Fear Aggression: What it is and What You Can Do About it

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by Cinda Bishop, Mucho Poocho Doggy Day School

Fear aggression is exactly what it sounds like. A dog becomes aggressive when he finds himself in a situation he perceives as something to be afraid of.  It doesn’t matter if the thing he fears is actually harmless, as long as he sees the item as something to be fearful of, there is a problem. Fear aggression is more often towards humans or other animals, but can be towards an inanimate object as well.

If you have a dog that you feel is fear aggressive, your first responsibility is to protect yourself and others from possible harm. This may include doing things like confining the dog in a crate or behind a gate when there is a possibility of a fearful situation arising. It may also mean using a head halter type collar and possibly even a muzzle when walking your dog. Remember though, these are just management tools. You have not solved the problem.  Management is not enough with a fear aggressive dog. It is a start, but training and behavior modification will also be required for the dog to overcome the fear. 

Where to start? 

First off, you need to be very aware of situations that make your dog fearful. What are her “triggers”? Can you tell by her body language when something is beginning to cause her fear or stress?  Does she pace, whine, pant or try to escape the area? Are her ears back? Is her tail tucked? The slightest change in her body language may be an indicator that she is becoming fearful. When at all possible, avoid placing the dog in a situation that you know triggers a fear response. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. This is where training and behavior modification come in. 

The first step is a thorough medical workup. You want to rule out any physical cause for the behavior before starting a training or behavior modification program.  If your dog has a problem with riding in the car, or with strangers, or with going to the vet’s office in general, make an appointment and talk to your vet first, before trying to take the dog in. It helps if you have a good relationship with your vet. You may need to arrange to be either the first or last appointment of the day to avoid meeting other people or animals in the lobby, or the vet may have a different entrance they would prefer you use. Be completely honest with your vet about your dog’s problems. If your dog has caused injury to any person or animal, or to herself, your vet needs to know this. 

Once you have ruled out any physical or medical cause, you can begin a training or behavior modification program. Do not attempt to do this on your own.  Seek the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist or a Certified Behavior Consultant. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) has a consultant locator on their website (www.IAABC.org ). This is an excellent place to start. 

What happens next?

Once you have found a consultant to work with, you will probably begin by filling out a detailed history report. Be as specific as you can, and again, be completely honest. Take your time filling out the paperwork, and if you don’t understand the questions, ask the consultant to clarify for you. You will be working very closely with this person, possibly for quite some time, as you learn to work with your dog. It is important that you develop a good working relationship with them, and that you feel comfortable with their methods and techniques.  The consultant will work with you to develop a behavior modification program.  He or she will probably outline a program of exercises for you to work on with your dog. It is important that you do the work as outlined. If you run into a problem, talk to your consultant, and they will help you work through it. 

Remember, this will take a considerable amount of time and commitment on your part. Your dog most likely didn’t get this way overnight and there is no “quick fix.” But you will find that with the right kind of training, and enough time and patience, you will see an improvement in your dog’s behavior.  There is nothing more rewarding than watching a fearful dog transform under your guidance into a happy confident companion.
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