How to deal with spooked, barking dog

Question:

Every once in a while on a walk, my dog gets spooked by someone and barks like crazy. There doesn't seem to be a common denominator — sometimes the person is male, sometimes female. Anything I can do to prevent this?

Answer:

When we attempt to alter behavior problems in dogs, what we do is look for the triggers that cause the dog to exhibit the behavior. The more predictable the trigger, the easier it is for us to change. When the trigger is not predictable, we have to take an alternate means of helping the dog.

Since your dog is getting “spooked” I would first want to know what “spooked” looks like. Observation and clear descriptors of body language is critical for us to better understand exactly what is going on.

For example, look at your dog when he is relaxed and happy. Then take a look at your dog when you feel he is spooked. What is different? Look at the tail, the fur on his back, his ears, his eyes, his gait. Listen for changes in vocalization or in his breathing. Some dogs pant and suddenly stop panting while others walk quietly and suddenly begin to pant. High pitched barks are different than low pitched barks.

Be aware that something is making your dog uncomfortable. It could be what the person is wearing, how the person is walking, where the person is looking, etc. Is there a certain time of day or in a certain area where the dog seems to spook more quickly? Some dogs spook more easily when one person appears, rather than in a busy town setting. All of these need to be evaluated as well.

In the meantime, I would suggest that you cross the street to give your dog more space between what is scaring him. You can try to get his attention by calling his name as soon as he looks at the person. Give him a treat for looking back at you and not vocalizing. If you do this frequently, your dog should anticipate the treat coming on the sight of the person and respond by giving you an automatic look.