Why Fear Is the Most Terrifying and Dangerous Doggy Behavior
Thank You Pet Product Marketing UK for the Photo
Fear is the most difficult behavior to help a dog with when working on behavior modification.
I would almost choose aggression over fear related behaviors.
And actually fear often leads to aggression.
Dogs have a very distinct fight or flight instinct that keeps them alive, so when a dog gets scared and he can’t get away his next reaction is often aggression. Sometimes severe debilitating aggression.
Regular aggression triggers can be more easily controlled, territorial behavior, dog aggression, even human aggression when there is no fear component.
Fear Makes Behavior Unreliable
Fear makes regular behavior unreliable, because you can have a seemingly normal dog aggress in a very short time.
And people think that they can overcome a dog’s fears simply by exposure.
Whereas sometimes this is true, most of the time it is more complicated than that, and people frequently misread fear behavior in dogs until it is too late and a bite has occurred.
Usually in order to find success, owners must employ desensitization tactics for more on desensitization click here
When it comes to humans 77% of people are bitten by dogs that they know (friend or family) and 50% of bites occur on the dog owner’s property click here for more information.
And, although those are some pretty impressive and disturbing statistics it is hard to say exactly what has caused the bites.
Dog Bites Can Be Complicated
Dog bites can be complicated generally because people have difficulty reading dog behavior, dogs are left unattended, and because of both of those people push dogs past their bite threshold.
So What Can You Do?
We need to learn to recognize fear in a dog’s behavior in order to make any kind of change!
- Dilated pupils
- Whale eye (seeing the whites around your dog’s iris which is the color of your dog’s eye)
- Stiffening or freezing in one position (may just be for a fraction of a second)
- Licking lips
- Ducking head or trying to take head away
- Trying to get away
- Pouncing or jumping
- Darting back and forth on leash
- Ears flat
- Tail tucked
- Bristling or hackling
- Pulling on the leash (forward or backward)
- Whining or screaming
- Lunging to bite
Usually you will see a variety of these signs in one dog, usually starting mildly with dilated pupils, staring, stiffening, trying to retreat or get away and then escalating to more aggression like barking, hackling, growling and lunging if the threat or trigger doesn’t go away.
The key to fear is not to stress your dog through all of these signs or into aggression at all.
Recognize his fear and GET HIM OUT of that situation!
Even if at the slightest sign, let’s say staring and stiffening, you remove him and he doesn’t move any further into discomfort what have you lost? Nothing!
But if you push him further, he learns to control his environment with aggression and fear. He learns that by growling, lunging, or snarling he can keep people or dogs at bay, which heightens his aggression the next time he is in a similar situation.
Let’s Talk About It
I have recently heard several people say things like “My dog was attacked 3 different times in the dog park, and now he is dog aggressive”
Or “My dog is scared of people, so we put a muzzle on him and take him to the park and usually he hides behind my legs, but recently he is getting really aggressive”
Now put yourself in these dog’s paws…
How would you like to get beat up and mugged each time you went to the local grocery store? After the first time you would probably be scared of being in that situation again, right?
After the 2nd time as a human, I bet you would decide to never go back to that store or that side of town and if forced and mugged a third time you would probably arm yourself and be aggressive too, wouldn’t you?
I feel sad for this dog, who was forced to interact with dogs (and he was probably showing signs of fear) and so the dogs around him took advantage of him over and over again; until he finally became aggressive and learned that was the only way he could keep himself safe…
What About That Second Dog
What is your worst fear?
- Buried alive?
- Being covered in spiders or snakes?
Now let’s say I bury you alive for a few hours, make you bungee jump, or cover you in spiders in a container…
Do you think that would magically cure you?
I personally have a fear of heights and I am not fond of spiders and I can tell you that forcing me off a building or into a box with spider is only going to heighten my fear!
And, the next time I see you or the person or therapist who is forcing me to do these things (called flooding) coming, I am likely to get aggressive. Chances are if I pull a knife or a gun and threaten to kill my therapist if he/she tries to do that again, will keep me from being put into that situation again.
You See Aggression Usually Works
Unfortunately, and fortunately aggression usually works.
Dogs learn, because we force them into uncomfortable situations, that aggression keeps their triggers or fears (other dogs and people) at bay.
And, so aggression can become a defense mechanism, because after all we are forcing them into fight or flight; especially when they are hiding or trying to get away and we are still forcing them to deal with something that is scaring them.
How To Help a Fearful or Even Fear Aggressive Dog
Recognize his triggers and KEEP THEM AWAY!
If he is afraid of people, dogs, kids etc. keep them away from him; at least until you can teach him appropriate coping mechanisms. This also builds his trust in you. If you keep forcing him, he has no trust that you will keep him safe.
Don’t expect him to JUST GET OVER IT; chances are he can’t. And, chances are you are going to have to spend his lifetime maintaining control and managing his fears.
Give him the gift of OBEDIENCE for more on that click this link! Dogs are not great multitaskers, which means he can’t give you eye contact and focus for more on that click here, while he is staring at other dogs or people.
He can’t give you push-ups, or execute other intricate commands while paying attention to his triggers! If he has a good background in obedience and enjoys performing his commands for you, then he will learn to ignore the things that once scared him because he trusts you (to keep his triggers at a distance; i.e. don’t let people pet him if he is afraid of people) while he obeys your every command.
Once his obedience is impeccable and he is listening 95% of the time slowly add distractions (that aren’t triggers for him and let him work through having distractions about).
Now To Desensitize Those Triggers
In order to desensitize successfully, you need to work at his pace.
Put aside any grandiose ideas that he will learn to “like” his trigger.
People want to think that their dog that is fearful of people will one day turn into a Golden Retriever who likes every person.
Or they want their dog aggressive dog to go to the dog park.
Understand that you may be in for a life of maintenance and controlling your dog and his environment. Chances are his fears will become more manageable but they will always be there, and he needs to trust you that you won’t put him into an uncomfortable or terrifying situation.
Once his obedience is nearly perfect he may move through doing obedience while his trigger is around fairly quickly.
First work at a great distance from his trigger so that he is showing no signs of stress or fear. If his pupils dilate or he stiffens or gets at all aggressive you are TOO CLOSE, move back.
As he is successful with is eye contact and focus (this command is essential), you may begin moving closer.
Be sure to always monitory his signs of stress and keep him safe.
You may need to leave certain situations if your dog becomes stressed.
Don’t think you can force him through faster, let him work at his pace so he builds confidence as his trust in you is growing.
And, always remember that even if you haven’t seen stress, fear or aggression in a long time, doesn’t mean that those feelings are gone.
It means that you have learned how to maintain him, and give him confidence in certain situations but don’t gamble by pushing him too far; or he is likely to revert back and bite.
Fear is more about maintenance than it is about totally getting over something.
After all, I am always going to hate spiders!
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.