The first step to a successful training program is a successful diagnosis of the dog’s behavior. The sooner we can start training with a problematic dog the better. It is easier to help a puppy than a two-year-old dog. Fear aggression is commonly misdiagnosed and something owners don’t see until biting or growling occurs. Owners often call a trainer once the dog actually makes an attempted bite around 15-18 months of age. Upon further questioning of the owners about the dog’s past behavior, there are symptoms of fear aggression problems much younger. If the dog is treated early for possible fear aggression, and never gets to a biting stage, the dog may never realize biting works. (The definition of fear aggression for this article is aggressive behavior (forward biting) with a root cause of fear or insecurity.)
Recognizing fear aggression in early development stages, before biting occurs, can help owners and dog trainers treat it more successfully. The trifecta of fear aggression is a fearful or shy puppy with improper handling of too much affection and improper exposure at a young age, and most importantly, genetics. Genetics combined with leaving the litter under 8 weeks can compound the problem ten-fold. Below is the typical progression of fear aggression from puppyhood to adult. The time frames can vary depending on the size and breed of the dog. A mastiff will mature at a slower rate than a Chihuahua, so the symptoms will show up at an older age for larger dogs.
Under 16 weeks the insecure, fearful puppy will be calm, still, and quiet. The fearful puppy is different from a normal puppy that is polite and calm. The fearful puppy will be withdrawn, wanting nothing to do with people, plus be excessively mouthy with greater pressure, whereas the normal puppy will greet people happily and politely. A puppy with poor socialization but stable temperament may be fearful, but has an underlying desire to be with people. Owners think the fearful puppy is very easy and sweet because it is quiet and normally not reactive at this young age. The fearful puppy may be the quiet puppy hanging out in the corner at the breeder’s home or the one perceivably being picked on by the mother and siblings. Around sixteen weeks old, some noise sensitivity begins to surface. The puppy can also become overly sensitive to barking dogs. The owner typically tries to soothe the puppy for being fearful and this exacerbates the fear and insecurity.
Progressing to six months of age, woofing under the breath may start. Backing away from a fearful object or person may also start. Resource guarding can exist in fearful puppies, so you may see a puppy take an object and hide under a table keep toys or food in the back of the crate. The fear aggressive puppy may start growling over resources. Between six to eleven months depending on the size and breed, the puppy will start growling, barking, and backing away from a scary object or person. Between eleven and eighteen months the dog will start going forward instead of backing up, becoming forwardly aggressive by biting instead of retreating, which is usually when the owner first recognizes a problem.
Between 1 ½ years and 2 ½ years of age, the dog may land his first serious bite. This usually happens when someone is passing by or walking away from the dog. With the owner, the dog will become clingy. These dogs have a tendency to lie across the owner’s feet, lean on them, or otherwise block the owner. The dog will demand food, affection, or space from the owner. The owner sees this behavior as affectionate and reinforces it by petting. The dog can become possessive of a female human, especially if the rest of the household is male. The dog may quickly flip over on its back out of an attempt to ask for space. This is different than a calm dog slowly asking for a belly rub by lying down when petted. Owners will also perceive this as a request for a belly rub or submission when it is out of defensiveness. Some of these dogs will have anxiety in addition to these other symptoms, and the owners will think it is separation anxiety when it is actually an insecure dog in a dominant position. Sometimes the owner will think a visit to the vet, groomer, or a traumatic incident caused this behavior. This tendency has been in the dog all along; it just went undetected until a trigger escalated it into a bite. It is important vets, vet techs, and groomers be honest with their clients about early problems they have with puppies so owners can seek help.
Another symptom of future fear aggression is excessive mouthiness with the owners and with strangers that invade their space. This is excused as puppy playfulness or mouthiness. In reality, an insecure puppy is biting to get people to leave it alone. Fearful puppies can either overreact by screaming or be extremely still to stimuli such as going to the vet and being examined. Owners may think the puppy is being hurt, but in reality the dog is over reacting or shut down because it is afraid. They will excuse any biting the dog may exhibit during these panicky episodes because “he was scared”. When the dog grows up and actually “bites”, the owners may think the biting happened “all of a sudden” and wonder what happened to their sweet puppy. Nothing is all of a sudden. Aggression for most people is not considered aggression until there is blood drawn. Trainers that recognize these symptoms and intervene earlier can keep the dog from becoming a fear biter if handled correctly. It is important the dog never learn that biting works to move scary things away.
Fear aggression can appear a lot like dominance if a dog is in its home and getting little structure. It is important to recognize the difference. Many will think a dog is dominant when in reality the dog is fearful with no leadership or structure from its family. The insecure dog that is dominant in its own home is often excessively mouthy and body blocks the owners. He has to be first up the stairs, running to the top, and then jumping on the owners when they catch up to him. This dog will also be overly reactive to triggers, barking and lunging at other dogs or people. All of these behaviors are commonly perceived as being dominant behavior when it is actually defensive. Dominant dogs don’t show insecurity, period. A dominant dog can be mouthy and jumpy with the owners, but won’t hesitate to investigate the world. A dominant dog may stop and observe something, but once it decides to investigate, it will commonly be over the top of that investigated object. Fearful dogs put in a dominant position will bark with an upright tail, just as a dominant dog will, but will not desire to investigate things like a dominant dog would. The insecure dog may bark, go forward a little bit, then back up, or bark and stay in the same place. A dominant dog will feel comfortable lying down almost anywhere whereas a fearful dog will not put itself in that vulnerable position. An insecure puppy may display dominant behavior with a weak owner, especially an owner that tries to soothe the dog when he is afraid. The weak owner that elevates an insecure dog to leader can often be the dog’s first bite victim when removing the dog from an elevated place like a bed or couch. A dominant dog does not have to compensate for insecurities and will not bully other dogs. Insecure dogs will commonly pick on dogs or humans they perceive as weaker than them.
