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Fear-based aggression is a common canine behavioral trait that has evolved through the years in order to equip a dog better for self-defense.
Many people believe that fearfully aggressive dogs have had a brutal past of some sort, or suffered a traumatic event that has caused them to be wary of every new experience.
While this logic is indeed reasonable, many a time fear-based aggression develops not because something happened, but because something did NOT happen. That something may be anything from socialization and proper training to timely treatment, and mitigation of daily stress triggers.
Here, in this very write-up, we attempt to dispel any confusion that you may have about your fearfully aggressive dog and enlighten you on training, exercising, calming and treating fear aggression in dogs.
Most people think aggression is synonymous with dominance. This is because biologists and trainers have always believed that dogs display aggression for attaining the top status in their social hierarchy.
Fear aggression is however, much more common. Then again, there are varying degrees of fearful aggression. Not all aggressive dogs bite, some may only choose to bark or growl to ward off unfavorable situations. These dogs react inappropriately whenever they sense an intrusion to their privacy, or feel cornered by a threat to their existence.
Fearfulness in canines is a personality type that is the result of individual tendencies, specific breed tendencies, possible mistreatment/punishment or a definite lack of socialization during the crucial development stages in the maturation of a puppy.
More often than not, it is the combination of all of these factors. Then again, fear based aggression in dogs sometimes stems from genetic causes. In that case, the owner is left with little hope in way of complete treatment. With that said, therapy, proper training and a loving (but not smothering) attitude can go a long way in mellowing the dog considerably.
Alertness lies at the very heart of canine nature. As they mature, they learn to get wary of new experiences. This becomes first evident at around 7 months of age, or at the start of adolescence.
While it is quite possible to alter the behavior of the adult dog, the earlier the intervention begins, the more successful is the behavior modification program.
Before starting a walk through of the training and treatment methods, it is essential to keep one thing in mind: Whether your dog seems wary of strangers and avoids them silently, or takes it upon himself to drive off strangers with aggressive displays, the reason for his behavior is the same-fear.
Now that fear may either manifest itself as aggression, or simply lurk within the subconscious in a latent state.
As an owner, it is up to you to understand and monitor your dog for signs of fear.
Remember, aggression is a nervous reaction to fear, and a scared dog is just as unhealthy as a clinically ill one.
Before starting off with any training or treatment, understanding the common triggers of dog aggression is of paramount importance.
In general, the following things are unsettling to reactive dogs:
Once you have identified your dog’s triggers, you’ll be able to work within safe limits of his aggression. The ultimate goal is to move slowly yet steadily, so that with proper training and treatment, you never again have to see an aggressive display.
Another evident sign is if he turns to nip at the people crossing his path.
Fearful aggressive dogs commonly adopt body postures that signify fear while retreating, like cowering, baring teeth, licking lips, growling and snarling.
It is not uncommon for fearful dogs to inflict quick bites. Rather than an intention to cause physical harm, this is essentially done in order to eliminate the presence of the “threat”.
In this case, if your dog is cornered or fails to find an escape route, he may end up growling, snapping, lunging or even biting in an attempt to remove the threat.
Growling should never punished as that will only scare your dog further.
When you see him displaying few or all of the aforementioned signs of distress, you should protect him from the disturbing situation.
You can do this by stepping in between your dog and the threat, or increasing the distance between the two of them. Another good idea is to use a squirt bottle on the possible threat ( like an approaching angry dog) to ward off further advances.
Sharing your life with a fearfully aggressive dog can be extremely daunting. Believe it or not, your dog has been giving you enough signs to show that he’s uncomfortable.
When you suppress these warning signals by a stern command, or choose to ignore his growls, you’re actually intensifying that feeling of fear.
Probably the best way to nip it in the bud is by monitoring your dog for signs of discomfort and doing the needful to make him feel safe.
Most of these signs are subtle and easy to be missed.
In a dog fear aggression can be observed if he squints while looking in the direction of someone or something but without making eye-contact. This behavior should be considered abnormal.
Often when a dog is perturbed by the presence of a person, or a new smell, he’ll turn his entire body from the object of discomfort. In mild cases, a simple head turn is enough. Be wary of approaching your dog when he does this.
This is a quick action and may be often missed. A sudden lick of the nose that occurs intermittently means that something serious is annoying him.
A dog that has adopted the frozen posture with the back arched, body tensed and tail drooping downwards, is ready to defend himself.
It is unusual for dogs to walk slowly and deliberately and if that happens, understand that he is particularly cautious about something disturbing in his surrounding.
