Guest Blogger Ali Brown Author of Scaredy Dog!

My guest blogger is Ali Brown, dog trainer and author of Scaredy Dog and Focus Not Fear. I asked Ali some questions and she kindly took the time to answer them. If there are nails to be hit on the head, Ali’s aim is right on!

AliPortraitHow did your interest in working with fearful dogs originate?

It all started just like everyone else did…when I realized I had a reactive dog! Acacia, my now 11-year old Belgian Sheepdog, was reactive toward people and dogs, and it came to a head when she was 2 years old, right after I spayed her. Prior to that she was a show dog.

Reactivity, in my book, is based in fear and anxiety. A fearful dog can either curl up and hide (turn in toward himself) or make a big scene to try to make the thing that scares it go away (turn outward, look aggressive, etc). Reactive dogs fit into the latter category. Most people think they are aggressive, but given the opportunity, reactive dogs will make alot of noise and then run away rather than bite.

Is there any training technique that you think is essential for trainers/owners of fearful dogs to understand/use?

Oh yes! A good understanding of classical conditioning is critical to being able to help fearful dogs. A dog’s underlying emotional response toward a stimulus must be changed before any operant learning can take place. So lots and lots of classical conditioning, and classical COUNTER conditioning, in particular, must be a huge part of the work done with a fearful dog.

What is one of the main mistakes you have noticed trainers/owners make with fearful dogs?

Oh boy, they do lots of things. They yell at the poor dog, put choke chains, prong collars, shock collars on them, flood them (expose them nonstop to the very things they are most fearful of until they ‘cease’ being fearful of it …which is ineffective, by the way)…all sorts of really sad and horrible things. Most folks don’t intend to further their dogs’ fears, but this is often what happens. Or the dog just shuts down entirely. Becuase the dog isn’t showing any behavior, the owners think the dog is ‘fixed’. In reality, the dog has completely shut down…not a very good quality of life.

Have your methods of working with fearful dogs changed during your time as a trainer?

Only in the sense that I have developed more and varied activities to do with fearful dogs! But my philosophy hasn’t changed one bit. Acacia is a testament to the loving, trusting relationship that we have developed as a result of the work we did together!

I know I have lots of other questions for you and readers might as well. What’s the best way for them to find out more about your ideas for working with fearful dogs?

The best thing they can do is go to or they can read Scaredy Dog! and/or watch the Scaredy Dog! DVD. I also have a second book out called Focus Not Fear, and we will be doing a companion DVD for that this summer. I hope!

Scaredy Dog!Focus Not Fear


14 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    When you talk about a dog shutting down is that the same as learned helplessness? My fearful dog Gracie behaves in a helpless way when she knows something is going to happen to her that she is afraid of or worried by, which is most everything!
    I am talking about handling mostly. Although she has always allowed me to handle her, (is totally non aggressive) she stands motionless and hangs her head, with her back legs spread apart. I have always believed that this is to do with the fact that she was forced to mate, she is a rescued breeding bitch from a puppy farm.
    So with these types of learned behaviours is it the case that she will always react like this?

    She has been with me now for almost 9 months and I’m happy to say that she has become less worried when I’m drying or brushing her etc, but still stands in the same way even though she is less afraid now.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Hi Lizzie, I’ll see if Ali knows your comment was posted. In the meantime I’ll give you my two cents. It’s a good question. We could use a better definition of ‘shut-down’ but if folks do not mean learned helplessness exactly, it looks similar. Basically the dog stops offering behaviors to change what is happening to it.

    Sunny is a ‘shut down’ kind of dog in most situations and will go back to that behavior should he be faced with a situation that pushes him way over threshold. However, over the years he has learned other behaviors which have given him skills to deal with scary situations and not ‘shut down’. These behaviors may be as simple as sitting and looking at me.

    The behavior of allowing handling is a good one, though I can see why they way she offers it is troubling. You could work on changing her emotional response to the handling so that being handled no longer causes unpleasant things to happen, but good things happen, cheese, steak, a toy, whatever works for a particular dog.

    Also, lots of dogs don’t enjoy being brushed or blow dried but they tolerate it. I would begin to pay attention to how quickly she ‘recovers’ from a grooming session. My little cocker hated having her ears cleaned but as soon as I’d stopped rubbing and drying her ears she danced around for the treat she knew was on its way. Sunny will ‘let’ me brush him, he doesn’t love it, but as soon as I stop he’s ready for a game of frisbee. This was not always the case. So yes, change is possible.

  3. Lizzie on

    Believe me Debbie food plays a part in everything I do with Gracie! It is the ONLY thing that motivates her. She has no play or prey drive, so toys are not in the equation.

    The best way to describe Gracie is reactive or resigned depending on whether we are inside the house or outside in the scary world. You can guess which is which 🙂

    I do actually prefer to think of her helpless behaviour as resigned, because I would not say that she dislikes being handled, she certainly loves to be stroked and fussed over, it’s more of an habitual behaviour, and as she suffers from OCD as well, I guess she has a hard time reacting any other way. She recovers instantly I stop what ever it is I am doing to her. I have tried to be playful with her when I’m drying her after an outing, but she simply has no idea how to respond. I am always ‘upbeat’ about things with her, I do not molly coddle her either.

