A large amount of aggression in dogs actually comes down to fear. Aggression is never about asserting dominance or trying to push boundaries. It always has an underlying reason which can be frustration, medical, breed traits and most commonly fear.
Fear looks differently on different dogs. Some may tuck their tail and choose to move away unless approached. Others may run across large distances simply to confront the things they are afraid of. Think of this like being afraid of spiders, but needing to approach them in order to put a cup over them and take them outside. Approaching it, made it go away. Barking at someone has a similar result, regardless of it being the dogs actions or not that made that happen.
Fear aggression can be seen around many situations, fear of people, learnt association of pain, handling, other dogs, other animals and around resources. Where they are afraid of loosing access to something such as food, chews or a bed.
Management is important when it comes to fear, we want to reduce the exposure the dog has to these fearful events if possible. The more they feel their low level body language signals don’t work, the more they will be likely to snap, growl and bite.
Biting rarely fails to make something go away and the more they practice a behaviour, the more likely they are to do it in the future. Especially if it works by making the scary thing go away as it has some level of reinforcement.
If low level signals don’t work, they will stop using them and you will end up with a dog that bites ‘out of the blue.’ That’s why it’s so important never to punish a growl. It’s your fire alarm that action needs to be taken. It’s an important form of communication.
Remember that dogs can’t talk and struggle to communicate with us. Studies show dogs are much better at reading us than we are at reading them. When they are barking, growling, mouthing or biting. They are trying to tell us something in the only way they know how.
The main thing with fear aggression is we want to avoid making them feel worse. This is why punishment, confrontation, or aversive tools will at best suppress the behaviour. At worst create a dog that is much more likely to bite and cause injury.
What we want to do is change the way the dog feels about the scary thing. The best way we can do that is by adding space, choice and positive outcomes in the presence of the scary thing.
When it comes to making friends with strangers, it can be easy to take things personally when a dog takes a while to warm up to us. It’s also in our nature to try and push them into making friends, as that’s rewarding for us. However the best way to approach a fearful dog, is not to approach them at all.
Turn your body at a 45 degree angle so it’s less threatening and avoid direct eye contact. Let them approach and sniff in their own time but avoid putting a hand out or trying to stroke them. Dogs approach us to gather information, not to initiate contact. They see the world through their nose and it can help them get a better idea of us if they have a good sniff.
Ideally it’s better if treats come from the person they know best, but if making friends and you do want to use food. Toss it far away from you. This reminds them that they have the option to move away. If we try to encourage them over for food then we are asking them to approach things that scare them. Ultimately putting them in a situation they don’t want to be and where they are more likely to react.
If it’s your dog, you can toss the treats away from the scary thing and let them approach or move away in their own time. Respect their choice. Keep sessions short and try to provide as much space as possible. When working on fear, outside on walks with a longer lead is always better if that’s possible.
There’s no faster way to bond than a lovely, no pressure walk together.
Remember that safety is important and it’s best to use a lead, long line and muzzle if necessary and if your dog has been muzzle associated.
Dogs work best when they aren’t pushed, and aren’t confronted. We simply change the way they feel about people, dogs and situations by making the outcome a better one. And providing them with the distance they need without them feeling they need to show aggressive behaviours to achieve this. So we provide them with the results they desire, on a calmer behaviour.
Unfortunately a lot of views in dog training still come from a mistake we made in the 1940s where we studied the wrong kind of wolves in captivity. A place they weren’t behaving naturally. A couple of high profile dog trainers, not to mention Disney, then took this as a way to train dogs. By using fear, intimidation and aggressive behaviour from ourselves.
All this was simply conflict seen when groups of wolves who wouldn’t have naturally lived together, were struggling to cope in a small enclosure with other unfamiliar wolves. David Mech, who originally wrote the paper on these wolves has spent the rest of his life trying to change this view that was formed from a misunderstanding.
We now know that dogs perform body language in order to avoid confrontation, they want to live with us harmoniously and peacefully. And having brought them into our homes and our lives and expecting them, as another species to adjust. The best we can do is help them live a comfortable life. Yes they need boundaries and guidance but if we believe we need to live in conflict with them, this will set both parties up for failure.
So if your dog is showing aggression, take a step back. Try to understand through their eyes and ideally seek the help of a behaviourist.