Fear and Aggression are Two Sides of the Same Coin

February 28, 2011

On many occasions a fearful dog that has acted aggressively in the face of a trigger is euthanized.  The really sad thing about this is that often the dog’s owners are totally ignorant of the fact that their dog is actually afraid and is simply behaving the way it does as a means to survive.  If the warning signs had been recognized and appropriate action had been taken the death sentence could have been avoided.

Fear is a distressing emotion induced by a perceived threat.  Fear, which is a survival mechanism, occurs when pain or the threat of danger is presented to the dog.  Fear will cause the dog to either retreat from the threat, or confront it – fight or flight.  In some cases, especially when flight is impossible, the dog will resort to confrontation in the form of very specific ritualized displays, such as growling, barking or air-snapping – all designed to make the fearful thing go away.  These “warnings” are often misinterpreted by owners, and the dog is punished, either by shouting, popping the leash or smacking.    There are always dangers associated with punishing fear-aggression, in that the dog may associate the discomfort or pain with the stimulus, thus aggravating the fear-aggression.  Another danger when using punishment to treat aggression is that one runs the risk of punishing the aggressive display, (growling, barking, baring teeth, etc.), which are all warning signals. We know that punishment decreases behaviour, but does not modify it, so the dog may stop exhibiting aggressive displays or warnings (designed to increase distance between the dog and the stimulus) and go straight into the bite or attack phase.

Some of the experiences which could create a fear response in a dog would be:

  • A traumatic experience involving either dogs, people or situations, particularly if they occur during the two fear periods of a dog’s development.  The picture below shows a potential for disaster in this pup’s life.  Already clearly afraid of the water he is being dragged in.  What is even more sad is the owner’s apparent lack of concern at the pup’s fear.

  • Insufficient exposure to various types of humans (children of all ages, different males and females, large groups of people, etc.) and novel experiences during the critical period of development.
  • Early imprinting by an aggressive or nervous dam
  • Abuse from previous owners

The important thing for any owner when dealing with apparently aggressive behaviour in a dog is to establish, first of all, if the aggression is in response to fear or anxiety, and, secondly, what the triggers are.

You can help your fearful or anxious dog face its fears.

You can tell by learning to read your dog’s body language whether it is afraid or nervous about something.  These signals include dilated pupils, drooling, lowered (pinned back) ears, cowering, fleeing, growling or biting.  There are many video clips and websites covering the subject of dog body language (www.youtube.com/watch?v=00_9JPltXHI is quite a good one).   Understanding what your dog is afraid of and just how afraid it is, is key to beginning the process of helping your dog get over its fears.

The first thing you would do is identify your dog’s triggers.  Would it be someone reaching out to touch or just a person coming into its space, or is it maybe another dog?  Once you have identified what it is that’s making your dog fearful, you can embark on a programme of Systematic Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning.

This sounds very complicated, but all it means is that you gradually, by little bits of exposure, make the dog less sensitive to its triggers (Systematic Desensitization), and at the same time change the dog’s conditioned emotional response (fear) to one of calm acceptance by presenting it with something it wants and likes when confronted with its trigger (Counter-conditioning).    With severe cases this can be time-consuming and requires ample patience on the part of the owner.  Most people do not have the time or patience for this and often the dog is re-homed, or, worse, euthanized.  Surely, as your dog’s guardian you will do whatever you can to make his or her life with you a better place.


February 17, 2011


Seven or eight weeks is normally the age when pups are sent out to their new homes.  There are varying opinions as to the optimum age, but one thing most people are agreed on is that pups should stay with their littermates and mother until at least 7 weeks.  It is the time between 4 weeks when they are weaned and 7 or 8 weeks that the puppy will learn all the behaviours that make him a dog.  He will be able to practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations, and learn their effect on his siblings and mother and any other dog around.  He will learn how to bark and bite and what it sounds and feels like.  And most importantly, he will learn discipline from his mother. The breeder’s responsibility is to socialize the litter with other animals and people during this period.  Puppies that are removed from the litter too early tend to be nervous and to bark and bite and often cannot accept discipline.

When you get your pup at 7 weeks, therefore, he should already be well on his way to becoming a well-balanced dog.  From 7 weeks to 12 weeks is when most rapid learning occurs.   He has the brain waves of an adult, but not the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.  He also does not have the experience of an adult.  Any learning the pup does at this stage is permanent, whether the learned behaviour is desirable or not, and whether you have anything to do with it, or not.  This is the ideal time to start any obedience training of the basic behaviours with gentle, positive methods and lots of play.  It is also the best period to expose him to many different people, objects and noises and anything the breeder has not exposed him to.  This is the time to set boundaries and to work on your relationship with him.

