Canine exorcism: treating fear aggression:

Science popularisation article about fear aggression
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Jan 2013

Dog desensitization vs. exorcism

Does Rover — normally an angel — turn into the devil incarnate at the mere sight of a jogger (or another dog)? Perhaps a little exorcism is in order. Either that, or… a spot of “Systematic Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning” (aka “D&C”).

D&C is THE ritual for fear-aggressive dogs. It delivers dramatic results (at least as dramatic as the cute Catholic trick), AND it’s less messy. What’s not to love?

If you’re interested in a little background, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re not that much into theory, jump ahead to the D&C programme.

Why? Either demonic possession or…

When wondering why a dog does anything, there are four ways to skin the cat: the four questions of ethology.

1. What function does it serve?

99% of dog aggression really is ‘defensive threatening’ — a way to keep distance with something scary.

2. What controls it?

Fear/anxiety and reward/punishment, can combine into a nasty motivational cocktail:

  • First time: Rover feels a little fear.
  • Next time: Rover anticipates the fear (i.e. feels anxiety) around joggers. The anxiety intensifies the fear when the jogger approaches. Rover reacts threateningly, which is rewarded by the jogger keeping his distance.
  • Next time: Increasingly fearful/anxious Rover behaves increasingly excessively. So much so that you need to punish him (sometimes preemptively) each time a jogger comes near.

So, now joggers (or other dogs, or whatever) = anxietyfear AND punishment for Rover. Oh, and he’s learnt that lunging worked.

Go through the circle enough times, and it could escalate into a lawsuit and a broken heart. Either that, or you decide to only walk Rover at 2am, cursing the day you got a dog. Time to break that vicious cycle, no?

3. How did it start?

I have a shelter dog, so I also imagine tales of past abuse to explain his present behaviour. But, truth be told, most times, fear is just a question of:

  • Temperament: He’s just a bit of a wuss; and/or
  • Under-habituation: He didn’t see enough joggers as a pup; and/or
  • Trauma (sober version): He may just have been unpleasantly startled by a jogger at a sensitive age; and/or
  • Trauma (Dickensian version): Evil, tall, mean, alcoholic men (in tracksuits and jogging shoes) used to beat him up when he lived on the streets to try to make a fur coat out of him.

4. What is the evolutionary advantage of doing it?

Many species (ourselves included) suffer from a fear bias when facing something unfamiliar. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: false positives are inconvenient, false negatives are lethal. Guess who’ll live to tell the tale: Rambo or Dilbert?

How does D&C work?

Get a hold of about 1 pint of holy water. Make sure it’s the real stuff, mind, not tap water. Then sprinkle … OK, OK, just yanking your chain.

D&C, as my astute readers will no doubt have gathered, is a two-fold principle involving (drum-roll)…

1/ Counter-conditioning

Every time the unfamiliar thing crops up, we reward the dog.

2/ Systematic Desensitization

Starting at a low level, we gradually re-expose the dog to whatever used to scare the Bejeesus out of him. Only this time we teach him that the stimulus is irrelevant/neutral/routine/boring/you get the gist: NOT scary.


When I say that we start at a ‘low level’, am not kidding around here. The central idea is to NOT breach the dog’s comfort zone. Our goal? (Gradually) reduce his personal space, not invade it.


Getting solid improvements can take a few days to… a lifetime, depending on how profound the aversion got, and how many things the dog fears.

Risk assessment needs to weigh in too. Fear-reactive chihuahua puppies are annoying, but adult-sized Labradors? And what if a disabled, very young or elderly person could be affected?

If you feel your dog’s behaviour is putting you, your family, or the public at risk, please contact a qualified behaviour consultant for advice.

If you feel you can tackle this yourself, time to get started.

Your comments

  • Had you heard of D&C?
  • What other approach have you been recommended to use for fear-aggression?
  • Are you a professional and you’ve comments/additions to the post?

Further reading

Other places

So you know you’re not alone, check this honest and hilarious blog from the owner of a reactive dog, making the best of it.

For more on the same, but this time beautifully written, read this post by fellow evidence-based dog trainer, Jolanta Benal.

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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