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Is my dog really aggressive? Or could it be fear?

Updated: Jan 1, 2021


It's a common misconception that dogs show aggressive behaviors out of 'protective instinct' or to 'assert dominance.' And while this is the case in some scenarios, I don't see it very often.


Aggressive and even anxious behaviors are (almost always) created solely out of a fear based mentality. Not to say that some dogs aren't 'wired' wrong, or truly aggressive. It is very important to properly differentiate between true aggression, and being fearful.


Some aggressive or anxious behaviors I see are:


  • Barking

  • Snapping

  • Lunging

  • Biting

  • Pacing

  • Jumping

  • Whining

  • Scratching


Think of behavior as a ladder...

Fear over something -> rising anxiety-> fight, flight or fidgeting -> aggression/ lashing out.


For pets, and even humans!

 

Fear can arise from an endless amount of situations, events or triggers.


Some examples being:


  • Fireworks

  • Vacuum

  • Cars passing by

  • Bigger dogs barking

  • Leash pressure

  • Spacial pressure

  • Fear of food being taken

  • Fear of owners not returning when they leave


What is the common denominator? The UNKNOWN.


Dogs don't want to be aggressive.

They just don't always know the mail man is harmless, that the car will not run them over, that the bigger dog won't eat him, or that the scary thunder outside does not mean the world is exploding.


Some dogs are oversensitive, or have had bad experiences with the above named stimuli. One main reason, is lack of socialization as a puppy, or bad experiences with it all together.


Now, this does not mean the puppy didn't get to go to the dog park and play enough.

It means the dog was not EXPOSED to enough, and therefore becomes fearful of them.


95% of the time, there are signs given before an aggressive outburst.


  • Ears pulled back or perked up

  • Lip curl

  • Tail tucked

  • Side glance

  • Yawn

  • Lip lick

  • Showing teeth

  • Backing away

  • Stiffening body


All of these are WARNING signs, before an aggressive action, such as a bite.



The problem I have with some of today's training philosophies:

It is advised by some experts* to avoid the triggers all together... But Let's face it, is life EVER predictable?!


There is also an overwhelming trend to medicate pets who have shown aggressive, or anxious behaviors.


This is all very frustrating.


We need to teach our pets how to handle the trigger appropriately, and not completely go bonkers when someone comes to the door, when the vacuum starts, when a car passes by, or when a bigger dog barks at them.



But, it is also understood that even we humans have fear!



As far as dog ownership and problematic behaviors, a common fear that some owners and trainers hold, is that they are going to 'damage 'the dog, or 'hurt their feelings.'


Feeling sorry for the dog or babying them, only reassures them that the fear is okay and we need to be on the lookout. They can also sense our energy and body language, which can be a huge accompanying trigger that is not often acknowledged.


 

This is where we need to SHIFT our own mindset, to create better behavior in our dogs, and a better relationship overall. This is what I call the dog/ owner dynamic!


Having some outside perspective is of great help in achieving this, such as a professional trainer who is familiar with this type of work, while also having experience with various training styles.


Some examples of different training techniques used are:


  • Operant conditioning

  • Desensitizing

  • Confidence building

  • Expressing leadership (not dominance)

  • Creating firm boundaries


When my dog first showed fear of thunder storms, I walked her in the rain.

Every. Time.


Thunder? We went outside and walked.

Light rain? We went outside and walked.


Casual.

No treats (she wouldn't take them anyways), no baby voices saying "it's okay" and, no talking.


Just walking.


Sometimes I would stop, she would default to sit, and I would pat her head and say "Good" very calmly, then we would move on.


Eventually she learned storms weren't scary and we get to go for walks!


I even played storm sounds on YouTube inside for her some days.


 

There are MANY ways to approach different behaviors.. Various methods may work great in one dog, while they may be triggering to another dog.


For example: positive reinforcement with treats will do you no good with a highly food aggressive dog. The reward is far too valuable, and he does not have a clear, level head to hear the word "no" or "leave it."


And as stated above, some dogs do not take treats when they are overly afraid or scared, as was the case with my dog.


You will need to first create an entirely new state of mind, before introducing high value rewards.


Think of it as installing new hardware before the computer can run properly.


In any sense, a change in mindset is always a great baseline for training.


No matter the issue.


Calm the mind, and the dog can focus.


Once this is achieved and the dog is receptive to new information, we can begin to change the behavior, and even introduce more rewards.


The biggest reward for any dog, is INCLUSION.


Being able to:

  • Go for walks

  • Join the family BBQ

  • Play at the park

  • Not be in a kennel when guests visit the house

And even be off-leash to run and play!


 

*I attended a seminar which was lead by a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist... She insisted pets should NEVER be told no, and that the only way to stop behaviors is too completely avoid the trigger, or give enough treats that they eventually associate the trigger with a really positive reward. This can be VERY bad in some cases- dogs can learn that barking, jumping and growling actually GIVES them rewards, I have seen this first hand.. And it is hard to break!

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