It’s a curious anomaly that we talk about fear and aggression in the same sentence! If a dog is fearful why would he be aggressive? This is known as ambivalent presentation – the dog does not know whether to attack or retreat. Arguably, all he has to do is run away – unless, of course, his escape route has been blocked. Teaching the dog it’s OK to walk (or run) away rather than ‘face his demons’ will surely have a lasting and profound effect on his state of mind and well being long into the future.
Firstly we need to establish the reason/s for his fear and secondly what exactly he is fearful of.
The reasons are potentially many-fold including a naturally timid dog, learned helplessness from the dam by fear imprinting, poor breeder socialisation with other unknown puppies, dogs and people, incorrect veterinary advice to keep the dog closeted until fully vaccinated and lack of ongoing socialisation into adulthood including noisy traffic, children, men (in funny hats and uniforms) and other outlandish and unusual scenarios. The list is potentially infinite! As with any type of habituation a degree of stress will be inevitable and is indeed desirable to help the dog overcome his fears by understanding the boundaries. If the reason is genetic this may not be treatable in a worst case scenario, but potentially MANAGEABLE!
Alexandra Semyonova talks about finding a good therapist (Semyonova, 2009). It is more usual to talk about behaviourists and a good behaviourist needs to know what the fear aggression issue actually is in order to offer a solution. Most dogs will alert an owner to a visitor at the front door. “Thank you Fido” should suffice; the dog’s job is done. Another dog, however, may be fearful of a stranger entering the front door. How do we deal with this? Allowing an escape route along with desensitisation and counter conditioning, to teach an alternative behaviour, play a huge role here.
Here is a hypothetical scenario: Do I want Fido to be friendly towards a visitor or to ignore him? My visitor does not want to be met by a boisterous, least of all, aggressive dog. I know Fido will remain non-aggressive providing my visitor, John, does not appear a threat and ignores the dog at my request. John rings the door bell; Fido has previously been taught that this is a cue to sit and stay using positive reinforcement – ideally on an anchor mat. All internal doors are open leaving an escape route for Fido. I open the door and hug my friend, leaving pheromone scent marks on his clothing, ask him to sit down next to me and offer him some refreshment. There is much talking and laughter still ignoring the dog. Through allelomimetic behaviour (copying) the dog will learn that John is not a threat and will do one of two things, either walk away in disinterest or approach him with curiosity wanting some of the action. Either way I offer much positive reinforcement telling Fido how well he has behaved. If Fido approaches I would ask John to continue ignoring him at this stage; desensitising Fido to the previously assumed threat. This happens every day for 7 days. On day eight Fido’s curiosity will almost certainly beat him, approaching John who STILL ignores him. I throw Fido a tasty treat; now commences counter conditioning as Fido learns that good things happen when he approaches John. By day 14 John will now make eye contact with Fido. On day 15 he will say “hello” to Fido then look away at my request. On day 16 he will throw Fido a similar tasty treat. John should not offer food too early in this process to avoid rewarding any fear or, indeed, reverse conditioning; that is to say the dog becoming aggressive when food in NOT offered. Not long until John and Fido are the best of friends and Fido is literally eating out of John’s hand!
We should not assume that Fido has been desensitised to ALL people or, indeed, groups of people. Once he is desensitised to 20 or so people it MAY be safe to say that Fido is now confident with most, if not all, people.
Positive punishment will certainly not work in this scenario – in fact it will make matters worse with Fido reacting to my punishment setting off a chain of events and a battle of wills. “Remember that two things benefit a nervous dog; distance and time” (Bradshaw, 2011). John and I must remain positive and calm at all times teaching Fido that good manners and no fear or aggression does indeed have a great outcome!
Scared or aggressive?