dogs. A recent research showed that when dogs feel safe, their level of interest and ability to perform a cognitive task were also improved. Just like children, dogs seem to feel safer in the presence of their owner. When the owner leaves, the dogs were less likely to interact with the toys presented, even if they were rewarded with food (Horn & al. 2013). That feeling of course is also dependant on the type of training applied by the owner.

Dog pile!

We’re concerned about our dog’s needs and we make sure that he gets plenty of food, water, toys, playtime, etc… At the very top of that list we need to also make sure the dog feels safe. In most cases, our dogs are physically safe and they’re rarely actually harmed. But feeling safe sometimes requires more than having a home. So what can we do?

Here are 10 steps that will help the dog develop a sense of security:

1/ Socializing the dog at an early age is critical, but it’s also important to keep exposing him to all sorts of people and dogs throughout his lifetime.

2/ Taking the dog out to different places and exposing him to all sorts of situations helps the dog develop confidence and adaptability. The more restricted the animal’s world, the more he’ll be likely to feel anxious when small changes occur in his environment.

3/ Desensitizing the dog to anything that we notice he can be afraid of. Avoiding a fearful situation instead of working on it can result in the dog generalizing the fear to other areas. The reverse is also true. Overcoming a fear in one area can help the dog generalize to another area.

4/ Avoiding punishing the dog through the use of aversives. There are many effective ways to diminish unwanted behaviors without scaring or hurting the dog.

5/ Engaging the dog’s mind. When the dog applies himself to processing information, whether through training (like in shaping) or any activity that requires him to think, he’s less likely to be focused on his anxiety.

6/ Developing our own confidence as a handler. Since dogs are very sensitive to our emotions, it’s important to display a calm and confident attitude.

7/ Respecting thresholds. When we push the dog through his thresholds where he’ll be likely to experience the unpleasant emotion again and again, we’re also sensitizing him to the situation, thus making that emotion more likely to occur in the future.

8/ Allowing the dog to get out of fearful situations. Providing the dog with a place to hide or to move away from something scary is critical so the fear can subside. In the same way, standing up for the dog, interfering with a person or dog about to invade his space also allows the dog to feel safe as you’re watching out for him.

9/ Avoiding overprotecting the dog. This may seem like the opposite of the previous point, but we can go too far in trying to protect the dog and if we’re anxious ourselves of the outcomes of certain interactions, we can trigger or contribute to the dog’s anxiety. Simply tightening the leash a little may very well set your dog on alert.

10/ Developing patience. If we’re pushy or frustrated, the dog is likely to build up anxiety and become resistant or shut down. Patience is essential to allow the dog to process the information presented in front of him.

Stress, anxiety and fear play a critical part in the wellbeing of our animals as they do in our own lives. Applying ourselves to reducing the opportunities for those emotions to develop may make the difference in the dog’s welfare. We can all benefit from reducing those emotions in our life. It’s not always easy to be mindful of what affects our dog’s emotions as well as our own, but the more we apply ourselves to it, the easier it gets, for the benefit of all.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Educational, Positive Animal Training, Resource, science
24 comments on “10 effective ways to help our dogs feel safe
  1. Such a good blog, Jennifer – thank you for sharing my ‘trust and confidence’ one, too!

  2. Perfect timing! I’m forwarding this blog post to someone who’s been having a tough time with her dog. It helps if she hears it from other sources than just me. 🙂

  3. phoenix says:

    Why refer to all dogs as “he”?

    • My husband asked me the same thing the other day. I grew up in Europe so even though I’m american, my first language is french. I refuse to use ‘it’ to talk about animals and because of my french speaking background, referring to dogs as ‘he’ just comes more natural to me. I’ll put more effort into using ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘he/she’ in my next blogs.

      • Chicken Little says:

        Ignore “him”. It’s a ridiculous comment. Keeping it consistent makes sense. This writing is very thoughtful and very intelligent and I thank you for having it available here.

