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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

News & Views April 2019 Issue

Is Her Aggression a Response to Fear?

If that's the case, gradual desensitization is the way to help her through it.

How many times have you heard people say their dog is less aggressive off-leash than on? That’s often because their aggression is born of fear. Off the leash, they are free to move away from whatever is making them scared — another dog, a person. But on leash, they’re stuck where you want them to be, which they might perceive as right in harm’s way. So they bark ferociously; they take one step forward in a threatening posture, then two steps backward to protect themselves. Sometimes, if their nerves really get the better of them, they snap.

If their fear is strong enough, letting them off leash may not help keep them out of harm’s way. They’ll lunge at others, growl, and sometimes, bite. It makes owners miserable because the dog is so sweet and docile at home; they just want to be able to take their pet outside without the risk of an altercation. It might be confusing because their pet seems ready to fight, when in actuality the dog is scared to death.

People often try to solve the problem by throwing their dog into more and more social situations to desensitize it. But that doesn’t desensitize a dog whose fear makes him aggressive. It only sensitizes him more. Animal behaviorists call it flooding.

osobystist | Bigstock

A dog who barks more when on leash may be exhibiting aggression born of fear.

Taking a new tack

The good news here is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, fear aggression can be attenuated to the point that the dog behaves acceptably around others. But it has to come from a place of having empathy for your dog rather than throwing up your hands and saying “he’s bad, or incorrigible,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. He’s neither, she points out. He’s frightened.

How does coming from a place of empathy translate in real life? Keep your dog away from situations that cause him to react aggressively as he handles his fear. For instance, if a stranger wants to pet your impossibly cute pup, tell the person not to because the dog is afraid of people and you’re trying to make him feel safe. You do not have to be mortified; your pet’s sense of security comes first.

You might also want to walk your pet with a head halter rather than a leash. That way, when he starts to react aggressively because he is frightened, a gentle tug on the leash will send a subtle but firm message to his nose and the base of his muzzle that he should calm down. It will also remind him that you are in charge of the situation and will not let any harm come to him. To him, a collar around his neck attached to a leash doesn’t feel as secure.

Staged encounters

While your first step in desensitizing your dog will involve keeping him away from people and dogs he finds frightening, the second step is to stage encounters with people he has never met but whom you know to be gentle and soft spoken. They need to be willing to play the role of accidental pedestrian. Before you come near each other at the appointed time, inform your willing participant not to stare at your dog or even pay him any attention, which he would see as an act of aggression. Also, your friend should not walk straight at you and your pet. He should come to you in a banana-shaped arc — dogs see that as less threatening than a straight ahead approach.

Act out this scenario a few times, first with the same person at the same spot, then with a few different people at a few different locations. Some of your friends should nonchalantly throw a piece of an amazingly delicious treat like freeze-dried liver at your dog’s feet while chatting with you — but without looking at him. After a bit, add in people accompanied by very gentle, very confident dogs. Dogs who are not reactive work best.

Over time, your pet will come to realize that not only are you making sure bad things won’t happen, you’re sometimes making it so that good things happen. He will learn over the course of many months that others can be tolerated, and even enjoyed, for the company they provide.

Comments (1)

From my experience as a dog trainer depending on the body language a dog with dominant aggression but very poorly socialized can also show aggression trying to defend the owner

Posted by: Seeblick | April 19, 2019 1:37 PM    Report this comment

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