Book Review: Scaredy Dog! by Ali Brown

Scaredy Dog: Understanding and Rehabilitating Your Reactive Dog

I’ll preface this review with the fact that I’m not really looking for what this book has to offer. Silas is not a reactive dog per se. Which isn’t denial on my part, or at least not entirely. I would say Silas is on the cusp of reactivity. For me, a truly reactive dog has a more universal pattern than Silas does.

So, I read books like this one looking for advice on reducing his general nervousness and predicting his behavior. I recognize how easy it would be for Silas to become a reactive dog, and I want to intervene in that process as early as possible.

I’m starting to get frustrated with what I’m coming to consider the core assumptions of advice about reactivity. These are 1) that your dog is willing or able to look to you for guidance in times of stress and 2) that your dog will take treats in times of stress. What makes me so frustrated about this is that a trained monkey could “solve” reactivity if this was true. You put dog in mildly stressful situation, dog checks in with you, dog gets a treat, dog learns scary thing is okay. Practice it enough, and you’re all done. Since lots and lots of serious, educated dog owners struggle with reactivity, it’s obvious that these assumptions aren’t true for a lot of us.

Sure enough, this book also hinges on those assumptions. I laughed and laughed and laughed when she told me not to let my dog out of the car at the park until he was able to check in with me for a treat. Instead, I should put him back in the car. Ali Brown obviously has no idea how hard I had to work to get poor terrified Silas up to the point that he would get out of the car without me picking him up and putting him on the ground. Putting him back in would be like the best reward ever. Way better than the chance at a measly turkey heart that he’s too stressed to eat anyway.

I’m willing to give any book like this some credit, though, because every dog reacts differently to different things. There’s no way one book can consider every scenario. And I do think that Brown’s treatment of canine stress is more nuanced than what I’ve seen. She recommends, for instance, that you give your dog a stress-free period, away from his triggers, before you begin any counterconditioning. This lets his stress hormones dissipate and gives him the best possible chance of success. I love this logic, although I struggle to apply it: Silas stresses about 26 things a day, on days when we don’t ever leave the house.

I also loved the fact that Brown discussed the relationship between food sensitivities and your dog’s behavior. Although it’s hard to remember the details of his past behavior now, I do remember being amazed at how much Silas calmed down when we got his stomach issues under control.

Bottom line: A good chunk of this book is a nice, solid, counterconditioning program. While I didn’t find it particularly useful in our circumstances, you might. The surrounding discussion of stress and the triggers for reactivity put this one ahead of its peers.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Scaredy Dog! by Ali Brown

  1. Delilah is reactive on certain occasions, I don’t think she is reacting out of fear. A book you might find helpful is Training Fearful Dogs by Debbie Jacobs, she also has a website, http://fearfuldogs.com/

    I got the book because Delilah was reacting, however after observing WHEN she reacts I’ve determined she is not fearful, she reacts to another dog’s energy. I think her philosophy is “I’ll get you before you get me.” I could be wrong too, I’m not a dog trainer nor am I a dog behavior specialist. Just a person who loves my dog and wants to see her succeed.

    As I know you are as well. Don’t give up, keep reading, you may find that in a year or so some of the techniques this writer offered will be better suited for where Silas is at in his training, the fact is that you are doing everything you can to help Silas. It is way more than some do. Take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back, you’re doing great!

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    1. Thanks for the link! A while back someone recommended a website to me, and I forgot the name of it. I think you might have “rediscovered” it for me.

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  2. Reactivity has so many causes and this type of counter-conditioning does work for some of them and not for others. Because I believe my dog’s reactivity is more frustration-based than fear-based, it was easier for us to get a handle on her behaviour once we finally knew what we were doing. I’m glad you were able to get some useful information out of the book anyway, even if it wasn’t perfect for Silas.

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    1. I honestly still struggle to pinpoint what sets Silas off, exactly. His only 100% consistent trigger seems to be being surprised. If he comes around a corner or out of a door and sees a person he didn’t expect, he will bark. Most, but not all, of the time he will react badly to a stranger moving quickly toward him (someone jogging, say, or a person reaching for him.) Some, but by no means all, of the time he does not like to be touched or petted by strangers, and he will make this decision *after* it seems like he’s going to be okay with that person. Sometimes people on the sidewalk bother him when we’re in the car, sometime they don’t.

      I try to manage all his interactions with people as carefully as I can, but he makes it tough. Thus far, thank goodness, he’s pretty good with dogs, although sometimes the dog’s people bother him.

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  3. This sounds like a great book! I wonder if I should get it for one of my library friends….she has a completely wacko 11 month Border Collie-Aussie mix who (in addition to needing more exercise and mental stimulation, in my opinion) will frequently go bark-bonkers at things that I think are scaring her, from the owner’s description. Unfortunately, it isn’t all the time. And it’s like flipping a switch. I talked to her a bit yesterday about threshold, and Look at That, so we’ll see if that little bit gets them on a better path.

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    1. Yes! Lots of the things that made this book less interesting for me would probably make it very, very helpful for someone like your friend. It also really does give the best “whole dog” picture of stress that I’ve read, including talking about adequate exercise, and how to do that with a dog that you can’t just walk around the block.

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