Fearful And Aggressive Dog Behavior – Phoenix Scottsdale AZ Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
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aggressive dog

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Fearful Dog, Aggressive Dog: What we think should be threatening to a dog, and what a DOG considers threatening, can often be two very different concepts! I have heard many people say, “my dog is afraid of other dogs, people, other animals, etc. and becomes defensive, what should I do?” The first thing to do is evaluate the dog. The second is to know what to look for – is the dog fearful, aggressive or some of both? And then the third is to propose a plan for helping the dog deal with those situations, either by making the dog feel differently, or teaching the dog control exercises so that the dog can be managed in those situations.

Every dog has its insecurities, which cause it to become a Fearful Dog, Aggressive Dog. Similarly, every dog also has things and social situations that it feels it must defend, and will get aggressive to do it. Fearful and Aggressive responses (Growling, barking, and biting) are behaviors that result when a dog feels threatened. A fearful or defensive dog isn’t the same as a reactive dog. Reactivity is a measurement of a dog’s propensity to respond to stimuli of any sort. I hate it when dog trainers use the word, reactive, improperly. We should instead be talking about stimulus thresholds. The higher the threshold, the more it takes to get a set of these behaviors to activate. The lower the threshold, the less it takes to get a set of these behaviors to activate. Thresholds can be manipulated. What the dog does when the threshold is crossed can also be manipulated through training.

The threat is the trigger that sets off the fearful, aggressive or defensively aggressive behaviors and attitudes. If a dog becomes insecure or fearful, it has three options: not knowing what to do and just getting stressed out, running away, or if cornered going forward to attack. Similarly, if a dog is threatened in a manner that doesn’t evoke fear, an aggressive response is activated, the dog also has two options: getting stressed out or going forward to attack. A dog can be both fearful and aggressive at the same time. We call that defensive aggression. A good dog behaviorist can distinguish these differing mood states and their intensities, which combine an increasing readiness to flee with an increasing readiness to fight.

I recently evaluated an abused dog that was fearful of strangers. It would panic and try to run away when I approached. For this dog, the safest strategy was to get away from unknown people, but we had to have it on a leash to evaluate the situation. The dog was so panicked that it tried to bite through its leash and could easily have hurt itself if it had gotten loose. Just me being there shouldn’t have made a well-adjusted dog react that way, but this wasn’t a well-adjusted dog. If at all possible, a dog that is solely motivated by fear, will try to escape. If the dog is incapable of escape (which is why the dog started biting the leash. I’ve even seen dogs bite their owners in such instances; the owner then drops the leash and the dog runs away), it will attack (if I had cornered the dog). Fearful attacks are the most ferocious of all since all dogs are going to put everything they have into surviving what they perceive to be a life threatening situation. A dog can be fearful even if the other animal, person or dog is acting in what would be considered a harmless manner.

If a dog is in an aggressive mood, and decides to attack, then the only way that safety is obtained in the dog’s mind is when the attacker exhibits avoidance behaviors. That is, the perceived attacker is made afraid, defeated and/or lying on the ground or running away. In other words, all those stimuli that set off the attacking dog are somehow turned off or away. Aggression is more of a response to social situations, an interaction between two or more individuals. Thus, we might see two intact male dogs fight if a female dog is in heat nearby. Neither dog is afraid, but they will compete for the female, and fight it out. Once the fight starts, then fear intensifies the fight and it goes to the next level of intensity.

Defensive behaviors are considered the result of a dog’s Defense Drive. Defense Drive is a dog’s propensity to react with aggression to a perceived or actual threat and socially offensive behavior. So, defensive aggression combines the two elements. There is something about the encounter that worries the dog, but the dog can’t leave the situation, such as when an intruder enters into the dog’s territory. When a dog is afraid, it might also react with biting and threatening gestures towards a perceived or actual threat, but there is not necessarily a social offense. Even though these seem the same thing, they are quite different. I can tell the difference, because I am an experienced dog trainer and behaviorist. Regardless, if a dog is threatened, it has a good probability of threatening back or even attacking.

So, what is threatening to a dog? Here are some examples:

Pain is a primary stimulus for aggression. We test pain sensitivity in puppies, not to see how good of a sense of touch they have, but to try and predict if (and on what parts of the body) the adult dog will feel threatened if touched or is in moderate pain. A dog with very low pain sensitivity, for this definition and purpose, is one that will be more likely to resort to biting if something hurts. You should never place a dog with low pain sensitivity in a home with small children, since kids are more likely to touch and pinch and pull and prod at a dog than most adults would. Also, dogs that are sick or injured are more likely to act aggressively, which is why I always recommend a complete veterinarian checkup when I suspect a dog isn’t well.

Have you ever wondered why some dogs growl when you play tug of war, or when you try to take a toy or some food away from them? The dog is playing. When dogs play, they usually pretend they are hunting, fighting or copulating. So, when most dogs are playing tug of war, all that noise making is just play and not anything to worry about. On the other hand, if the situation appears to be an issue of survival to the dog, and not a game, such as taking away a favorite toy or the food bowl, some dogs become aggressive. Knowing the solution separates the “real” trainer/ behaviorists from the rest that just pretend to know what is going on. If you have a dog that growls when you try to take a toy or food from them, it is a good idea to have that dog evaluated. In some cases, this is a serious problem. In others, it is not.

Many dogs are offended when strangers approach the children of the family or chase one of the other pets in the household. There was a highly publicized dog-biting incident in Seattle in which a youngster was attacked when the child chased a small dog at a park, and a Rottweiler apparently came to the defense of the smaller dog. I believe that this was a classic case of Sexual Defensive behavior. Sometimes if one dog is threatened, the other dog might feel threatened as well and come to its aid and attack.

