Many dog owners are surprised to learn that what starts as fearfulness in a puppy, can readily develop into aggression as they grow up. Others mistakenly believe that aggression in their dog is a result of dominance issues and often punish the dog when they display it. All in all, many owners do not realise that fear and anxiety is one of the primary causes of aggression in dogs.
Dogs are often scared of loud noises and items that are unfamiliar to them. Some are afraid of others dogs, other are afraid of strangers, children or cars. We have even come across dogs that are afraid of barbeques and other everyday objects. Usually this is a result of lack of socialisation and early exposure to different experiences as a puppy. It may also be because the dog has had a negative experience with these objects in the past, which is particularly relevant when dogs are fearful of other dogs. Either way, the aggression shown is the only way your dog knows how to get away from what it believes to be a genuinely dangerous situation.
How can it turn into aggression?
The main concern is that fearfulness as a young puppy can readily develop into aggression as the dog grows into adolescence. This aggression can take the form of barking, growling, snapping or even biting. However, its purpose is to keep the thing that scares them away. Dogs soon learn that aggressive gestures usually gain results in terms of keeping distance or scaring off the object that frightens them.
How can I recognise if my dog is fearful?
Owners need to learn to recognise the body language of their dogs, so they can anticipate situations as they occur. A dog that is fearful will display many of the following characteristics:
- Most of their weight will be on their back legs as if trying to get away or make more distance between itself and the object.
- Their tail will be low and tucked in, perhaps even between their legs.
- Ears will be back, but not all the way.
- Panting and wet paws can occur and even trembling in extreme cases.
- Eyes will be wide open such that the whites are often visible.
- Hairs on the back of their neck might be raised (particularly if the fear is of another dog).
What do I do when I see my dog is fearful?
Whatever the reason for the fear, it is important not to force your dog to encounter something for which it is afraid. This will only aggravate the issue and diminish the trust your dog has in you as the ‘pack leader’.
Rather than punish your dog when he shows fear aggression, remove your dog from whatever it is upsetting them. Although punishment may stop the aggression this time, it does not remove the reason for the fearfulness. By punishing, you are removing one of the only means your dog has to communicate with you. In the worst case scenario, by punishing a dog when he displays warning signals, such as growling, barring its teeth, barking, etc then you might inadvertently create a dog that goes straight into biting without any warning signals. This, unfortunately, makes for a very dangerous dog, as you will no longer be able to manage the situation.
It is your job as pack leader to protect the pack and if your dog sees you dealing with a situation, they are more likely to rely on you the next time, rather than having to deal with it in their own, perhaps in an aggressive way.
How do I overcome this fear?
When your dog is afraid of something or someone, you need to overcome this fear gradually by arranging for your dog to encounter it in mild form first. This usually means keeping distance between your dog and the thing they fear. Use games and titbits during these exercises for good behaviour and help them start building positive associations. Make sure that every time you see that object/person/dog you become happy and start interacting positively with your dog. Over a number of sessions start to reduce the distance, but increase the distance again if any signs of fear are shown.
Your dog will eventually look forward to encountering what it once feared as it will know that something pleasant will happen to him and that there is nothing to fear.
Be prepared to take your time over this. Just imagine your worse phobias and fears (snakes, spiders etc) and how long it would take you to get over these. Have a relaxed attitude with your dog, but don’t comfort, pamper or reassure him when he is being fearful, as you will be rewarding the fearful behaviour. To your dog, this sort of ‘different’ behaviour can often reinforce the reasons they are fearful. So, during exercises be upbeat and use relaxed voice tones.
Important note: If your dog has a serious fear aggression problem, then seek the help of a qualified animal behaviourist immediately. You can ask your veterinary surgeon to refer you to one. The longer you leave the problem unresolved the worse it will get and the harder it will be to fix it in future.