Fear Aggression In Dogs

by admin on June 30th, 2015

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Fear aggression in dogsFear is one of the most common triggers for threatening or aggressive behaviour in dogs. But what is fear, why do some dogs become fearful of things that won’t actually harm them and what makes some of them go to the extreme of using threat or aggression when they are feeling afraid?

What is fear?

Fear is one of the six basic emotions seen in all mammals and is healthy, normal and desirable. It causes unpleasant feelings when a dog is around anything that may harm him, prompting him to move away from it and so protecting him from danger. However, as the saying goes ‘a life lived in fear is a life half lived’. If a dog is excessively fearful this not only interferes with doing the things he needs to do to survive, such as going out to get food and be around other dogs, but it also affects his quality of life. Dogs therefore need to learn to balance the protective benefits of fear with the need to interact with others and explore their environment. All being well, puppies learn to do this as part of their normal development during the first 12 weeks of life. They then grow up able to balance curiosity and caution in a way that keeps them safe whilst allowing them to behave in a normal way.

What can cause a dog to be fearful?

Many things influence how dogs react to whatever is going on around them. Their physical state, including their genetic drives, age, breeding cycle, illness or pain, and some medications all play a part. Dogs also start learning before they are even born and every experience they have has the potential to affect their future behavior in some way. This combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ then combines to determine how the dog reacts to new experiences. This is discussed more in the article ‘Dog Aggression’.

Most of the time these influences ensure the dog is only afraid of things that pose a genuine threat to him. However, very occasionally one or more of them will cause the dog to feel afraid of things that don’t pose a real threat, or to react excessively if they do. For example poorly socialised dogs may be fearful of other dogs even if they are being friendly, and dogs that have been physically punished in the past may become afraid of anyone raising their arm even if they are not threatening to strike the dog. Equally a dog that has been attacked by another dog in the past may escalate to using very strong aggression such as snapping or biting in response to even very mild threat from another dog.

Why do we sometimes see fear aggression in dogs?

Fear aggression in dogs only tends to arise if the dog has no other way of dealing with something that is scaring him. When they are afraid, a dog’s instinctive reaction is to get away from the trigger so the unpleasant feelings it is causing stop. If the fear is being triggered by something inanimate, such as a car or sudden noise, the dog will typically achieve this by moving away or hiding. Dogs may also try to back away or hide if they are worried by a person or another dog. However, depending on the circumstances, the dog may also try to increase the distance between themselves and a human or canine target through communication.

In most cases this will involve the use of appeasing signals. These are intended to show the target that they don’t pose a threat and to ask to be left alone. They include things like licking the lips, turning the head away and cowering.

If the target reads these signals and backs away, the dog will then stop feeling so fearful. He may also feel less fearful the next time he is in the same situation as he will know the scary person or dog will leave him alone if he asks. However, these signals don’t always work. Some dogs may still behave aggressively due to their own problem behaviour. People also often don’t recognise or respond to these signals, and things like cowering may even make some well-meaning people get closer to the dog to try and reassure them. This can inadvertently make the dog more afraid, as they feel unable to get away from the person that is scaring them.

If appeasing signals don’t work some dogs may then try using threat to make the target back away instead. Low level threat is quite subtle and includes things like leaning forward, staring at the target or holding the tail erect.

Even when this looks confident it is still often underpinned by fear and is just the dog’s way of putting on a show of false bravado to increase the chance the target will back off. As with appeasing, if this works the dog is less likely to be fearful in the same situation next time. However this strategy may also sometimes fail, for the same reasons as appeasing does, causing some dogs to then use more obvious threat such as growling or snapping. This type of behaviour is what people are often referring to when they talk about fear aggression in dogs. This escalation will very often work to make the person or other dog back off. However some dogs may retaliate and some people will punish their dog for growling or snapping at them. This can then sometimes trigger the dog to bite.

Can some dogs show threat or bite without warning?

There are occasions on which a dog may appear to use higher level threat or aggression, such as lunging, snapping and biting, without having used appeasing signals or lower level threat as a warning first. Sometimes this will be because the warnings were there but weren’t seen. We don’t very often catch bites on video but when we do we almost always see all the warning signs that the target didn’t. Dogs can also learn that lower level signals don’t work or that they result in the target retaliating or punishing them, such as if someone smacks the dog or pins him down for growling (the latter is often called an ‘alpha’ or ‘dominance’ roll). The dog then learns to skip these warnings and go straight to using very high levels of threat or even biting. The reasons behind the behaviour are still the same. All that has changed is the speed with which the dog has escalated to a bite.

What should I do if my dog shows signs of threat or aggression?

Fear aggression in dogs isn’t very common. However, if your dog is using threat or aggression out of fear then he is in distress and so not only are the people or dogs it is targeted to at risk, but your dog’s own welfare is also being compromised. It is therefore important that you seek help as soon as possible for everyone’s safety and welfare, and to prevent the behaviour deteriorating. The first step is to speak to your vet to ensure there isn’t a medical cause for his behaviour. He or she will then be able to refer you to an appropriately accredited Clinical Animal Behaviourist who can diagnose the reason for the behaviour and help you change it.

Common appeasing signals in dogs:

  • Licking their nose or lips
  • Chomping – like chewing a toffee
  • Looking away
  • Turning or leaning away
  • Pulling their ears back
  • Narrowing their eyes
  • Sniffing or licking the other’s muzzle or face
  • Cowering
  • Tucking their tail (it may still be wagging)
  • Walking away, or trying to escape or hide
  • Rolling onto their side or back whilst avoiding eye contact

Common threat signals in dogs:

  • Becoming still and tense
  • Staring at the target
  • Leaning forward
  • Holding their tail up
  • Holding their ears up and forward
  • Physically controlling the other e.g. blocking their way, pinning them down or holding them using their muzzle without using pressure
  • Mounting
  • Putting their head over the other’s neck
  • Aggressive barking
  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Snapping

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