We all know that it is dangerous to enter a property that is being guarded by a dog. The territorially defensive dog feels threatened when a stranger enters into its territory and/or invades the dogs personal space. Fearful dogs also appear to be territorial, and will feel threatened when someone enters their property, but will run away if there isn’t a fence. Dogs chained out in their own yard are extremely dangerous if threatened since they have no way to get away from an intruder, and many children have been mauled as a result.

What we often don’t recognize is that dogs feel threatened in many more circumstances than just when we enter onto someone’s property.

It isn’t wise to go pet someone’s dog, and invade that dog’s personal space, without first checking with the owner to know if it is safe, and even then you are still taking a risk of being bitten. When I first evaluate or work with a dog, I let the dog prove to me that it is safe to handle since I know how dangerous it can be to threaten a dog’s personal space. In addition, some dogs will see their surroundings as territory after they have been in them for a very short while. I’ve worked with dogs that thought that a whole neighborhood was theirs. Other dogs can quickly make a new crate into territory, and then it isn’t safe to reach in and take them out. I’ve also seen dogs that will take up territory within the home or car and guard parts of it against the family: for example, guarding a hallway, kitchen, or bedroom, or even the back seat of a car.

Generally, when a dog is fearful or unsure, the dog will try to get away from the situation. But, here’s where a dog’s other drives come into play. If a dog is just fearful, then the dog will usually try to avoid the situation altogether. However, if you corner a fearful dog, and don’t give it any way out, it might attack forward. When a dog feels threatened but is not afraid, it will usually try to act threatening as well, and if the threat becomes greater or won’t go away, might attack forward.

A dog can be cornered either physically or psychologically. You can physically corner a dog by chasing after it and backing it into a physical barrier that prevents escape. In a similar way, a fearful dog can be tied to a situation if it is attracted to a location or object or person. For example, if a dog is afraid, but is on its territory, then there’s nowhere else to run. The dog is now backed into a “corner”, and has no other choice but to attack forward to defend itself. Similarly, when a dog is guarding a bone, the dog is feeling unsure about you taking the bone, but also wants the bone enough to not want to give it up (high prey drive), so the dog attacks forward to defend itself. That’s also why I get concerned when fearful dogs bond to someone and assume control over a territory, then they are tied to that person and situation, and they will stand their ground and bite when they feel the least bit threatened.

The difficulty with fearful, aggressive, and defensively aggressive behaviors is the learning that is involved. Once a fearful or defensively aggressive dog learns to be wary of something or someone, and also learns how to use threats and aggression to deal with the problem, it is difficult to change the dog’s mind and not threaten back and bite in that situation ever again. That’s why I’m uncomfortable with pet owners doing anything with a companion dog that provokes the dog to growl. I don’t like rough games or rough discipline. I also regularly counsel people against teasing their dogs or wrestling with them, and I’m especially upset with people that think it is funny to worry a dog to get them to bark and growl.

It is a scary thing when a big family dog starts to take a disliking to a particular family member. It can happen because of something dumb you did with the dog, or because the dog has a weak temperament, or it can happen purely by accident and the dog “blamed” that person for hurting them. It is also a scary thing when a dog is allowed to become overly protective and threatens or bites people. I’ve worked with dogs that were made “mean” by the way they were managed, trained, teased, and/or deployed by their owners. Once a dog’s Defense Drive is activated towards family members, I feel that, even though I can oftentimes make the dog 100% better, the dog will never be 100% trustworthy with that person or situation ever again and will always then need extra supervision the rest of the dog’s life. That’s why I will get all over people when they allow their kids to tease the family dog; and I get flack from some owners when I tell them that the problem isn’t just the dog, but how they are managing, supervising and interacting with their dog.

The level of threat perceived by a dog is influenced by stress, either psychological or physical. Stress “loads” the dog, lowering the dog’s thresholds, making the dog more prone to blow up. The typical fear biter can’t handle stress, is easily intimidated, with very little provocation feels afraid, and will act on the fear to either run away or, if backed into a corner, viciously bite. I’ve seen dogs with Separation Anxiety get extremely aggressive. It works this way: the dog is very stressed at home, the owner then takes the dog for a walk right when they get home while the dog is still worked up inside, the dog sees a neighbor or strange dog, and the dog blows up. One customer’s dog, with Separation Anxiety ran out the front door, across the street, and bit a neighbor. The added stress, combined with the dog’s natural territorial protectiveness, caused the dog to see the neighbor’s presence across the street as being threatening, so the dog attacked. I recently evaluated a Vizsla with an Environmental Phobia that did the exact same thing: the dog was always stressed in public, so when the dog got out of the car and saw a neighbor, it ran across the street and bit her in the posterior.

Too much stress/ threat wears the dog down and makes the dog less able to learn. A highly fearful dog has a hard time paying attention to the rational demands of its master. So, once a dog learns to feel threatened in a particular situation, it becomes less controllable, regardless of how much obedience training you give the dog; it just can’t hear you and pay attention when it feels that its very life is being threatened.

There are usually solutions to dealing with the Fearful Dog, Aggressive Dog.  [Problem: Some people think it is funny to get a dog to bark and growl, not realizing that they are actually making the dog feel threatened. It ISN’T funny and it just sets the dog up for later problems.] The proper solution for dealing with a fearful, aggressive, or defensively aggressive dog depends upon the situation, which is why it is preferable to get a professional’s advice before you attempt a remedy. If you do things improperly, you can actually make the situation worse or even highly dangerous.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.


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