When he is sitting or lying down with his back facing you, or in addition to that, lifting one paw, then that means he’s feeling threatened.
Diet has a profound influence on a dog’s mood.
Over the years, inclusion of some key ingredients in the diet has shown to mellow down a dog and prevent him from reacting to regular stress elicitors.
You never know, maybe the type of food or the frequency at which you feed him is the actual trigger to his aggression.
As a starting point, it is good to experiment with various high-quality canine foods. However, this should be done only with vet assistance.
In addition to that, ensure to read the labelled ingredients properly: premium and super premium canine foods list out whole meat sources as their top three ingredients, apart from whole grains.
Also, ensure that the food you feed him is devoid of corn, by-products or artificial preservatives. Research suggests that these ingredients have a negative impact on dog behavior.
It is essential to keep in mind that although the prognosis is pretty good for most fear aggressive dogs, there isn’t any permanent cure for aggression. You can never ever change your dog’s behavior, because the basic nature of everyone remains the same.
After all, there are too many external and unknown factors influencing mood, behavior and emotion.
So while there isn’t any real cure for fear aggression, you can still employ a lot of positive triggers to manage the problem and create an environment for your dog that is safe, secure and clean.
In addition to that, training and socialization helps as well. Remember, a dog that is well-bred, well-fed, properly trained and loved will never find the need to get aggressive at every new person or animal.
A combination of human desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques form the cornerstones of treatment. Contact a qualified humane positive dog trainer to work with your dog and train him using humane desensitization techniques. These will serve to give him the confidence to cope up with fear, and vent out bottled up emotions of anxiety in a constructive direction.
Apart from relying on a trainer, there’s a simple way to help your dog on a day-to-day basis. All you have to do is find out what triggers the nervous reaction or fear from your dog. Once you have identified the trigger, eliminate it from your dog’s environment. This will keep him from showing aggression on a daily basis. Remember, less replay of aggressive behavior invariably means there is a greater chance of a permanent decline of that behavior.
Also, ensure to make your environment as normal and predictable as possible. Not many people know but fear aggressive dogs can get easily perturbed from everyday elicitors of stress. Some very common things that you do like banging the door loudly, scolding him, or feeding him unappetizing dog food, may be causing him stress daily.
Fear aggressive dogs hate surprises so keep your dog’s environment as calm as possible, at least until he finds it easier to adapt to new situations.
Before we start elaborating on the treatment plan for a fear aggressive dog, it is important to keep one thing in mind:
One very common mistake that most anxious dog owners do is punishing their dog for demonstrating aggressiveness.
Punishment is not a recommended component of any behavior modification program. Punishing fearful dogs physically or otherwise, is considered entirely inappropriate, and it’s not tough to understand why.
Dogs learn by association. So when you scold your fearful dog for being aggressive, you’re actually causing him to associate punishment with things he’s already very afraid/anxious about.
Thus, this will only end up reinforcing his fear that indeed “New people and new animals are threatening to me, because when they appear I get punished”.
The basic principle underpinning any treatment program is to desensitize the dog to new experiences. Simply put, the main premise is to convince him that strangers do good things to him!
The most effective treatments for fearfully aggressive dogs are classic conditioning, counter-conditioning, as well as systematic desensitization.
Desensitizing is the gradual exposure of a dog to a fear/anxiety-provoking object. The stimulus is given by following a spectrum, starting at the point where the stressor doesn’t provoke fear and slowly increasing the intensity of stimulus and exposure until the dog is relaxed.
Counter-conditioning is the process of linking a previously feared item with something that is highly pleasant, like a tasty treat.
Here is a relatable example of the counter-conditioning technique:
Suppose your dog has a tendency of getting overly aggressive towards others of his kin. To mitigate this issue, what you do is take him out for a walk.
As soon as he sees another dog, or if the latter comes face to face with him, simply stop, hold the leash firmly but don’t pull on it, and then coax him to feed on high-value treats like chicken, roast beef or cheese.
Continue this feeding until the other dog is out of sight. Once this happens, stop feeding your dog. With repetition, your fearful dog will learn to associate treats with the presence of other dogs. This way he’ll no longer feel scared/anxious when they approach him as his brain will have adapted to this positive association.
You can search for certified dog trainers or behaviorists to ensure that the timing of the positive reinforcements as well as duration of treatment sessions are accurate. In case his aggression is directed towards humans, you’ll definitely need to consult a professional dog trainer.