    I think the only interaction she ever had with the other humans that kept her before must have been fear based. It does puzzle me why she has been so OK with me, as she still wants nothing to do with my husband!

    As ever, thanks for your response Debbie. My deepest respect to you for your knowledge and interest in fearful dogs. I know for a fact that I would not have gotten so far with Gracie without your help.

  4. Nancy Aingworth on

    Great interview! I really appreciate learning more about Ali Brown, and I’ve added her books to my “To Read” list.

    By the way, Lizzie, I think it’s pretty common for a dog to act differently with men and women. Perhaps her harshest former treatment was delivered by a man (too typical, I’m afraid), and she’s generalized all men as bad and scary. Just a thought.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is so true that dogs are often more afraid of men than women, even if they never suffered at the hands of one. If a dog isn’t exposed to men early on and have good experiences with them, they will often find them hard to adjust to. Could be size, tone of voice, scent, etc. It’s a tough one to overcome and takes a dedicated fellow to put up with the process. It’s no fun having a dog afraid of you all the time.

  5. Groomers Dog on

    Look…Guest Blogger Ali Brown Author of Scaredy Dog!

  6. Regina on

    My dog seems to get more aggressive around men than women but his aggressiveness varies. If he likes a man than he’ll want to play “aggressively”, if he does like than he’ll bark and growl. With women, he’s much more gentle whether he likes them or not.

    I’ve always wondered about that because he’s been with me since he was 6 weeks old and has never been mistreated by anyone, man or woman. So why or how does he make that distinction is beyond me.

    By the way, I’ve already read a few of Ali Brown’s titles and enjoyed them tremendously.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading. Without seeing your dog in action it’s impossible to know what is going on. Some dogs are very vocal when they play, making sounds that we equate with aggression. But I’m not sure from your comment if that is what is happening. Did you mean that when he doesn’t like them he’ll bark and growl?

      One of the risks I try to avoid with Sunny, since it led to a bite, was getting him aroused around something that has the potential to scare him.

      You don’t say how old your dog is. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to being wary or easily startled.

  7. Ayodele Emmanuel on

    Would a fearful dog change when she becomes oldder. In nutshell, do they do away with fear when growing?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Depends on the dog and what they are afraid of and why they are afraid. People don’t necessarily ‘outgrow’ their fear of snakes or spiders or jumping out of planes. Unfortunately most dogs who display fearfulness when young, and are not handled properly end up becoming more fearful and often aggressive.

  8. Donna on

    I also have a Belgian Sheepdog who came to live with us when she was 6 months old. She was fairly quiet when new people would come to visit, don’t know if this was due to asking them not to make a big scene when they saw her or not. As she approached her 1st heat cycle she started to demonstrate fear of new people, unless they had a dog with them, then she would tolerate the person. Her fear was demonstrated with some serious barking and tail tucked. Unfortunately I missed the boat on different types of socializing with my girl Shiloh. She is wonderful once she has become familiar with a new person, however they can take several meetings and some tolerance of our guests.
    I have ordered the book Scaredy Dog! and am looking forward to learning more of what I can do with Shiloh and understand her body language, as I don’t want her fear to become aggression.
    My question is, if she did not demonstrate this behavior as a puppy will she be able to recover from this fear. Secondly is there a connection with having the dog spayed? Shiloh is due to be spayed right soon, she is currently 15 months old.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not sure if Ali will see your question, so I will respond. There is no way to know for sure what a dog can or cannot ‘recover’ from. By 6 months of age the sensitive period for social development has ended. There are no ‘do-overs’ when it comes to socialization and this may be more true for breeds of dogs who are already designed through breeding to be more sensitive of strangers. Dogs can however learn that they are safe and learn new skills. Ali’s book should help you come up with a plan.

  9. Donna on

    Thank you for responding so quickly! I came across your blog after getting my regular “Dogwise” emails and Ali’s book was one of the featured books and I decided to look her up. Interestingly she too was dealing with a Belgian Sheepdog.
    I have looked over more of your blog and see that you too have a book available through “Dogwise”. I don’t know if it’s weird for you but being that Shiloh’s fear seems to be of strangers (keeping in mind she does not bark if we are walking unless they were to approach her, invading her space, I tell them not to).
    What book(s) would you suggest may be the most benificial for our particular needs.
    I have currently been trying to allow the bark as an expression she is afraid and removing her until she seems to have relaxed then try to approach again. Removal may be required several times, until she is able to approach the person with more ease then be rewarded. Repeating steps as needed. Unfortunately, I don’t always do this well and maybe it’s not even the best way to go about it.

    Thanks again!

    • fearfuldogs on

      You might find the work that Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training is doing with BAT of interest.

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