FAQ: Help! The office dog is fear-aggressive toward men!

I recently got this email from a friend, and am re-printing it and my response with permission! (If you would like to email in for advice, you can reach me at jenna.b.mcdonald [at] gmail [dot] com. Including a video will get a much more specific response!)

Hey Jenna,

Here’s the breakdown on the office dog of incredible noisiness. He’s about 5/6 years old, debatable breed (picture attached), abused by men in his puppyhood, and adopted by Headbossman at around the age of 1 – 2 (ish). 


His major issue is fear, especially of men. He’ll bark uncontrollably at any man who comes into the office or walks by the office, even coworkers he’s known for months and years. The only men he’s comfortable with are Headbossman (who he’s super attached to and really clingy about), and me.


Some women he’ll freak out over, and some he’ll ignore. 


When he freaks out, he’ll do these little aborted lunges, sort of mock-charging the person who’s scaring him. If the person walks toward him, he’ll back up fast but keep barking the whole time. To my knowledge, he’s never snapped at or bitten anyone; I’ve never seen him snarl or be overtly aggressive, just noisy.


He’ll shut up when I yell at him, and he’ll kind of quasi shut up if Headbossman or Ladyboss (who he adores) yell at him. He spends a lot of his time in the office hiding under Ladyboss’s desk or headbossman’s desk. Sometimes he’ll just bark from under the desk. 


If we shut him up in a back office, he’ll bark and bark for hours. So that’s not at all effective. 


I can definitely get a squirt bottle, bully sticks, and walk him in the middle of the day. I’d really appreciate if you could give me a battle strategy, or he’s going to end up a casualty of war. >.>



Hopefully he hasn’t ended up a casualty of war yet! 😉

Okay, what you’re describing is fear aggression. I’m going to give you several scenarios at once.

First of all, everything we do with him we do as gently as possible. Very firm, very, VERY gentle. Dogs who are so fearful that they stop thinking and just start attacking everything (ie, are fear aggressive) have no confidence in themselves and no confidence or trust in the humans around them. It would be like living with grizzly bears. We want to convince him that you’re not a grizzly bear; you’re a dog in human skin. This means lots of encouragement and as gentle as possible corrections until he learns that you’re not going to attack and hurt him.

Next, walk him. When you walk a dog they start to trust you, they learn some basic rules, and best of all, they’re too tired to argue! A twenty minute walk every other day is enough. If he never gets walked, a ten minute walk every day is even better. (Since he isn’t your dog, this would have the added benefit of encouraging him to trust you. Training will be easier if he comes out from under Ladyboss’s desk.) Give him lots of treats and encouragement on his walk, so he looks to you for food and some rules. This is setting him up later, so he’ll look to you when men come in the office! Also give gentle (gentle!) tugs when he walks ahead, tugging straight up, until he drops back beside you. Be persistent; we’re nagging into good behavior, rather than demanding it right off.

When things are calm and quiet in the office, start calling him over and giving him treats. (My dogs LOVE “Canine Carry-Outs.” You can get them at Target or most pet stores, and break off little pieces.) If he won’t come out from Ladyboss’s desk at first (which is highly likely), just say his name to get his attention, and toss the treat toward him. Continue doing so, with a shorter toss each time, until he’ll come out and get it. This might take several days, with backsliding at first.That’s normal! What we’re doing here is teaching him to come to you. When you’re sure he’ll come for a treat, then start saying, “[Name], come,” as he’s coming toward you. (Make sure he’s actually going to come: we want to trick him into thinking he has to when you tell him, because he does it every time!)

The other thing you’re going to start at the same time is no more yelling. When a dog starts barking, and you yell, they think you’re barking too. It actually encourages the barking and carrying on. By the time you’re being forceful enough to break through his barking haze and make him realize you’re “barking” at him, you’re so forceful that he’s going to be afraid you’ll hurt him. (I am using “you” as a general term here.)

So, this is all set up. You can do set up and training at the same time. The more you do set up, the faster training will go.


