FEAR AGGRESSION
TOWARDS PEOPLE
(or other animals)

by Janet A. Smith

Fearfulness towards strangers is not uncommon in canines - this personality type is the result of specific breed tendencies, individual tendencies, possible mistreatment or a lack of socialization/exposure during critical developmental stages in the maturation of the puppy. Very often it is a combination of some or all of these factors. It is part genetic, part early learning or a combination of the two.

As canines mature they become wary of novel or new situations. This generally first becomes evident at around 6 months or the beginning of canine adolescence. While it is still possible to change the behavior of the adult canine, the earlier intervention begins generally the more successful the behavior modification program.

The dog may present as very wary of strangers and actively seek to avoid them, (all the way across the spectrum) to the dog that seems to actively want to drive off all strangers with aggressive displays. In other words the animal may present as very passive to actively defensive (aggressive). Whether or not the dog is presenting as passive or active, the reasons for the behavior are the same...fear. A well socialized, well trained, well bred dog that is confident does not feel the need to make inappropriate (aggressive) displays toward non-threatening strangers/persons.

Punishment is generally not a successful component in any behavior modification program. Physically punishing a fearful dog (even though it appears dangerously aggressive) is entirely inappropriate. Dogs learn by association. We do not want the fearful dog to associate punishment with something he is already very uncomfortable/anxious about, as this will only confirm his suspicions that indeed "Strange persons are dangerous...when they appear I am punished".

Instead the treatment program will desensitize the dog to strangers. To be very simplistic: the job is to convince the dog that strangers = only Great things for him!!

The following materials should be in all dog owners' libraries but especially for those who have reactive animals.

"The Cautious Canine" by Patricia McConnell Ph.D.
-this will lay out very clearly a classical conditioning and desensitization process.

"Calming Signals On Talking Terms with Dogs" By Turid Rugaas.
-this will describe dog body language, displacement displays, appeasement gestures.
-Additionally a videotape is available on Calming Signals. It is one thing to read about signals of stress in dogs, it is especially beneficial to see them on tape. This additional purchase is strongly recommended.

"Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor
-The above book will lay out very clearly how all animals, including humans, learn.

All of these materials are available from Dogwise or phone: 1-800-776-1665.

Careful study of these materials in addition to the instruction you receive will give you an excellent foundation to understand your dog and implement your treatment program.

Behavior Modification Program

Any training your dog has received up until this point has been operant learning. To simplify: you have rewarded correct responses sit = sit = reward. Failure to sit = no reward. So your communication with your dog has been a system of "yes and no". You were rewarding or not rewarding "overt" or observable behavior, i.e. those things you can see.

Now the work will take on "Classical" approach we are not rewarding or punishing specific responses. We are hoping to shape/change the dog's feelings or "Covert" behavior - that which we cannot observe directly. We are trying to change the dog's emotional state. We are going to begin to pair the appearance of novel or new stimuli (strangers) with something the dog really enjoys like food. An especially good food item. Toys or games may also be used but this is far less convenient and "clean" to execute.

Identify an extremely favored food item. It might be steak, chicken, liver, cheese and so on ...it should not be a regular food item, and it should be highly desired by the dog. During the treatment program the only time the dog will receive this highly coveted treat will be in the presence of strangers. Strangers = liver. "I love liver!" We hope to convince the dog "I love strangers, they = liver!!"

Now determine what distance, or triggers, agitate your dog to begin the fearful response. A dog may be fine with strangers outside the home but not want them in the home; he may be fearful of all men, all women, all children under 5. Fearful of sudden movements, strangers that appear out of nowhere. "Strangers are fine until they are within 5 feet of me and then I get nervous," and so on. Do a lot of observing and note taking; become an expert on what triggers, or combination of triggers set off your dog.

In general these things are very unsettling to the reactive dog:

Men are generally more threatening than woman. Their movements are more direct, their eye contact is more direct, they are louder than women. They are bigger than women. Many have facial hair and so on...

Young children are provoking to many dogs. They have high pitched, squeaky voices; they move in very fast, quirky ways. They throw things, and ride on scary things...often attached to skateboards, roller blades, carry noisy toys and so on . They grab at and hug dogs. All children should learn to never hug a dog, especially a strange one...most dogs do not like hugs.

Direct, prolonged eye contact is unsettling.

Bending over the dog or reaching over the dog's neck, head and shoulder region is unsettling and provoking.

Moving in a straight line at the dog, especially at a "very fast" or "very slow" abnormal pace.

Falling or moving arms, or legs. Often any change or movement can throw the dog off.

Once you have determined your dog's triggers, now you will work within your dog's safety zone...your goal is to move so slowly in these exercises that you never see a fearful/aggressive display.

You want your dog aware of the stranger but not yet intensely concerned. As soon as your dog alerts to the stranger, you begin feeding him the luscious treats one after the other as quickly as he can eat them. Then while the dog is still doing well and before he has a chance to aggress you either...

1. Have the stranger go away.
2. You and the dog leave the area the stranger is in.

It is important that no matter how your dog behaves you continue to feed. Remember we are not rewarding "correct" or "incorrect" behavior; we are working on changing the dog's emotional state. If your dog will not eat, then you are "too close" or are working too quickly to make progress...don't do that! If the dog is not relaxed enough to eat, you are going too fast.

For several weeks you will work this way within your dog's comfort zone. Let's say for the sake of the example that your dog is comfortable as long as he is 6 feet or more away from a stranger, your sessions would go as follows. 6 feet from stranger, 7 ft. from stranger, 8 ft. from stranger, 5 feet from stranger. As long as you are seeing improvements and not seeing the display, you are moving along at just the right pace. The dog determines the pace of these exercises.

Now you gradually reduce the distance...perhaps on average now you are working within 5 feet of strangers. Again successful, then work towards four and so on.

