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Fear Aggression By Dogs Directed Toward People

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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One of the most frustrating experiences for a dog owner is having a dog that hates strangers with a vengeance. Fear-aggressive dogs are not necessarily aggressive to all strangers; they often single out certain types of people as particularly abhorrent. Men and children are the most common objects of this aggression, though women are certainly not immune.

Causes

  • Genetic factors. Some breeds and breed lines are quite well known for anxious and fearful behavior. In general, herding breeds may be more at risk of developing fearful behaviors than other breeds, though any dog may become fearful and aggressive to strangers if circumstances dictate.

    Inherited fearfulness is known to occur. Hypothyroidism is one mechanism by which apprehensiveness and even frank fearfulness may be propagated. Not absolute hypothyroidism, which is associated with lethargy and inactivity, but the subliminal state of "borderline hypothroidism," in which anxiety may be enhanced. Detecting this hormonal shortcoming and treating it by restoring thyroid hormone levels to an optimal level will often restore a dog's confidence and alleviate its fearfulness.

  • Environmental factors. Lack of socialization or unfortunate experiences with strangers during the "sensitive" period of development (3 to 12 weeks of age) sets the stage for fear aggression. Relative isolation from strangers leads to a global mistrust and suspicion of unfamiliar persons, whereas adverse experiences produce more targeted response. Men and children are most likely to be the subjects of dogs' fearfulness with respect to of people, probably because of their greater propensity for agonistic behavior toward animals. Although the early period of life provides the most rapid and indelible form of learning, extremely distressing incidents later in life can also result in permanent learning of the regrettable type. In their wisdom, dogs sometimes generalize their learning to include all men or all children, though fearful learning can be as specific as being associated with only men wearing tall hats or men with white beards.

    A pup that is destined to become fear-aggressive is usually underconfident around strangers from an early age. As strangers approach and enter the dog's home ground, the pup will back up and bark at them and will flee to a safe distance if approached. Dogs that have been mistreated may become "hand shy" or agitated by the movement of strangers' feet. As the pup matures, he gains confidence. He also learns, from strangers' reactions, that a strategy of intimidation works, so he intensifies his repellent behavior. This learning accounts for the typical direction of fear-aggression toward people who are not comfortable around dogs. The dog perceives this uncertainty and capitalizes upon it. In the final stages of its evolution, fear aggression can be difficult to recognize as stemming from fear because the dog can develop confidence in his defensive strategy that he show little overt sign of his underlying anxiety.

    What Can You Do?

    As with all other fears, desensitization, a process of gradual systematic re-exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus, is the gold standard of treatment. This stepwise approach is usually carried out in conjunction with counterconditioning (training a different, more acceptable attitude and response and at each stage of the introduction process). Counterconditioning, which is usually accomplished using food treats in conjunction with a "relax" command, is not absolutely necessary but expedites the desensitization process.

    The steps in the program are as follows:

  • First prevent any uncontrolled exposure to strangers.

  • Teach the dog a "sit and watch me" command or, alternatively, have him remain in a relaxed down-stay position. Reward the dog's compliance with food treats and/or petting and warm praise.

  • Introduce a mildly fear-inducing person at a distance. Reward the dog for remaining calm. As long as the dog remains relaxed, ask the person to move a little closer, and repeat the exercise.

  • If the dog is resistant to remaining still, an alternative strategy is to have the person stand still while you walk the dog around the person in progressively decreasing circles (or vice versa)... again, praising and rewarding the dog for composure and compliance.

  • If the dog remains calm when the person is close by him, the person can then be asked to drop a treat for the dog. If the dog consumes the treat, this is an indication that he is fairly relaxed. Later the person can hold out a treat in his hand and see if the dog has the confidence to take it. The golden rule is: NEVER force the issue. Allow things to proceed at their own pace.

  • During the early stages of training, assistants should be advised not to make direct eye contact with the dog and not approach the dog directly. Instead, have them to approach at an angle or with a curved trajectory, to move slowly but purposefully, and to avert their gaze, looking perhaps at the dog's ears or nose rather than directly into his eyes. An approach like this is less threatening to most dogs.

  • If the dog cannot maintain a controlled sit or down, and cannot focus on the owner because he is tense, barking, or lunging at the stranger, then the owner should return to an earlier phase of training. Ideally, during the training process, no one should come close enough to the dog to trigger a fearful or aggressive response. If the stranger approaches too close and the dog becomes aggressive, they should stand still until the owner can get the dog's attention, preferably in response to a previously trained cue. The dog should then be rewarded for the corrected response. Following such an incident, the owner can ask the person to retreat to a distance at which the dog was comfortable previously and resume training (providing that the dog does not remain aroused).

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