Fear aggression is a very common problem, so the first step towards successfully helping an aggressive dog is to determine whether he is scared or aggressive.

Fear Aggression

Fear and anxiety-related aggression is among the most common behavioural issues I see in domestic dogs. Sometimes, these problems are genetic. In most cases, however, they were created by people. No, not by some evil monsters mistreating dogs, but by the very individuals who love and want to do the best for their canine friends. Frequently, this debilitating behaviour problem is, in fact, caused by breeders and first owners.

It is my sincere hope that this post will provide you with greater insights into your pet’s behaviour & how you can help him overcome these issues – and a better understanding of what may be the root of the problem, so you can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Early Socialisation and Fear Aggression

Socialisation is critical. It is, in fact, so vitally important that it outweighs almost all other considerations. Early socialisation, or rather a lack thereof, is the most common and most important contributing factor to fear, anxiety and timidity in dogs.

Dogs can safely mix with other, vaccinated dogs and people from the very day they are born. Unfortunately, a fear of infections all too often leads breeders/owners to make the sad, nay, tragic mistake of isolating their pups until their vaccinations are completed.

Important Socialisation Periods

The two most important periods in socialising puppies are the Human Socialisation Period from birth to 12 weeks and the Canine Socialisation Period from birth to 16 weeks.

By the time your pup reaches the age of 12 weeks, it should have been handled by at least 100 different people – including young children, pensioners and adults of any age in between. Breeders can play vital roles in this by inviting as many different people as possible to handle their pups from the word go.

The birth to 16-week canine socialisation period means pups should be permitted to mix with other dogs and, more importantly, with other puppies.

How Puppies Learn

Puppies predominantly learn both body language and communication from playing boisterously with other young pups. An older dog does not play like a puppy, which subsequently makes puppy classes allowing pups to play with one another absolutely crucial to their future mental health and confidence.

There are many trainers/behaviourists offering puppy classes in my area. Unfortunately, quite a few of them have no idea how pups learn and will not even allow them to enjoy off-lead play.

If you are attending one of those classes where interaction between puppies is not permitted, I advise you to walk out and ask for your money back. What do these people imagine the term ‘Puppy Socialisation Class’ means?!

By taking this approach, these trainers/behaviourists risk clients ending up with timid, fearful dogs that may well become aggressive later in life. FACT: 95 pe cent of all reported incidents of dog bites are related to fear.

Exposure is Critical

Exposure to a wide variety of experiences meeting people, vaccinated other dogs (which really is perfectly safe) and visiting new places during the first few weeks – especially those from birth to the age of 16 weeks – is critical for your pup. There are many places and activities you can take your pup to without endangering his/her health or life – and it is vital for you to take the time and expose your puppy to as many experiences/situations as possible.

This is especially important if you already have other dogs. It is all too easy to deprive new pups of the chance to develop their own self-confidence without totally relying on older dogs/their protection by keeping them in said older dogs’ company.

If you really are worried about infections, you may want to discuss Nobivac D.H.P.P.I/L with your vet (and if they do not supply it, ask them why). This Intervet-made vaccine (which has been on the market for years now) allows for the full course to be administered by the time the pup is 10 weeks old – as opposed to the usual 12 weeks. This, of course, allows for two vital extra weeks of socialisation.

Genetics and Fear Aggression

Nature (i.e. genetics) has as much impact on a dog’s ability to successfully cope with life as nurture (i.e. socialisation) – and some dogs will simply bounce back no matter what life may throw at them because they are so genetically solid.

A few years ago, I was asked to help a little recue dog, Bella, who had been systematically abused by her sadistic owner from the age of 8 weeks. Having suffered numerous horrific injuries at the hands of this monster, this poor little creature was so traumatised that whenever a person approached her, she would vomit, urinate and defecate.

