Aggression in Fearful Dogs- No Surprise Here

face of a mastiffThe older one gets the less in life seems to surprise us. One of the things that should be no surprise to any of us is for a fearful dog to behave aggressively. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to see in animal who is afraid, often terrified, for their life. Brains are designed so that if an animal is experiencing fear, behaving aggressively–as opposed to taking a deep breath and suggesting that other solutions to the current problem might exist–will happen quickly. It might save an animal’s life. Spend a few extra seconds not fighting back and you might be lunch.

One of the main goals for anyone working with a fearful dog is to never put the dog into situations in which aggression becomes necessary from the dog’s perspective. By keeping a dog feeling safe, however that needs to be sorted out for an individual dog, will help prevent the demonstration or escalation of aggressive behavior. If a dog is troubled by people coming into the house we can be proactive and put the dog away in another room where they are safe, have something yummy to chew, and the scary event can occur without any drama.

The next steps we take address how the dog feels about the scary event. We do this by using desensitization and counterconditioning. Change how the dog feels and you generally will see a change in how they behave. Counterconditioning is a straightforward process, but misunderstood enough that people, including dog trainers, get it wrong. Getting it wrong leads to the idea that it doesn’t work. And when this happens people move on to to less effective ways to work with fear based behavior challenges.

Simply put– when counterconditioning the scary thing comes to predict a wonderful thing. The appearance of the wonderful thing is only contingent on one thing, the awareness by the dog of the scary thing. The wonderful thing, usually food but toys and play can be used if a dog finds them wonderful, appear regardless of the dog’s behavior. We don’t want a dog going bonkers at the end of a leash or scurrying under a chair so we add in the desensitization piece which means we don’t expose them to the scary thing so much that they are too freaked out to eat or play. But even if the dog is behaving in ways we wish they wouldn’t the error was ours in that we over-exposed them to the trigger, but the wonderful thing MUST appear if the scary thing has. That’s it. This has to happen often enough for the dog to put two and two together. Or one and one in this case, scary thing leads to wonderful thing.

Concurrently we begin teaching a dog something else acceptable to us to do. We should take pains to make sure it’s acceptable to the dog too. Going and sitting in a crate when people come into the house can work for both the dog and the owner if the dog feels safe in their crate. Asking a dog to sit quietly while scary monsters pet them is not likely to be acceptable to the dog as much as it makes us feel accomplished and successful. The way we help dogs learn new behaviors and continue helping them learn to feel good about the scary stuff is by using positive reinforcement to train them. By running to their crate when guests show up a dog learns that a favorite delicacy is delivered. It’s worth running to their crate when company comes.

Many of us did not break the dogs we are living with, but we can put the pieces back together again. Keep them feeling safe, desensitize and counter condition to triggers and give them skills using good positive reinforcement training mechanics.

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3 comments so far

  1. Anu on

    I’m not sure if this experience is an example of counter conditioning. My Remy is afraid of strangers, unfamiliar places, and most new experiences.

    Remy’s most dramatic about-face happened with my sister’s visits. He was terrified of her even though she sat on the couch, didn’t look at him or engage him in any way.

    Over time Remy came out of his crate (which is in our bedroom) and into the living room. He started to look at my sister from a distance, and then gradually came closer and closer.

    As Remy made his very tentative way closer to my sister, I asked her to continue ignoring him – to let him initiate any interaction. It was enormously difficult for my tenderhearted sister to do so. But she did it. I even asked her not to mention Remy by name.

    Once Remy started coming within arm’s length of her, my sister started tossing him her homemade peanut butter dog treats. Remarkably, he ate those and kept coming closer to her. Any leftover treats I froze which Remy got only when my sister came over.

    After a full year of baby steps one day when my sister came over it was as if a switch went on in his head. My sister was no longer someone scary, and was in fact, a wonderful thing.

    Remy now LOVES her! When she comes over now he goes into his high speed, Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!, laps around the living room. Last time she was here he ran around the sofas 17 times before he settled right next to her – begging for her attention. Whether or not she has treats no difference to him. Remy just wants her to coo his name, pet him, and tell him what a good boy he is. He absolutely adores my sister. And so do I.

    I also believe that Remy’s success with my sister has made it easier for him to accept other new people. I’ve seen that happen with a new friend who is very dog savvy. Like my sister, she was 100% on board with my requests to ignore Remy initially. She also brought treats, but her trump card was one of her dogs she brought here for a play date. Remy loves other dogs and that was a big deal to him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What a good sister! Yes this is an example of desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s a fabulous example of how patience and respecting a dog’s limitations can build a foundation of trust that can allow fabulous things to be built on it.

      • Natasha on

        Wow, would that I had someone who would visit often enough. Great story.


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