“Your dog isn’t dominant; he’s frightened.” I say that to clients who have dogs with aggressive behavior more often than you might think. People are surprised, and many are relieved. The dog isn’t being mean to take control. He’s just trying to make something frightening go away or stop.
Understanding that leads to a fundamental shift in how we approach dogs who are behaving offensively. If a dog is afraid, it doesn’t help to assert our own authority (often with some aggressive behavior of our own). It helps much more when we teach the dog how to behave calmly under pressure. Better yet, let’s teach our dog that the thing he’s afraid of isn’t so scary after all. Now, there’s the challenge.
I see a lot of dogs who are afraid of people they don’t know, men in particular. Sometimes this fear is a result of trauma or abuse. More often, there was a lack of socialization with people in the dog’s early development. Whatever the cause, dogs will try to create distance between themselves and the thing they perceive as frightening. Some dogs increase that distance by running away or hiding. Others, the ones we call “aggressive,” try to increase distance by making the scary thing go away. They bark, growl, snarl and lunge. Some bite. Regardless, the goal is the same: Make the scary thing stop. (A person reaching for a dog will pull back when a dog growls). Or, make the scary thing leave (dog growls – person retreats – dog is relieved).
In most cases, like the example above, dogs who are behaving aggressively are trying to avoid something. Specifically they are avoiding close contact or interaction with something that scares them. Cases in which the dogs are aggressive to attain something are rarer. Most of those situations involve predatory behavior, in which a dog is chasing an animal or a person who is running away. Dogs who guard their food bowls and toys are somewhere in the middle. They are trying to keep a resource. Though some would say they are afraid of losing that resource, which brings us back to fear.
In the end, teaching your dog that the world is a safe place is your responsibility. So is training your dog to behave attentively and calmly in the presence of frightening things. Calm resolve and a focus on upbeat reward-based training is the key to success. Of course, there is help available. And, finding the right kind of help is absolutely essential.
Canine Behaviorists and many Canine Behavior Counselors are qualified to assist people with dogs who exhibit aggression. The person you choose should be very familiar with applied behavior analysis and desensitization / counter conditioning techniques. Avoid trainers who use force to suppress behavior, or who insist you assert yourself as your dog’s “alpha.” That could just lead to more fear and unwanted behavior. Remember, he’s not trying to take over. He just wants to feel safe, and to know that you’re there to help show him the way.
Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC specializes in cases of canine fear and aggression.