It took a while, but she eventually made a full recovery and it was a real pleasure to see her once again love and trust people, her confidence soaring and her tail turning into a constant blur – a true testament to her incredible ability to cope with anything life threw at her. Despite her traumatic start, Bella overcame her fear and ended up becoming one of the most loving, nicest dogs I ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Sadly, not every dog is this genetically sound. Even perfect owners, early socialisation and an ideal environment are not always enough to help hereditary unstable canines – and it is high time breeders realised that their main reason for breeding should not be conformity or looks; not accolades or money, but temperament.

A 6-months old Staffie I was asked to assess under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, for example, was taken into custody and placed into solitary confinement after panicking and barking, threatening police officers & trying to nip them when they wrestled his owner to the ground in the street and arrested him. My report and appearance in court after assessing him for aggression and temperament fortunately resulted in his return to his owner, but he is most likely to live with his fears until the day he dies. I do believe the law and the police should take a dog’s circumstances and age into consideration before deciding to prosecute.

Can Fear Aggression be Cured?

While it is possible to create a less anxiety-ridden and fearful dog, results can only reach a level that is sustainable by the dog – so it is best not to expect a 100 per cent cure. There are no magic words or wands that bring about miraculous changes – and the amount of necessary work involved should not be underestimated.

Owners and trainers believing thrusting fearful dogs headlong into any situation will help to desensitise and cure them are sadly misguided. The old ruse of throwing children into swimming pools in the hope that they will learn to swim quickly is hopefully outmoded and outdated today – because it achieved nothing other than potentially leaving the poor children with a fear of water for the rest of their lives.

Ploughing headlong into situations a dog cannot cope with usually produces similar outcomes. Owners should also consider carefully whether they have the patience, stamina and time – or even want – to work with and treat a dog with phobias and irrational fears. If they lack these traits, it is best for them to separate ways and rehome the dog with someone who hopefully has experience with this kind of problem and the temperament necessary to handle a dog that can be exasperating at best and infuriating at worst.

Distance Learning

To reduce your dog’s level of anxiety & timidity and gain & improve his confidence, your approach must be gentle, positive, measured and consistent. Trying to speed the process beyond your dog’s capability will have you going backwards – and your pet’s new-found confidence plummeting.

The first step is to determine the distance at which a given situation makes your dog fearful. If, for instance, your dog is afraid of another dog, you must approach this dog with your pet on his lead – making sure not to tighten it, as this conveys your anxiety to him.

Watch his body language and, as soon as he displays a fearful, aggressive or submissive reaction, stop and back up to a point where he relaxes again. Having determined the distance allowing your pooch to relax, either treat him or play with him using a favourite toy. The aim here is to create a positive association between the feared object – which can be anything from another dog or a bus to your vacuum cleaner – he can see and the treat/play time.

Dogs will, by the way, not take food/treats when distressed or fearful. This is an instinctive reaction when their “flight mode” kicks in – they do not want full stomachs when they may have to run away. Even without outward signs of possible distress, this can also be a helpful indicator of your pooch’s state of mind.

Moving in stages – aiming to keep at a distance allowing your pet to remain reasonably relaxed – a little closer to the object causing his fear or aggression, keep talking and reassuring him throughout. Eventually – and this could take many sessions – you should reach a point a which your dog remains comfortable even when he is close to the object that initially caused his reaction/fear. This kind of gradual desensitisation should work well for all dogs, regardless of whether the fear/reaction was caused by another dog, a person, an object or a place.

Helpful Tools

When a dog is reactive to other dogs or people, simple noise aversion is often helpful – i.e. you can train your dog to turn his head away from the “offending object” on a simple “OFF” command. I have found helping dogs to break eye-contact with the frightening object through this command and/or use of ‘Jinglers’ very helpful – especially in combination with good lead work (pulling. lunging) – in many of the thousands of aggression/reactivity cases I have handled.

Training or play therapy can be extremely helpful if noise aversion is the cause of your dog’s fear, i.e. if he was recently scared by fireworks. Acting very blasé, go outside immediately and have a training session or play with a frisbee, ball or another favourite toy.