It takes a lot of time and patience to change a dog’s underlying emotional response, as this is something that’s ingrained in his nature. However, the above two methods form the basis of any treatment plan devised to control fear aggression.
Natural remedies like herbs, essential oils and floral essences have been effective in calming down excitable or aggressive dogs. These remedies are so potent that they can be used when other techniques of calming aggression have failed. In fact, they may be applied even in the heat of the moment to mellow him down instantly.
-Herbs: Calming herbs like chamomile or lemon balm have proven to be particularly effective in relaxing aggressive dogs. These herbs uplift his mood, making him feel safer and happier.
-Essential Oils: Apart from herbs, you can also use any of the following essential oils for making a calming blend:
You will need: 2 drops Roman Chamomile Apply 5-6 drops of this blend on a scarf and tie it as a girdle around your dog’s neck. Ideally, this scent will remain active for around 4 hours. Repeat this therapy daily till you notice a marked improvement in your dog’s behavior.
5 drops Lavender
5 drops Bergamot
3 drops Sweet Marjoram
1/2 oz base oil (e.g. jojoba oil, sweet almond oil or olive oil)
2 drops Roman Chamomile
Apply 5-6 drops of this blend on a scarf and tie it as a girdle around your dog’s neck. Ideally, this scent will remain active for around 4 hours.
Repeat this therapy daily till you notice a marked improvement in your dog’s behavior.
However, make sure that your dog approves of this blend. If the scent seems to confuse him, or irritate him, do not proceed. Stop right there.
If your dog allows, you can also apply this blend topically on him. Rub around 5 drops of the blend between your palms and apply it gently on the edge of his ears, under his arms, on his inner thighs, or between the toes.
Alternatively, you can use a diffuser and add 10 drops of the blend. Switch it on for about a minute or two with your dog in the same room. When practiced on a daily basis, this will calm him down greatly.
Rescue Remedy is another homeopathic calming aid that is made from Bach flower essences. It is used specifically for dealing with anxiety and stress. It is made especially for reactive dogs and is thus quite harmless. You can add four drops to his daily water intake for best results.
When it comes to grooming your aggressive dog, you can use many techniques to ensure that he remains calm during the process.
Fearfully aggressive dogs are naturally suspicious of grooming equipment and the process. And if he has had a bad experience with grooming before, there is even a greater chance that he’ll bite in self-defense.
Here are three ways to smooth out the rigors of the grooming process:
-Use A Dog Muzzle: Muzzles cover the mouth and nose of the dog, and prevents him from biting. It is an ideal solution for a grooming procedure that makes your dog snap. Usually combing the coat and trimming toenails may provoke aggressiveness in already fearful dogs.
You can choose simple nylon strap muzzles for your dog. All you have to do is slip it around his nose. Since the muzzles are padded, he won’t feel any discomfort.
Then there are muzzles that allow your dog to drink or eat while wearing the device. Whatever be the nature of muzzle you use, just make sure that it fit his head’s size so he gets enough room to breathe while wearing it.
Also, do not make him wear it for too long. Excessive restrain is the most surest trigger of aggression.
-Use Medication: Medication is not really a recommended way to restrain a dog but if you do opt for it, ensure to consult a vet to know about the side-effects of various drugs. Drugs like cloricalm and acepromazine are effective in calming down dogs. Some medications may have adverse effects on the animal. Therefore, it is recommended to use natural essences like essential oils or herbs.
-Opt for Mobile Grooming: Mobile grooming is beneficial because pet experiences less stress than when taken to a conventional groomer’s shop. A mobile grooming expert works on one pet at a time. Moreover, these people know how to calm down aggressive dogs and ease out all the hassles of regular grooming. They are the ultimately the only people to bank on if you’ve a difficult dog who has been banned from the local groom shops.
To wrap up, none of the aforementioned methods are a substitute for preparing and training your dog in advance for grooming. You can do this by understanding which aspect of the grooming process stresses him. For example, the buzzing of the electric clipper or the “click-click” noise of the nail-cutter may cause him to be wary of your actions. You can understand he is at discomfort if he tenses his muscles or avoids eye contact with you.
#1 – Regular Obedience Training:
Training enhances the communication and understanding between you and your dog. It also helps your dog learn acceptable behaviors and gradually refrain from displaying aggressiveness. Consider using reward-based training. This means giving your dog the things he loves, in exchange for doing what you want. This will go a long way in fostering trust and motivating your dog to behavior in a manner that you approve of. Additionally, include relaxation exercises in his daily routine, and respond to him when he calls you. Loosen his leash while walking.