Once the dog is doing well near strangers then one will begin having the strangers make some contact with the dog...NOT touch the dog but some contact.

It might look like...

Stranger approaches within 7 feet and tosses one piece of steak towards the dog and leaves.

Stranger gradually gets closer and closer.

Stranger crouches down. Or sits tossing some food on the floor near them. The stranger is not looking at nor talking to the dog.

If you are moving at a nice comfortable pace for the dog, he will begin to look at minimum not concerned, and possibly actively looking forward to this person appearing. Now you may be ready to move on to...

Stranger sits (again not looking at or talking to the dog). Allow the dog to approach if he wants to, and reward the dog.

At no time should the stranger reach for the dog, eventually the stranger can hold his/her hand below the neck level of the dog and see if the dog wants to make contact.

Move to where the dog will take a treat from the stranger's hand.

Then can the stranger talk quietly to the dog? Can the stranger make some quick eye contact with the dog? and so on.

Perhaps now the stranger can first feed (a large treat the dog is nibbling at) while gently petting the dog's chest or sides...avoid top of the head, or top of the shoulders region.

Realize that the dog "spooks" due to many things. For example a dog can be calmly taking treats from a seated stranger but should that stranger speak or stand up and the dog will react...the picture presented to the dog "looks different". Different might be dangerous; you begin again to desensitize the dog to this new "picture" or combination of factors.

So can the dog approach a stranger that is standing, bending over the dog, swinging an arm, holding a shopping bag?

Again, every time you add a new element of strangeness expect it to be harder for the dog. The dog may let Barry pet him but not if he is holding a bag of groceries and so on. So Barry goes back to tossing food when he is holding the bag, and you progress in the same gradual way with this New Barry".

Slow, steady and successful wins this game. It is very tempting when we have a bit of success in a session to see if we can "push" for just a little more. This is not advised, strive at all times to keep the dog successful. Only if the dog looks and seems very relaxed should you continue with the session. If at any time the dog gets nervous simply end the session.

Other Exercises

EYE CONTACT: Owners of the dog should get the dog used to eye contact and should reward eye contact heavily. Convince the dog that "eye contact" is a great thing, one can even hold food up near their face to get the dog started. Have anyone the dog is comfortable with play this game with the dog briefly.

TARGET TRAINING: Teach the dog to bump or touch your outstretched hand with his nose, as he touches your hand say "good/yes/click" and immediately reward him from your opposite hand. Hold your hand in all sorts of positions relative to you so he must go right, left, up or down to touch your hand. Will he go through your legs? Will he jump up on his rear legs to touch it? Can you hold it over his head and will he touch it? Practice, practice, practice...you may want to call this behavior "touch" or "hello". Often strangers will extend a hand to your dog and say "hello." Your dog will know how to play this game and it isn't threatening even if the hand comes from over your head!

Desensitize your dog to pats on the top of the head and shoulders. As you feed, pet the top of his head, the top of his shoulders. At first begin feeding before you touch, then simultaneously feed and pat, then pat first. Again hands going "pat, pat, pat" on your head is a great thing! Most dogs find this rude, I ask people not to pat my dogs on top of the head, but I have also gotten my dogs used to it should someone come up and pat them before I am ready.

Teach your dog to perform a very reliable "down/stay" in any situation or setting.

Teach your dogs tricks especially ones that place them in physically vulnerable positions. These tricks should be taught "force free" and with little pressure placed on the dog. Good tricks include run through my legs, roll over, high five or shake.

Do not reward of encourage your dog to guard you or watch dog bark. This is sending mixed messages to the dog. If he gives off an alarm bark, fine. Then teach him to "quiet" on cue or ask him to down/stay...give him something to do besides barking and reward him for that.

Safety Concerns as you Work on this Program

If your dog has bitten, or you fear it will/may bite, acclimate your dog to accept a muzzle. A groomer's muzzle with an open end will prevent a bite but still allow your dog to accept treats. To acclimate your dog to the muzzle put it on...give him 5 pieces of steak...take it off. Repeat over and over again for several days; do this both inside and out. Again you want the dog to think a muzzle is a good thing, no a muzzle is a GREAT thing!! Then as you work with strangers, friends, children with your dog, all can relax as the dog cannot bite and injure someone.

Acclimate your dog to a Gentle Leader Head Collar by Premier Pet Products. This head collar will give you maximum control over your dog and cause him "no pain". Choke collars are inappropriate on aggressing dogs, prong collars are entirely inappropriate as the dog may associate the pain with the stranger. Shock collars should never be used on any dog!

So what do we do if "the big scary thing" appears from out of nowhere and our dog aggresses with barks, lunges and so on. Well I hope that you have managed your dog properly and he is on a collar and lead, or a head collar and lead - simply get out of the situation. It's preferable that you not pull the dog away but if you need to for anyone's safety please do so. No yelling or scolding. Grin, deep breath...these things happen.

If your dog was "off leash" when these incidents occur ...bad trainer, not bad doggy! We must be responsible for our dogs and for the safety of others which means a leash, a collar and, depending on the situation, a muzzle.

Do not expect "immediate improvements." Changes can ordinarily start to be seen in 4 to 6 weeks of steady work. Desensitization is a slow and steady progress. How quickly one progresses depends on how much we practice, the dog's basic temperament, and age.

Aggressing dogs are not "bad." All animals have a tendency to aggress; aggression is normal.

Dogs that are "inappropriately aggressive" have an illness. We treat an illness with an appropriate prescription, not punishment. We have to treat the disease and not the symptoms...to change the behavior, change the dog's feelings.

Courtesy of and Copyright by Janet A. Smith. This article may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission from the author, Janet A. Smith, Good Dog! Training, Okemos, Michigan.

Back to Training Tips Page