You should also be aware that between 8 and 11 weeks, any painful, frightening or traumatic experience will have a more lasting effect on the puppy than at any other time.  New experiences should be as non-stressful as possible, but they shouldn’t be avoided because this fear period has a purpose and is linked to the pup’s survival instinct. He is naturally inquisitive at this age but to protect himself, he also has to be a little fearful of any new stuff so that he doesn’t barge in to a potentially dangerous situation.  So let him explore – just make sure that he isn’t getting into anything that could be traumatic.

Between 12 and 16 weeks the pup will have gained more confidence and will, possibly, not be as willing to follow instructions as he was in the beginning.  It is more important now than at any other time to establish your leadership and make quite sure that your pup knows that you are in control of resources.  Consistency is extremely important if the pup is to learn to respect you.  

This period is the time that formal obedience training should begin if the full potential of the puppy’s intelligence and companion ability is to be realized. Bearing in mind that the pup’s attention span is still short your training sessions should be very brief – not more than 10 or 15 minutes twice a day, with frequent “play” breaks.

Of particular interest to retriever trainers with regard to training and critical periods of development of the young retriever is that many canine skills, like retrieving, willingness to stay close during walks and coming when called appear to have especially sensitive periods for their introduction and training.

Scott and Fuller (1965) discovered that a dog’s willingness to fetch an object is definitely influenced by early exposure to retrieving games.  What they found was that pups exposed to retrieving games between the ages of 9 and 14 weeks became significantly more avid retrievers than those exposed later.  They also discovered that these puppies were easier to train than those who had been introduced to retrieving later (around 32 weeks).

Another area of interest to us as retriever trainers, as well as pet owners, is the dog’s willingness to follow and come when called.  Steven Lindsay says in his book “Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training”:

“An area of interest for average dog owners regards active following and coming when called.  Long walks consisting of occasional surprise manoeuvres, exciting changes of pace, unexpected chase and counter-chase episodes, hide-and-seek games, punctuated with occasional opportunities for ball play or stick fetching – all facilitate the learning of appropriate “staying close” skills in puppies.  Such interaction strongly stimulates leader-follower bonding and other social components conducive to obedience training.  If puppies are not exposed to such experiences during the socialization period, as adult dogs they are typically more difficult to train to come when called or to stay nearby on walks.  In contrast, puppies exposed to off-leash walks, playful recall training, and ball play, are invariably easier to instruct in the performance of related tasks as adults.”

Knowing all this you can now plan what to do with your pup and when.

8 Weeks to 12 weeks (Rapid learning and Relationship building)

  • Establish boundaries – be consistent.
  • Introduce retrieve as a game.
  • Attention-paying, follow me and establishing sit as a default behaviour by feeding one meal out of your pocket whenever your pup does something you like.  At the same time start using your clicker.  Click for eye contact, click for following you, click for sitting.  Withhold rewards for undesirable behaviours such as jumping up and biting.
  • Adventure walks with play recalls, play retrieves, and chase games.
  • Desentisizing to the collar and lead, but, at this stage no formal heeling.  Pup should want to stay with you, so there is no danger of developing a “pulling” habit.
  • Introduction to the water and swimming.  Remember that any negative experience will have a lasting effect on your pup during this period of his development, so be sure that his intro to water is as positive as possible.  Even if you have to wade in to encourage him in after you.  I wouldn’t advise using a retrieve to get him swimming, because if he associates a scary experience with the retrieve in water, this would not be a good thing.
  • Introduction to permanent sleeping area and desensitization to being left alone for short periods.
  • Introduction to riding in the car – pair the rides with pleasant experiences
  • Out and about – shopping centres, traffic, motorbikes, bicycles, children of all ages, visits to the vet (do these before he is due for his second vaccination), enrol in a puppy class.
  • Now is the time for crate training if you plan to use one.

12 to 20 weeks (Onset of Independence and Start of Formal Training)

At this stage your pup still has quite a short attention span, so make the lessons short.  The most important obedience skills for him to learn now are:

  • Sit to whistle – near and at a distance.
  • Recall to whistle
  • Brief sit and stay
  • Walk at heel with an automatic sit
  • Swing finish
  • Start formalizing the recall
  • Retrieves should still be fun.  Steadying not that important, but he must be sitting calmly before being released.  So wait until that happens.

Always remember to stop before pup wants to stop.  He should be begging for more.  Limit the number of retrieves to 3 a day.  At this stage keep the retrieves relatively close and in very short grass.  Do not grab the dummy away from him, but rather let him hold on to it for as long as he likes before you take it.  Start introducing him to someone other than you throwing.

Classes in Kloof

February 9, 2011

I offer the following services:

  • Group Good Manners classes for puppies, junior and adult dogs.
  • Social walking for adult dogs and their owners – subject to assessment.
  • Socializing of adult dogs.
  • Private tuition at your home.
  • Problem solving.
  • Foundation classes for Dog Agility.
  • Foundation classes for Retriever Field Work.
  • Clicker Training Instruction

The times in the table might change from time to time.  Please contact me to confirm.