There are a couple of things that would be easiest to solve the barking problem. One would be to use a squirt bottle. When he starts barking, don’t say anything, just lean under the desk and start squirting him. Squirt bottles are great because they startle dogs out of bad behaviors without causing stress or anxiety. Something about being squirted doesn’t tend to scare them or increase aggression, it just makes them go, “What the heck–?!” I suppose it would do the same thing to me! This is telling him, “Don’t be aggressive.” Once you’re breaking through the barking with a few squirts, use a noise just for him. It can be a command (“No barking”) or a noise (“Hssst!”) or anything else, but it needs to be something you can say in a deep, calm voice that is only for him. You say the noise and squirt at the same time; he should start pairing the two pretty quick, so that he stops barking when he hears that noise. Again, this is stopping the aggression. If your boss doesn’t want you squirting her dog, skip to the next step below. It will take a LOT longer to stop the barking, but it will work slowly but surely.

The next step is stopping the fear, so he doesn’t snap at someone, or have an unexpected outburst some day. To do that, we want to teach him to come to you for protection, and to be calm enough to realize men aren’t that bad.

To teach him to come to you for protection (or to get him to stop barking without a squirt bottle) it’s easiest to put a leash on him and let him drag it around. When he starts barking use your squirt bottle until he stops. (If you aren’t using a squirt bottle, just grab his leash.) Then grab his leash, say “come,” pull him to you, get his attention with a treat (put it practically on his nose, and when he starts to notice it draw it toward your face until he looks at you), give him the treat, and praise him for coming to you. DO NOT let the stranger pet him. Your job is to protect him!

If your boss doesn’t want you doing either of these, you can wait until he’s calmed enough to be thinking, THEN catch his attention (finger snapping is usually good), show him a treat, call him over, and give it to him while praising him for being quiet. As he starts to realize that he’s going to get a treat shortly after he stops barking, he’ll stop barking faster and faster, and soon when you see a guy coming to the door you can call the dog and give him a treat while the stranger comes in.

Now, when he starts calming down overall, what you’ll find is that a stranger comes in, he gets his treat, and then he goes and barks. This just means you need to keep giving him treats. It will give him something else to focus on other than the stranger coming in. He’s addicted to barking: he needs a distraction, and that’s food! If you stop, he’ll probably start growling and head over to bark. Call him back, praise him for coming, give him a treat when he looks at you. (Always treat while he’s looking at you: if you give him a treat while he’s staring at the stranger, you’re rewarding aggression!) This treat business gives him a chance to calm down long enough to realize that the stranger isn’t hurting him, and that he gets food when he sees strangers — always a plus! You can also give him bully sticks that are “special stranger” bully sticks: take it away when the men leave, so he associates getting his special treat only when there are strangers in the office. (Kongs with peanut butter are also good. Do not do this if he’s treat aggressive, or be prepared to squirt him to get it back.)

The other reason to work with treats after he’s stopped barking is because if he’s fear-aggressive, it’ll just come out some other way unless you give him an alternate option. His alternate option is to run away and hide, which we reward. That way, he’s not cowering under Ladyboss’s desk waiting for the next terror to strike and letting that fear build until he snaps at the next man who sits down in front of Ladyboss’s desk: he can act (run away) and be praised for it instead.

So, in short:

Start walking him to build trust and wear him out.

Stop yelling at him when men come in: he thinks you’re barking, too.

Teach him “come” by calling him and giving him a treat.

When men come in you can either:

1. Squirt him until he stops barking, then call him over — pulling on his leash if you need to — and reward his good bravery by protecting him and giving him a treat.

2. Just pull on his leash, protect him, give him a treat for coming.

3. Wait for him to calm enough to think again, call him over, give him a treat. Do so sooner as he starts to calm down faster.

I hope that helps! Figure it’ll take about two weeks to really be much better, down to a bark or two before he stops and runs to you (assuming you get a couple of guys in an average day). Let me know if anything needs clarification!Jenna

*Update: About a week later R emailed to let me know that though the Office Dog Of Incredible Noisiness hadn’t yet gotten brave, the barking was decreasing rapidly and he was starting to come to his name. Huzzah!


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