Done while the scary noise is going on, praising your dog for actions other than fear can help overcome potential problems immediately. Working on the same principle as, for example, the calm, perfectly normal actions of a flight attendant during a sudden spell of heavy mid-flight turbulence dissipating your own fears/anxiety, this can be a tactic worth trying whenever your dog has a negative experience – because even if he does not appear to be too affected at the time, it could help prevent potential phobias later on.

Fireworks and Sound Aversion

Fireworks, thunder, traffic sounds and gunshots can cause some dogs to get fearful and distressed, which in turn can cause other aversion-type behaviours. Here, common reactions include:

  • Panting, hiding or shaking
  • Defecation, vomiting or urination
  • Panic and occasionally even destructive behaviours (i.e. chewing through walls and doors to escape to safer territories)

Hard as it will be, you must under no circumstances comfort your dog when he is frightened, because this will only reinforce and encourage his fear. Unlike humans, dogs do not see comfort and sympathy as reassurance, but as reinforcement.

Giving your furry friend extra fuss when he is frightened reinforces his anxiety and makes him more concerned about his fear because it is making him believe there really is something to be scared about. Acting blasé and trying to distract him by playing with his favourite toy, on the other hand, will help him learn how to cope by himself.

Focusing Attention

Getting your dog’s attention with your voice, toys or treats while passing the cause of the problem is another way of helping your dog overcome fear situations. Giving your dog something else to think about, this has a similar effect to that of distance learning and will reduce his fear’s intensity.

For this attention-focusing technique to work, you will require treats, toys and/or other interrupters. Keeping your treats/toys out of sight until you need them:

Sit next to your pet or, better still, sit him between you and a friend/partner

Say your dog’s name (if he fails to look at you, gently touch his ear to get his attention)

When he turns towards you, treat him, use a toy or play and praise him enthusiastically (I like to start with treats whenever possible)

Now get your friend/partner to do call and treat/praise him

Going back and forth between you and your partner/friend, repeat this for a few minutes

Doing this daily for a week (at least) and then occasionally throughout his life will ensure your dog responds with enthusiasm every time his name is mentioned – and he will also look at you. It is important NEVER to use his name in negative situations (i.e. do not use his name when punishing/scolding him).

Making good eye contact can be helpful with fearful, timid dogs, so once he regularly acknowledges his name:

  • Remembering not to show your dog the treats before you are ready to hand them over (as they will otherwise become part of your command), start focusing his attention by calling his name and moving away from him. When he moves/turns towards you, immediately PRAISE (“GOOD” is a good target word) and TREAT/PLAY with him.
  • When giving him his treat, try aligning it between his and your eyes to ensure you make good eye contact.
  • You will eventually see your dog making regular eye contact. When he does, embed this action by treating it at the time.
  • Repeat this “name-move-praise-treat” sequence at least four times – this repetition is how your dog learns to maintain his attention until given a release command (“OK” or any other word/command you choose) by you.
  • Practise this exercise wherever you are, including at training classes.

The aim of doing this exercise is to “tune out” external influences, including those causing fear/aggressive responses. Once both you and your dog are comfortable performing this sequence, gradually move it closer to the issue you are hoping to overcome.

In time, you will be able to release your dog’s attention momentarily. Slowly increase this (like with the distancing method). If your dog responds with fear, you have moved too fast too far and will need to return to the point at which he last felt comfortable.

Neutering and Fear Aggression

Most cases of inter-dog or human aggression I deal with are related to fear, rather than guarding or dominance. It is a common fallacy that neutering or spaying dogs can cure aggression. Having a major impact on dogs, especially if done before a dog has matured, neutering/spaying will, in fact, increase fear aggression rather than decreasing it.

Owners should consider the potential consequences of spaying/castration very carefully before going ahead, especially if a dog has not yet reached maturity – and neutering a fearful dog should never even be considered at all. Dogs do, by the way, never reach maturity before the age of six months – some, like the Miniature Yorkshire Terrier (the world’s smallest dog) for example, will not reach maturity until they reach ten months and others, like the Irish Wolfhound take 36 months to fully mature.