#2 – Eye Contact:
Get your dog used to making eye contact with you and whenever he does so, reward him heavily for that. Convince him that this is a great thing. You can do this by holding up food in front of his face to get you to look at him and feel happy about it. Additionally, you can also play a game with briefly whenever he makes eye contact with you.
#3 – Target Training:
Teach your dog to touch your outstretched arm with his nose and when he does that, immediately say “yes/good” with a jovial expression and reward him. Extend your hand in all possible directions and distances so that he learns to go up, down, right and left to touch your hand. Practice training him to go through your legs, or jump up on the rear legs to touch your hand. This particular exercise is a great method of adapting your dog to human touch. So the next time when your guest extends their hand to say “hello”, he won’t see it as a sign of threat and start barking or try to bite.
#4 – Desensitizing to Touch:
Desensitize your dog to pats on shoulders and the top of the head. You can do this by specifically petting him on these areas while feeding. Initially, start feeding him before touching and then gradually feed and pet at the same time. Basically dogs find it rude when you pat them on their head. However, with the help of this exercise, you can always train your pet to respond well to such petting.
Socializing an adult dog that is fearfully aggressive is not an easy task.
Therefore, as a word of caution, this should be at the puppy stage itself. This keeps future development of fear or anxiousness at bay.
However, sometimes the dogs adopted from puppy mills or animal rescue centers often demonstrate aggressiveness from the puppy stage itself. In this case, there is no option but to socialize them at the grown-up level.
Here are five effective ways to socialize your adult aggressive dog:
#1 – The “Open Bar” Technique:
This is an exercise that involves classical conditioning as its basic principle. This is how it works:
For a particular period of time, you have to offer your dog positive reinforcements in the form of tasty treats, petting, praises and cheerful talk, as soon as he comes face to face with another dog. This “bar opening” is valid only in the presence of other dogs. Thus, as soon as the other dog leaves, the “bar” closes and you stop feeding him treats or talking to him cheerfully.
Behavioral scientists believe that this sort of a classical conditioning effect serves to create a positive association with other dogs. This technique is so powerful that it can actually override any form of undesirable attitude that has occurred initially towards the particular stimulus. If your dog is aggressive mainly in the presence of his conspecifics, then this technique can cause his aggression to fade in intensity with time.
#2 – Growl Classes:
This technique is based on the principle of desensitizing. The goal of growl classes is to gradually increase the exposure of your dog to his conspecifics (the gentle ones, not those that are just as aggressive as him. The more dogs he interacts with, the greater chance he will have to modify his behavior. What happens in growl classes is that a play group of friendly, confident and amicable dogs is introduced to an aggressive dog in order to kickstart a healthy interaction. Unfortunately, this sort of play group isn’t easy to replicate on an everyday basis. So the only other feasible way out is to enroll him for “growly dog classes”, devised especially for aggressive dogs.
The first session is a controlled one where small fenced area is prepared for each dog. For the first few weeks, the fences are covered with towels to preclude the dogs from making eye contact. After the second week, the towels are removed and by the fourth weeks, the dogs are allowed to wander around each other, albeit in muzzles. This way the dogs learn to stay in control when another of his kin runs up to him.
#3 – Adopting The Right Equipment & Attitude:
Proper equipment is the key to success. For any technique to work, dogs must be acclimated to wear muzzles for off-leash work, and head halters for on-leash activities. Owners must take care to prevent their dogs from getting overheated while using muzzles. Additionally, they should refrain from using choke chains or pinch collars.
Many people try to use corrective collars only to find their dog reacting even more aggressively than before.
In order to change this common scenario, owners should keep the leash short yet loose. It is advisable for them to massage their dogs and stay calm and controlled at stressful times. Owners who remain composed during outdoor activities are better able to understand their dog’s body language and observe the triggers of aggression.
Without special coaching, people are most likely to do the exact opposite, thus making matters worse.
For instance, if you respond to his aggressiveness by tugging on his leash, you’ll end up confirming his fear/perception of being leery of other dogs. Additionally, if you scold him loudly when he barks and lunges, your outrage will only fuel his tension. And if you keep on reprimanding and punishing him after he has calmed down, you’ll confuse him and make him stressed out of his surroundings. Since the punishment is coming a couple of minutes after his aggressive display, your dog will believe that he is receiving the punishment for calming down!
