Fear aggression

Fear aggression

Fear is the most difficult behaviour to help a dog with because it often leads to aggression.

Dogs have a very distinct flight or fight instinct that keeps them alive. When a dog gets scared and can’t escape, his next reaction is often aggression which makes his behaviour unpredictable. People frequently misread fear behaviour in dogs until it is too late and someone has been bitten. Stats tell us that 77% of people are bitten by dogs that they know (friends or family) and 50% of bites occur on the dog owner’s property.

Fearfulness in dogs is an imbalance. In the wild unstable dogs are forced out of the pack or killed.

Generally fearful dogs start off trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But when they are repeatedly confronted with what to them is scary, they quickly learn that barking, snapping or biting is the best defense to make ‘scary’ – people go away.

Unfortunately, their owners unwittingly can encourage nervousness or fear behaviour through a desire to make the dog feel more confident. They try to reassure their pet by soothing it by voice and by hand. We tell them there is “nothing to worry about.” This is exactly how we treat a frightened child. The trouble is that dog psychology is different to human psychology. Dogs invariably regard our soothing tones and gentle caress as praise i.e. “My humans agree with me.”

When another person recognises the dog’s unstable behaviour and stops whatever it was that triggered off the reaction, the dog receives two rewards for its unwanted behaviour. Firstly, the person backs away, stands still or stops doing what frightened the dog. Secondly, the owner rewards the dog by trying to calm and reassure him.

We should never punish fearfulness, but we must avoid rewarding it.

What are the signs of fear aggression?

Dogs that are fear aggressive will often adopt body postures that signal fear such as staring; cowering with the tail tucked;, trying to get away and then, feeling cornered, becoming more aggressive by barking, growling and lunging.

Dogs with fear aggression might retreat if someone approaches them but then might turn and nip at the person as they walk away.

Fearful dogs often inflict shallow, rapid bites aimed to remove the threat rather than causing serious physical harm.

The body language of fear

We need to learn to recognize fear in a dog’s behaviour in order to help him.

The solution to fear is not to stress your dog when you see these signs developing.

Recognize his fear and GET HIM OUT of that situation.

Turn away, take the leadership role and remove him from the discomfort. No touching, no talking, and no eye contact. No obedience or formal training. Let the dog come to you for affection only when called. When the dog comes to you uninvited you must simply ignore him. No reaction, touch or eye contact must be given. Otherwise, he will learn to control his environment with aggression and fear.

Aggression usually works

Dogs learn very quickly that aggression keeps other dogs and people at bay. Aggression can become a defense mechanism when they are in a fight or flight situation and have to deal with something that is scaring them.

Behaviour modification

The first thing to addressis the dog’s impulsivity (lack of impulse control) and his lack of ability to look to the owners for guidance. Dogs do things without thinking and evaluating the situation. They rush to do what they want and often react to a situation by jumping, whining, barking or lunging.

Give them the gift of LEADERSHIP and Obedience:  (Read “Becoming the Pack Leader.”)

In nearly all the fear biting cases I have had to deal with, I found the dogs to be stressed with tell-tale early greying around the muzzle, which is caused by stress. These dogs are generally well cared for and were somewhat spoilt before they became an embarrassment. Their human pack members did not show or maintain their leadership positions and the dogs gradually began to take charge. They want to protect their pack members but do not know how. The dog gets stressed by a stranger or dog and makes the wrong judgment to attack.

At my home visits I ask that all family members and workers who interact with the dog in any way attend the discussion. They need to know how to handle the situation and be aware of their “Area of influence” also called Critical Distance when the dog will obey them. The owners must invite/call the dog to them and never go to the dog to get control. This is vital with reformed biters!

They need to Learn to Earn i.e.dogs are required to automatically say “Please” by sitting for everything they want – every bit of kibble/pellets, petting, praise, attention, getting their leash on, going out the door. Dogs soon learn that they can get what they want if they ask politely by sitting and looking at their owners for permission.

Further treatment of fear

One approach is to train the dog to associate unfamiliar people with good things in a systematic and graded manner.  It involves exposing the dog to the fear-inducing “stimulus” at a level where he barely responds and keeping him in a positive state (instead of a fearful state) by giving him things he likes such as food or toys. The aim is that, as the people who might be experienced as threatening approach he is kept in a happy emotional state in order to associate scary situations in a more positive emotional state permanently.

People sometimes try this method and have only partial success because they omit a few vital points.

  • To stay below the level of fear the visitor must pretend that the dog does not exist. That is, stand sideways to the pet and look away as if the visitor is actually ignoring the dog.
  • The food or toy must be given immediately and throughout the visit so that the dog does not have time to become scared.
  • Treats must be given until the dog decides the scary person is safe. This may take a few minutes or several visits.
  • The visitor must not move too quickly or in a threatening manner since this can make the dog react defensively.

Manage Fear with pre-planned exercises

If the dog fears visitors coming to the house then the following can be done when they arrive.

  • Take the dog on leash outside to see the guest.
  • Have the guest stand sideways to you and ask them to ignore the dog.
  • Go for a short walk down the road together, but the guest must not engage with the dog at all.
  • Return to the house and get the dog to lie down before the guest enters.
  • Give the dog his Kong or a treat or a toy.
  • Chat with your guest while the dog is chewing and becoming relaxed while the visitor is in the room.
  • Repeat this ritual with friends and neighbours until the dog gets used to guests entering and he sees it as a good thing.

Once the fear subsides it is no longer necessary to first go for a walk with the dog. In order to desensitise successfully, you need to work at the dog’s pace. Put aside any grand ideas that the dog will learn to “like” what he fears.

Can I cure my dog’s fear aggression?

The prognosis for overcoming fear aggression is very good but there is no ‘cure’ for fear aggression. Similarly some humans have a fear of heights, snakes or spiders etc. that will be with them for a lifetime. They mostly have learnt to manage that problem and in the same way we must help our dogs to deal with what they previously found scary. With the right approach we can help them to manage their fear.