Is My Dog Aggressive or is He Just Afraid?
I am asked this question fairly often.
Most people opt to thinking that their dog is afraid.
It is a lot easier for most people to think that their dog is afraid, or fearful, than to curse him with the connotations of being “aggressive”.
For most people, “aggressive” is a horrible four letter word (okay, so it isn’t a four letter word) 😉 ha ha.
Interestingly We Don’t Feel the Same About People
When people describe each other as “aggressive”, we often liken that to being a go-getter, or someone who takes no flak from anyone else.
It’s like we recognize that people can be aggressive, and yet, in control of themselves in most situations, but we can’t fathom using that word for dogs.
Aggression means that the dog wants to eat humans, dogs, and everything that moves and catch nails from a nail gun with its teeth.
Most dogs don’t suffer from that kind of extreme aggression.
Interestingly, as with humans, dog aggression only displays in certain situations.
I challenge us all to get over the myths and horrors of the word, and embrace it when it fits.
I suppose both of my dogs can be considered aggressive in certain situations, but it isn’t something that most people can see because I have such great control.
It is important to understand that fear leads to aggression in the large majority of dogs.
Fear is well known for leading to “fight or flight”.
And, when you take away “flight”, or running away, you force fight, or aggression.
Meaning, if your dog ever tries to get away from you, or someone else, allow him space and don’t force him!
The Rare Unicorn
In very few situations, I have seen completely terrified dogs entirely shut down emotionally.
Instead of trying to run away, or trying to rip your throat out, they become like statues.
I have always thought that perhaps mentally they shut down and try and find their happy place while the trauma goes on around them.
I think of it as the children we hear about who are abused and do the same; they completely shut down and even sometimes have no recollection of what happened.
Some invent multiple personalities to deal with fear and trauma.
One of my training clients has a dog like this, and when she would come into the veterinary hospital, she would just freeze.
She wouldn’t try and get away, or aggress, she would simply become like a statue.
It didn’t matter what we were doing, blood draw, anal glands, vaccinations, or prepping for her spay, she always stayed completely still with no emotion.
My heart hurt for her.
I was glad that she wasn’t aggressive, but her fear was almost palpable.
I am still her dog trainer, and I am still very aware that her fear may some day turn to aggression.
There Are Very Few Dogs Like This
There are very few like the aforementioned dog.
Most dogs in a state of fear, and when pushed, will aggress.
And, it is very difficult to tell when a fearful dog will break.
I would take a blatantly aggressive dog any day, over a fearful dog.
A fearful dog may not bite me, but I will have a fraction of a second of warning before the bite happens.
An aggressive dog is already telling me what his intentions are through vocalizations and body language.
Often They are Synonymous
Often fear and aggression are synonymous when we are talking about dogs (and many other animals), because the transition from one to another is so fast.
So even if you think he is just afraid, chances are he is very near his bite threshold.
All Dogs Have a “Bite Threshold”
This is the lowest level at which the distraction, or trigger, is noticed. The dog may or may not even be stressed.
This is the level where the distraction or trigger is not only detected, but it is recognized by the dog.
This is probably when you lose the dog’s attention.
This is also typically the beginning of the display of his fear.
Losing attention denotes stress; even if it looks like the dog is just excitable, his stress level has risen and this should be taken into account during his training.
This is the level at which an increase in the detected stimulus blatantly shows.
This is when the dog begins to stare, freeze, pull, jump, bark ,or possibly growl, or denote other forms of aggression.
Fearful dogs may run backwards, yodel, scream, or dash back and forth; they may also show overt signs of aggression, like growling or lunging.
This is when the stress becomes overwhelming for the dog.
This is the level beyond which the stimulus is tolerated.
This is when the bite has or is about to happen.
Your dog or “the dog” has given multiple forms of warning and stress that have been ignored (lip licking, head ducking, yawning, barking, growling, freezing, hard pupils).
Just because your dog is fearful, doesn’t mean he won’t bite.
Actually, he is likely to reach his bite threshold faster, and bite harder than the average dog, because fear is difficult for a dog to learn to control.
Don’t Fall Prey
Don’t fall prey to the old phrase “but he has never bitten”.
I can’t tell you how often I have heard this phrase, then the dog bites.
It is as if the owner is ignoring all the signs and simply WAITING for the worst case scenario: the bite!
Once a dog has bitten, animal control can force it to be euthanized.
It may never have another chance.
Take his behavior seriously prior to a bite.
Once you can grasp that your dog has fear and perhaps aggression issues, it isn’t difficult to control the dog once you make a pact with yourself that you will make a change.
You will learn to control his environment and keep him, and others, safe.
And, you will spend mere minutes a day increasing his confidence and giving him coping mechanisms.
Eventually, you will have so much control over the dog that no one else will recognize his levels of stress and you will know just how to deal with them effectively.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.