Level Venue Day Time
Puppy Kindergarten Kloof Scout Hall, Buckingham Road, Kloof Saturday morning 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Junior and Adult Good Manners
Kloof Scout Hall, Buckingham Road, Kloof Saturday morning 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Kloof Scout Hall, Buckingham Road, Kloof Saturday afternoon 3.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Kloof Scout Hall, Buckingham Road, Kloof Tuesday morning 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Freestyle Obedience or Dances with Dogs
Kloof Scout Hall, Buckingham Road, Kloof Thursday morning 8.30 to 9.30 a.m.

To book into any of the group training sessions, please give me a call on 084 828 7880 or email me on wescc@iafrica.com.

If you don’t have time to train because of a busy work schedule, I will come to your home during the day and train your dog for you, according to your requirements.   I will require to meet with you beforehand for an introduction, and will need to work with you from time to time.  If you are interested in this service, please contact me on 084 828 7880 or email me on wescc@iafrica.com.

More Talking about Walking

February 8, 2011

In the previous post, what you saw was a dog without any self-control.  Self-control is the key to a calm walk with your dog.  Until you teach your dog about self-control walking with her as you visualize it will never happen.  I would go so far as to say, that unless your dog has learnt how to control her impulses, any obedience is difficult to teach, if not impossible.

A trained dog understands that the way to get what she wants is to control herself, and a trained handler knows that true control of an animal must come from the animal herself, not from the handler.

The first thing you need to teach your dog is that the only way to get what she wants is to control herself.  Since you control all the resources that your dog wants, teaching her self-control is simply a matter of withholding the resource until she shows a measure of self-control.  When we look at the scenario in the previous post, all the undesirable things that your dog exhibits have been reinforced by giving her what she wants (to go outside and walk) no matter what her behaviour is.  She jumps up when you take the lead out; she grabs hold of the lead; she won’t stand still while you try to get the lead clipped on; she rushes out of the door; she pulls constantly, but she still gets to go for a walk.

You start teaching her about self-control at dinnertime.  Dinner is withheld until she is calm and (preferably) sitting.  Jumping up and mugging you for her meal simply makes the dish with her dinner go further away.  The only way to get the dish on to the floor, is to be calm!  You say nothing – the only thing you do is make dinner go away if she is behaving like a hooligan.  You’d be surprised how quickly she starts learning about self-control around dinnertime.

The next step in your journey to teaching your dog self-control is to get the lead on without all the fuss and bother.  The first thing you do is identify the trigger or signal.  Is it putting on your walking shoes? or opening the cupboard where the leads are kept, or is it something you say?  If it’s putting on your walking shoes, they don’t even get onto your feet until she’s calm.  Once she stays calm while you’re picking them up, the next step is for her to be calm while you’re putting them on.  She will learn that behaving like a lunatic simply makes the shoes come off.  And so on…

Once you know how to manage the environment and take control of the things your dog wants, you will become a much better trainer, and your dog will learn how to control its impulses.

Talking about Walking

February 3, 2011

Morning dawns, bright and clear.  You’ve been up for a while and dressed – You go to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of early morning coffee.  Fido greets you with wags and smiles.  “Yes, boy, it’s a great morning for a walk!”  Wags and smiles increase in intensity.  You go to the cupboard to get Fido’s lead … and … reality bites.  Fido erupts into a seething mass of excitement, spinning, snatching the lead and in between all this, barking excitedly.  “Ok, boy, calm down – calm down – that’s a good boy.  Stand still boy, let me put the lead on.  No boy – let go.  NO – LET GO!  STAND STILL!!!”  Eventually, red in the face and covered in saliva, you manage to grab Fido’s collar, clip on the lead, and open the door.  Fido sees the gap and races through the open door, with the lead as taught as a bowstring and you hanging on for dear life, your arm practically wrenched out of its socket, and rope burns on your hands.  He drags you as far as the yard gate, wild-eyed and panting at which point you are questioning your early-morning rush of blood to the head.  Unable to face being dragged around the block for the next half hour, you give up, your “walk” for the day over, and make it back to the calm of your house.  “We’ll try again tomorrow, Fido – sorry old boy I’m just not up to this.”

Does any of this sound familiar?  And how many dogs are not taken out because this is what happens.

Don’t despair – you can teach your dog to walk nicely on a lead, even after months and even years of Fido rehearsing the behaviour (and perfecting it).  It takes a certain amount of commitment and patience, but you can certainly get it right.  You will no longer dread the pain and embarrassment of  being hauled along behind a wild-eyed, gasping dog.

I will be describing how to do this in the next few entries in this blog.

%d bloggers like this: