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Learn more about dogs and aggression

Aggression, like any other behavior problem, doesn’t happen because the dog is bad – or you are incompetent. Instead of blaming the dog, or you, for unacceptable behaviors, I see aggression as a cause and effect issue. The cause is not labelled as good or bad, but simply as the factual reason. That eliminates blame, guilt and emotion and allows to deal with it while in a more positive frame of mind.

The core of most aggressive actions are either based on fear and/or the dog is over-aroused. Except the rare, true alpha born dog (most dogs who are labelled as alphas are in fact genetically lower ranking, but forced into a leader position because their people fail to take charge), and the rare non-aroused predatory aggressive dog, all aggressive actions fall in either one of those categories.

When we picture fear aggression, we have this image of a cowering, flighty dog in mind, who lashes out only when cornered. The fact is that most offensive aggressive displays are also motivated by fear.

Fear based aggression means that the dog is worried about certain stimuli in the environment, for example children, dogs, men, uniforms, loud noises, horses, and so on. A dog can be fearful of many things, just like people are, and even if it seems irrational to us, it is very real for the dog. Fear is based on genetics, past frightening experiences (frightening from the dog’s point of view), lack of familiarizing the dog to the environment, or a combination of all three. Whenever the stimulus shows up, the dog expresses his worry in the only way he can, with barking, growling, lunging, pulling on the leash, and potentially biting if he is cornered.

Learn more about dogs and aggression

There are several non-threatening ways to deal with a fear aggressive dog. Controlling the environment, classical and operant conditioning, teaching new coping skills and establishing mindful leadership to the satisfaction of the dog usually lead to success. More detailed explanations of technical terms will be discussed in the dog tips line in the following weeks and months, but simplified it means: to not force the dog into situations that frighten him, instead socialize at the dog’s comfort level; to change the dog’s mind about the scary thing by combining it with a neutral and a desired reward; to be aware of inadvertent rewards the dog receives for aggressive displays (dog barks and lunges to make the person go away and the person actually leaves); and — to establish mindful leadership.

Fear aggressive expressions are always a sign that, in your dog’s mind, you are not a reliable leader she can trust to protect her. Ideally, and that is what you should aim for, the fearful dog should offer eye contact, connect to you and wait for your cue. At that point it is crucial that you have at least one solid command your dog obeys. That will help you to tell your dog what to do INSTEAD of freaking out. Sit, down, hand target, focus on a ball are examples of such command tools. Only if taught in a non-threatening way will your dog be able to obey without being even more stressed out.

Fear is a feeling of apprehension and worry in the presence of an environmental trigger. Fear is a normal part of social behavior and might even be a dominant gene in social animals, including humans. Therefore it is quite common and its expressions should never be punished, but gently modified.

Anxiety is a chronic and stress related feeling that does not need an environmental trigger. It is always present and more difficult, but not impossible, to change than fear aggression.

Fear in its most extreme form can be compared to a person who has post traumatic stress disorder.