Talk with Tina: Tips on helping your dog overcome fear and aggression

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Written by: Tina Thurston

As the owner and trainer at By Your Side Dog Training, I have found that fear aggression in dogs is a very common problem and can range from fear of other dogs, to cars, to vacuum cleaners, even to having their nails cut. This can be caused by something particular scaring your dog, and also by you, the owner, not using proper techniques to train your dog to grow accustomed to these sources of fear.

My own dog, Nelly, came to the local animal shelter at three months old– not socialized, and terrified of every movement. I spent countless hours sitting on the floor of the kennel, motionless, not even looking at her, waiting for her to come to me. After a few days when she finally came over to investigate, I would very slowly reach out and touch her, gently. We did that for a few more days, and when she was used to being touched, I was able to start talking, giving her quiet but positive encouragement, so she knew it was a good thing. She did not show any aggression, but the signs of fear were there. If I had not approached this situation properly, she may have become aggressive. She is 6 years old now, and there is nothing she likes more than sitting between my legs for a good scratch.

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The main types of aggression are dominant and fear based aggression.

Dominant aggression is mainly caused by a problem with the dog’s understanding of hierarchy. Someone (the owner), is not taking the position of leader. Therefore, the dog feels that they need to assume that role. Aggression from the dog, in this instance, is simply them telling us that they are the boss: one leader, and his followers—the way of a pack. This is what causes the majority of problems in the home, and can branch out to the dog being aggressive towards their owners, family, guests, household space, toys and food.

Fear based aggression, on the other hand, is caused by something that has happened to make the dog afraid and often stems from his insecurities. In this instance, he is acting to protect himself. If we look at humans, this behaviour seems quite rational. For example, someone who has had their house broken into might sleep with a baseball bat beside their bed. This does not make them a bad person for wanting to hit the intruder but, rather, indicates that they are trying to look out for their own well-being. Fear aggression is mainly caused by a proper lack of socializing and conditioning when the dog is young. This (or having been attacked) is also what causes a lot of dog-on-dog fights, as they have never learned how to properly meet other dogs.

Some signs of fear based aggression are:  

  • Cowering/trying to look small
  • Ears back
  • Tail between their legs
  • Showing teeth
  • Growling
  • Snapping or biting

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All types of aggression can be fixed with time, patience, and careful training.

Here are some quick tips to start helping your dog if you are experiencing any type of fear based aggression from them. As aggression is a very sensitive thing to work on, it is always helpful to get them used to a muzzle, just to protect you and any other people or animals involved. One important thing to remember: never baby the dog when he is showing signs of fear OR aggression. That will only encourage the behaviour and cause it to escalate.

  • Exercise. Exercise is the number one step I advise when a client is working to fix any sort of aggression or problem behaviour. Often times, dogs simply have built up energy that they need to get rid of. If your dog is afraid of other dogs: try taking it for a hike in the woods, or walking it somewhere else that there are not many dogs. Make sure the dog is tired before you do any training, as they will be less likely to fight.
  • Working on obedience training is always recommended as it builds up your dog’s confidence, and re-establishes your role as pack leader.
  • When working with fear based aggression, it is important to not use corrections. A simple “ah ah” will do, but nothing extreme like pennies in a can or a spray bottle. This will frighten your dog more and make them react, when the result we are trying to achieve is to desensitize them. The key is to not do too much too soon.
  • Reward your dog for the behaviour you want. Start far away from the trigger. Use a positive voice and treats, to have them keep all their attention on you and not on the trigger. So long as they are paying attention to you, they get rewarded. Once you have good attention from them, gradually move closer to the trigger. Keep in mind that if your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, that you make sure you use a calm submissive dog to work with. *It is best to contact a professional dog trainer if this is your issue.   
  • Do not work on this kind of training for more than 10 minutes at a time.

Listed above are just some quick tips to start fixing fear based aggression. Please consult a professional dog trainer to work with you and your dog to ensure techniques are applied properly to get the ultimate results.

Your job as the owner is to protect your dog from danger. Your dog may start to use aggression when they feel they need to protect themselves. Dogs are not aggressive just for fun! Always pay attention to what is going on around you and your dog.

For more information about Tina Thurston and By Your Side Dog Training, including information on the classes offered, or to address a behavioural problem, please visit: www.byyoursidedogs.com or send an email to: tinat@byyoursidedogs.com  

To request a future topic to be covered by Tina on the blog, please send your email request to give-a-dog-a-bone@outlook.com

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