To put it simply, the right approach involves prevention and early intervention. Your dog must be prevented from demonstrating the problem behavior because each time he manages to express it successfully, it will heighten in intensity and what will follow next is a vicious cycle of stress elicitor–aggressive behavior.
Interventions may include using a block to prevent physical contact, moving in between to break up eye contact, or redirect forward movement. Additionally, it also helps to say something like “Gentle”, to open the mouth and relax jaws, or “Off: to back away. Another great idea is to offer treats to interrupt tense interactions.
Limit your corrections to gentle but firm, verbal reprimands, time-outs and/or withholding his favorite reward. With that said, it’s recommended to refrain from using these corrections if the dog responds to your initial cue.
#4 – Establish Repetitive Behavioral Patterns:
If your dog seems to regard every guest in your house as a threat, it is important to establish certain patterns of behavior. These are nothing but a series of actions that your dog can practice every time he’s in an uncomfortable situation.
For example, if he dislikes guests coming over to your place, this is what you can do:
The basic premise is to keep your dog busy with something elicits joy in him, and that too in the presence of guests. Additionally, you’re also giving him space. So your dog learns to associate space and joy with guests. Needless to say, he gets less fearful of them in the long run.
During socialization, do not coddle your dog for behaving shyly. Instead, let him approach new places and people at his own pace.
#1 – It is not tough to know how to approach an aggressive dog. Just make sure not to approach him directly, especially if he has no route of escape.
Instead, squat down and call him to you.
Do not make eye contact and turn your body sideways while you do so.
Outstretch your arms with your hand almost at ground level and palms open.
#2 – Do not disturb your aggressive dog when he’s sleeping.
If you do want to wake him up, be as gentle as possible.
Call him from a safe distance or whistle, while making comforting sounds.
#3 – Never pet him when he’s displaying aggression.
Don’t cajole him by saying “it is okay” or “don’t worry, carry on” in a soft calming tone.
Instead, just wait for him to calm down, and only after he relaxes, pat him and tell him that he is a good boy.
In case, the reaction is so intense that he refuses to relax, calmly move him away from the context and reward him after he calms down.
#4 – Never punish him physically or through harsh reprimanding.
This will only serve to confuse him further and end up damaging the bond you two share.
Remember, trust is the key to successfully treating a fearful dog.
#5 – Do not leave him around with children or guests.
Additionally, don’t allow them to approach your fearful dog.
Instead, encourage your dog to approach them, but ensure to do this only after you’ve told your guest to stand still and not show interest in him.
#1 – Ask your family to cooperate with you and help you avoid situations that intensify feelings of fear or anxiety in your dog.
This is not as easy as it seems. Many a time family members think they know the dog only to distress him further.
If your family is uncooperative, it’s best to confine your dog in a crate or place him in a different room altogether.
#2 – Put a bell on his collar. This way you’ll know where he is at all times of the day.
#3 – If you do wish to pet him after a display of aggression, do so under the chin and in the chest area, never on the back or top of the head.
#4 – Make his surroundings calm, quiet and predictable. Minimize sudden movements.
Aggressive dogs do have a tendency to bite. This is why it is important to stay guarded from unforeseen dog bites as you groom him, train him or be around him while he attempts to socialize.
Here are a few types of safety gear you can use to acclimate your dog and safeguard yourself during the treatment program:
-The Grooming Muzzle:
A groomer’s muzzle comes with an open end, that not only prevents your dog from biting you but also allows him to accept treats. To acclimatize your dog to the muzzle, let him wear it and then give him a few pieces of steak before taking it off. Repeat this pattern for a few days. This way, your dog will associate wearing a muzzle with positive reinforcements, and gradually learn to adapt to its usage.
-The Head Collar:
A head collar gives you tremendous control over your dog during the training session, and that too without causing him pain. On the other hand, choke collars are totally inappropriate for aggressive dogs. Even prong collars should be avoided as they inflict pain, causing the dog to associate pain with the stranger and thus de-stressing him even further. Never use shock collars on your dog.
There’s no one formula for curing fear aggression in dogs. Each dog has a different personality and has been through a different set of influences or stress triggers that have shaped their nature. With that said, it is still possible to manage this behavior with time, training and patience.
While aggression is quite normal in animals, if your pet seems inappropriately aggressive, then there may be an underlying health issue causing the aggression. Seek the expertise of a vet in that case.
Remember, the best way to treat an illness or a behavioral problem is by a proper prescription, not punishment. You need to treat the disease, not the symptoms.. change his behavior, not the bond you share with him.
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