Punishment is a Huge NO-NO

Punishing a dog for fearful actions is not an option, as it simply causes more stress, more fearful behaviour and, in cases of inter-dog aggression, ever more defensive behaviour. When faced with fearful situations, dogs have just three choices. Commonly referred to as the 3 Fs, these choices are Flight, Freeze or Fight. If a dog finds that the first two options fail to work, option 3 will kick in.

Think of your pup’s first reaction to that dark, noisy monster you know as your vacuum cleaner, for instance. Did he crouch down, his body rigid, as low as possible? When that evil demon and the noise it made continued, did he run away to hide under a chair or table? What happened when you playfully pushed the cleaner closer to your pup to see how he would react? Did he growl, snarl and/or maybe make darting, biting movements?

The movement and noise of a vacuum cleaner can traumatise a puppy so much that it goes into complete “freeze mode”. It is perfectly natural behaviour for humans to pick up and nurture something frightened – so your initial instinct would most likely have been to pick up, cuddle and comfort your frightened puppy.

To your pup’s mind, however, this indicates that you are praising his fear and confirming his need to be afraid. If this was to happen when your pup was between 8 and 10 ½ weeks old – the first of numerous fear periods throughout a dog’s life – that fear could become so deep-rooted that it will be almost impossible to completely eradicate.

Socialisation and General Obedience

Some timid, fearful dogs may benefit from training classes, especially those using positive methods. In cases of rescue dogs or re-homed adult dogs, I would, however, wait for a minimum of six weeks before using this method. This is especially the case with very fearful dogs, which may be too nervous to try class work until after some remedial work has been done.

A private trainer or behaviourist (which would be better still) should be capable of helping you build a structured, positive approach designed to help your dog build-up his confidence as well as helping you determine when your pooch will be capable of coping with class work.

Making your dog jump in “at the deep end” of classes is likely to undo any good work you have done so far, so keep him at the class’ outer edge and at a “safe distance” from anything he fears to begin with. Working on focused attention prior to joining a class can be extremely useful in helping your dog relax in a situation like this.

Some dogs may require several visits – often for very short periods only – before participating fully in classes. Other dogs may sadly never be capable of functioning well enough for this kind of remedial work. If your dog tends to bark inappropriately, lunge or snap at people/dogs, a Jingler can be extremely helpful in eliminating this habit without causing new problems.

Making sure to use the Jingler only while actively working with your dog (and removing it any other time), use the focused attention exercise shown above to keep your dog’s mind off the dog/person he is reacting against.

Change of Diet

Sometimes, a change of diet can be helpful. Sadly, many supermarket dog food brands contain poor quality ingredients and/or cereal fillers that can cause low serotonin levels – which have been linked to both anxiety and aggression in dogs. Foods containing excessive amounts of sugar or low-quality protein can also increase anxiety in nervous dogs.

Switching to food containing quality protein (it is not so much the amount of protein in a food that is problematic as the quality thereof) may therefore help to reduce your dog’s behavioural problems. You can check on the level and quality of protein in your pet’s food by checking the side/back of the can or bag, where the protein percentage should be listed (these levels typically vary between 14 per cent for older dogs and 25 per cent for working dogs & puppies. I have found that a good quality all-in-one dry food and the occasional tin of quality canned food can be beneficial for phobic, nervous dogs.

Containing no behaviour-affecting additives, foods like Bella & Duke Raw or Fish4Dogs Dry, for example, may help calm fearful, nervous dogs if given in conjunction with a desensitisation program and regular exercise.

In terms of calming/relaxing remedies, I am generally not in favour of mainstream ‘human’ drugs. In situations of separation anxiety aggression, stress, fear, noise aversion, barking, etc., I do, however, occasionally recommend Skullcap & Valerian. Usually supplied in sugar-coated tablet form, this traditional herbal remedy (which is also a supplement sometimes used in treating epileptic dogs/cats) can help relax and calm dogs/cats suffering with phobias, apprehension and/or hyperactivity.