Canine Aggression Series: Fear Aggression

In this series we go over the types of aggression, including causes and possible treatments.
FEAR AGGRESSION: A fear-aggressive dog shows physiologic signs of fear along with aggression. A fearful dog may appear generally insecure and give off signals like cowering, shaking, or averting is eyes. Owners may describe their dog as “skittish,” “nervous,” or “snapping at people.” Not all fearful dogs are aggressive. There are different thresholds for when a dog will become aggressive towards different stimuli. For some fearful dogs, avoidance and ‘shutting down’ is their response when afraid. Others may become defensive: growling, snarling, lunging, or biting. Fear-aggressive dogs may appear worse when they are confined, such as in a crate, in their home, or on a leash. When a dog is confined by a leash, his option to flee is limited, so he may become defensive out of fear- towards other dogs or towards people. To work with a fearful animal, a trainer must be very skilled at reading the dogs body language and signals. Causes of fear aggression can include genetics (one or both parents may have been fearful dogs), experiences in early puppyhood, and lack of socialization and training. If you have a fearful dog, realize that it may be strongly genetic, as fear is a hardwired response in animals.
TREATMENT FOR FEAR AGGRESSION: A fearful dog does the best with a patient and confident trainer who can make them feel safe and give them guidance. We want to teach the dog to defer back to us for guidance in situations where he is unsure. As dog trainers, we don’t want to associate punishment with something the dog is already afraid of, example “I am already scared of dogs, and now every time a dog comes around I get punished.” We want to make a good association of “Every time a dog comes around, good things happen!” This is “counter-conditioning.” You play a big part in your dogs behavior and training. It is important to not reinforce your dogs fear through trying to comfort them when they are displaying aggression (growling, snapping, lunging), which can be taken as praise for that behavior. To counter-condition, praise and reward must come before the dog shows aggression, and the training plan should use a desensitizing technique along with counter-conditioning. First and foremost, you will need a strong and reliable foundation of obedience so you can have control, including sit, down, sit-stays and down-stays. Obedience gives your dog something else to focus on.  Your dog should be getting about 30 minutes of exercise per day along with his obedience lessons. Anxiety medication may also be recommended through your veterinarian, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), amitriptyline, or clomipramine.
TRIGGERS FOR FEAR OR AGGRESSION: Before beginning training, you will make a list of all your dogs triggers, then we will address them through training. Sometimes you will never know why your dog is afraid of a certain thing, there is no reason that we can explain as humans, because we cannot see through the animals eyes.  We cannot see things or understand things the same way they do.  Triggers are anything your dog is afraid of, here are a few common ones:

  • Children: Their movements are more erratic than adults, they make different noises, and they are often more unpredictable in movement and have a higher pitched voice. Maybe your dog was not socialized to children at a young age, or was teased by a child or touched in a way that was uncomfortable.
  • Dogs:  Maybe it’s large dogs, maybe small.  Your dog may not have been socialized to other dogs or may have been attacked.
  • Men: Males are often a trigger because they have a larger stature and a deeper or raspier voice. Your dog may have been abused by a man, but this is not always the case. Even dogs who have never been mistreated can be fearful of men just by simply not being exposed to them enough. Try having special treats at the door every time a man comes over to toss for the dog, but do not force the situation. At Dynamic Dogs Chicago, our male trainers work with the fearful dogs as well, as it’s important for that bond to develop. Once taught how to handle a situation, your dog will benefit from socialization to additional men.
  • People in uniform: Dogs develop fears to people in uniforms by generalizing. This means they initially see a “scary” person, let’s say the mail carrier, who comes “intruding” onto their property every day wearing a uniform, or the UPS delivery person carrying large boxes. They generalize that fear response to everyone wearing uniforms.
  • Elderly or disabled individuals: Remember, a fearful dog is afraid of novel things and situations. People who use a mobility device like a wheelchair or walker may not be something the dog is used to. Older people move differently, they may walk slower or limp, and that causes the dog to think there is something different (and therefore potentially scary) about them.

PRECAUTIONS: Safety is a top priority when working with a fearful or aggressive dog. Do not try to force or lure your dog into an uncomfortable situation. If you are passing children on the sidewalk, for example, you may want to make a u-turn or have your dog walk on the other side. It is not worth the risk of potentially putting anyone in danger.  Do not act nervous or anxious, or your dog will pick up on that. Saying “its ok, its ok” may make your dog even more nervous, because he is picking up on your insecurity.   Be calm and confident at all times, and be up-beat while you are turning away to walk in another direction, do not jerk your dog away. Behavior triggers should be addressed with the supervision of a dog training professional.

One thought on “Canine Aggression Series: Fear Aggression”

  1. I have a rescue dog for 3 yr that is still showing spontaneous agression with men and sudden movements. I have used Bark Busters but have been unsuccessful in consistent behavior. My dog can be in someone’s lap one moment and biting their leg the next moment if they move or get up too suddenly, especially with men. I would be interested in hearing about your training methods. Thank you. Kelsey Caulkins

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