Fear and Aggression are Two Sides of the Same Coin

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.

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