  4. prin says:

    Yes! #8! Thank you for putting #8 on there. *high fives* People don’t understand that letting a fearful dog fend for itself in scary situation only creates a fear biter. We have to be our scaredy dogs’ home base.

  5. Andrea says:

    The name of the researcher ist Jaak Panksepp, not Penskepp

  6. Diane says:

    It is wonderful that I found this today because my roommate is truly struggling with a 6/7 year old Shetland Sheepdog that she Rescued almost a year ago. He is an extremely sweet dog but because of the fact that we now live in an apt. we have to walk him due to the lack of a back yard. My roommate walks him for at least an hour every morning, but is having a very difficult time with his out of control barking. Anytime he see’s a walker, runner, bicycler, or heaven forbid a person walking another dog, he goes nuts. He barks and barks and twirls and it’s almost impossible to get his attention. We got a hold of the rescue person that we got him from and she gave us some tips ie:
    Always have treats, when he starts to bark, sit him get his attention and as soon as he is quiet, give him a treat. Well if he see’s the treat he will be quiet for a short amount of time and then we reward him but then he goes back to his prev. behavior and we start all over. We even tried not moving until he was quiet, but he continues until the person is gone. We have been working on this all summer and he just won’t stop. Katy, my roommate is getting frustrated and I know the dog can feel that and I think he is getting resentful, it used to be when he was in the house they had a wonderful relationship, very loving and caring and cuddly but that is starting to change and I just really hate to see this. We used to have a house but lost that due to medical issues that caused financial issues, I think if she ends up having to give up this dog it will be devastating to her, she has issues with depression and having a dog has always been really good for her. The reason I’m telling you about the financial issues is that due to being strapped financially, we are unable to take a dog training class which I think would help a lot. Do you have any suggestions, we are both so frustrated and always on the verge of tears because we don’t want to loose this little guy, we love him a lot. We have never used any sort of physical punishment, the only type of discipline we have used is very stern talk. Please give us any and all suggestions you think might help, we love this little guy so much and I think we would both be devistated if we had to give him up. Sorry for the length, I just wanted to explain everything, God Bless You,
    Spokane WA

    • Diane,

      I’m sorry to hear about all your struggles. My recommendation of course to anyone in this situation would be to contact a professional trainer. Given that you don’t have that option, there are still things that you can try.

      Fist and foremost, if the dog is lunging and barking, you’re too close. You need to stay at a distance where he notices the other dogs, but doesn’t have that emotional reaction. When he looks at the other dog, you can either click or say ‘yes’ (although clicker would be best if you can) and give him a treat. This is a situation where you want to use the best treats you can find (from his perspective of course). Smelly, and moist usually work best. Avoid any situation that takes him closer to dogs and elicits the barking. Only move closer when he starts associating the other dogs with treats and immediately turns to you for a reward. At that point, you can start rewarding (click, then treat) the dog when he looks away from the other dog and looks at you. You’ll need to progress very slowly and at the dog’s pace.

      The sequence of events is also critical. You don’t want to show the food first. Wait until he notices the other dog, then click (or say ‘yes’) and give the treat. If you show the treat first, your dog is likely to associate the treat with the presence of the dog and may start refusing it. You want the other dog to be associated with good things coming his way, not the treat associated with bad things happening.

      Again, pay attention to the dog’s threshold (the moment you see his body language change: stare, stiffen, pull, slow down, etc…), and work at a distance to the other dogs where he is still calm.
      Another critical element here is to not give him any additional reason to fear the presence of other dogs. No stern voice, pulling or yanking on the leash or any form of aversive should be applied. If you get frustrated or irritated it will make it worse. Stay calm so he can calm down.

      This will take time but it does work. Patience and persistence are the keys to success here.

      Here are a few books that can help you find answers:
      – ‘Feisty Fido’ by Patricia McConnell and Karen London
      – ‘Control Unleashed’ by Leslie McDevitt
      – ‘Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)’ by Grisha Stewart
      – ‘Fight’ by Jean Donaldson

      All my best,


      • Natasha says:

        Hello Jennifer, many people like me can’t control the distance. I have a very quiet neighborhood, but people still come out of their house, chatting when we are directly in front, bicycles go by, dog and walker come around corner, etc. and boom, my doggie is over threshold. I can’t remove her without pulling her. If we see a person at a distance, I say “yippee a person!” And she looks to me for a treat, so we have gotten that far, but when she’s over threshold she won’t look at me or stop the struggling and lunging. So all I do is keep singing her happy songs. When the stimulus is gone on their own, should I treat her (as many say, rewarding the wrong behavior?) Or ask for a sit or just keep going with my happy song and treat at a better situation? I’ve read some of the “fearful dog” books, and they all say, stay under threshold. Nice but not always possible! Thanks for all your work. I’m familiar with these authors and will read them, too. Merci!

        • Natasha, you’re right, staying under threshold isn’t always easy. It’s important to keep working under threshold as much as possible for best results. When it’s not possible and your dog is lunging and struggling, doing the ‘jolly routine’ is great but I would also try to give your dog treats while you quickly work on put distance between your dog and the other one. I know it’s counterintuitive and seems like you’re rewarding ‘bad’ behavior. What you’re trying to do is work on the underlying emotion through classical conditioning. Once the emotion is diminished, generally the behavior disappears on it’s own. If it doesn’t (which I haven’t witnessed to this day), you can work on the behavior alone later.
          The other thing that you might want to try is this: once the other dog has passed and is then walking away from you, follow it at a distance until your dog is completely ignoring it. Dogs are less threatening from behind and you can regulate the distance as needed. This way you can get plenty of opportunities to reward your dog for either the LAT (Look At That) or giving you eye contact.
          I hope this helps.

          • Natasha says:

            Hi, thank you so much for your response. I was too “afraid” to start clicker training because I didn’t think I was the kind of person who would follow through with it…. But a click is still a click and you can use it any time, I realize. She learned words so quickly, I didn’t think I needed it for basic skills. But as you know, clickers help them sort out what you are rewarding, so using it for Look at Me, Look at That, etc could help her see what I want in these more volatile situations. I do take treats with me most of the time, but again, when she is over threshold she won’t come with me or take a treat. This could be perfect for using the clicker….. Also, she does want to follow people now (when they are walking plainly), but the chances aren’t high that the person will keep from turning or something to freak her — another click opportunity, BEFORE something goes wrong…. Merci encore!

          • Il n’y a pas de quoi :). I’m glad you chose to use clicker training. Remember though, every click need to be rewarded, so you can’t just click without following with a treat.

          • Natasha says:

            You bet!!

      • Me says:

        BAT doesn’t develop a CER+ so I wonder at your recommendation, it doesn’t tie into your article’s advice.

      • Diane says:

        Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. I will look into the books and your blog, I always feel that knowledge is key. I will let you know how it goes, thanks again.

  7. Karen goerge says:

    Ya I really liked this blog it really helped me with my dog I love the way you that u write so plz keep blogging cuz u give alone of detail when you write so thank you.

    • Jennifer I really loved that blog I actually followed these steps and now my dog feels so much better thank you and when I have a question may you please blog about it because it is really helpful so keep blogging please!

  8. Jenna says:

    Thank u so much Jennifer ur a dog life saver thnx so much

  9. Thanks Jennifer ur a miracle maker with dogs you actually made this so much easier now my dog feels safe and I do have a question maybe you can answer it someday my question is:why do golden retrievers feel safe in a area of dogs? Remember keep on blogging.

  10. Jenna says:

    Tip for female pregenant dogs: there are 2 kinds of ways for layber 1) way is that the dog will build a cozy nest for her puppies so when they get born they are nice and warm 2) way Is that she will bark in pain. ( lived the moment ;).)

  11. Lucia says:

    wow I will do it with my dog

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