Aggression that happened “all of a sudden” is not a normal fear stage in puppy development. If the puppy has been normal, outgoing, and friendly all along, and becomes a little unsure for a short period of time, then it is a fear stage. If the puppy has exhibited the behaviors listed above then it is probably the start of a bigger problem. The good thing is the treatment for a fear stage and possible fear aggression are the same.
Fear aggression is a genetic and innate component to the dog’s temperament. It cannot be fixed. It can be managed and handled correctly to help the dog. “You can’t fix something that’s not broken. It’s just the way it is. People always want to fix things. It’s not mechanical. You can’t take a screwdriver and tighten up the screws and fix it.” A dog that is stable but had fearful events happen in life may be “fixed”, depending on the severity of the incidents. Some dogs have genetic fear and environmental fear combined.
Once identified as potentially fear aggressive, treatment needs to address both the fear and the dominant, excessive behavior. For the insecure, or fear aggressive dog, the relationship between owner and dog needs to change. The dog needs to attain high regard for the owner, and the owner needs to advocate for their dog. Advocating for the dog means to be the dog’s gatekeeper. It means keeping scary things far enough away to make the dog feel safe. The dog trusts the person that advocates for him. Treatment needs to start as early in the puppy’s life as possible.
A powerful training approach for a possible fear aggressive puppy or dog is exposure, exposure, exposure. Exposure is simply exposing the dog to many things, encouraging sniffing and checking it out, not necessarily interacting with those things. Fear aggressive dogs do not want people, especially strangers, touching them. Unwanted touching will only cause the dog to distrust people more. A dog’s tolerance for space invasion and touch by strangers and owners needs to be respected. An “In Training” vest (not service dog vest) will curtail unwanted advances by the public. The dog also needs to watch the world go by without any kind of pressure to interact. Once the dog trusts the handler, the handler can encourage sniffing and exploring objects such as an odd box, a plastic bag blowing in the wind, or even sniffing a stranger while that stranger ignores the dog. Other dogs can aid in the fearful dog’s improvement by setting a good example. The dog needs to gain trust and respect for the owner by respecting the owner’s personal space, entering only when invited. The owner needs to keep the dog “always behind and never in front.” The dog being behind the owner allows the dog to follow the owner’s lead and feel protected, as long as the owner is calm and confident. It is crucial for the dog to get limited affection and only in an extremely calm state of mind. This is especially true with the fearful, insecure dog that also has anxiety. “Lead or be led.”
With the possible fear aggressive dog, behavior modification with obedience, especially downs, in the right combination, is imperative. Different approaches are needed depending on the dog’s relationship with the handler. If the dog doesn’t have trust, the handler shouldn’t use force or pressure. Exploration and exposure, without the dog reacting, is helpful. A solid recall is an important skill for a fearful dog to establish a safety zone near the owner and to get the dog back in case it’s needed. A dog that vacillates between aggression, fear, and anxiety is difficult to reward with food because timing may be off, especially with the owner using food. Using food with a dog that already has resource guarding can worsen the anxiety. If the dog starts grabbing the food from the owner he then gets rewarded for taking food in an excited, prey driven manner. This is also rewarding the dog for prey drive and works against attaining a calm mind. When the dog is uncomfortable or alerts, blocking and redirecting, and pressure with the leash, can eliminate reactions. Sometimes life happens and the dog will have an outburst of aggression. In this case, a correction is acceptable by a handler the dog has some trust in. Proper handling can turn a future fear biter into a dog that is a bit fearful and shy, but will not learn how to bite. The dog will trust the owner to protect him, and also listen to his owner’s directions to keep him safe. As usual with dog training, the treatment for fear aggression is not black and white, and each case is different. Knowing which dog needs what method at a particular time is the art of dog training. There are no rules except for the ones that work for the particular dog.
Bio - Phyllis Smuland has been training dogs since 1984. She mentored under Bob Maida for two years, then started her own business known for training extreme cases, plus the normal obedience trained pet dogs. She has been living in a bubble of sorts, developing her own theories and training methods for the majority of her life. She utilizes her pack of dogs to assist her. Phyllis is currently dabbling in teaching workshops.
“Training for temperament” is an expression I use to explain my dog training approach. In this approach I take into consideration the dog I am training, but also the temperaments of the family members the dog lives with, and change the training based on these factors. I will use three examples of stable dogs to illustrate this. One dog is a Labrador retriever, one household has two female Rottweilers, and one family chose a soft Shih Tzu for a companion and lap dog.
The Labrador retriever will be used for hunting plus be a family pet. This family is experienced with hunting dogs. The hunter is no-nonsense, but the family, a spouse and two teenagers, is a bit softer with the dog, giving more affection and privileges, but not to excess. (Hunter family) The dog chosen was a stable, confident dog from a hunting pedigree. A hunting dog specialist as well as myself will train this dog. For this situation, I didn’t want to squash the prey drive, but I don’t want the dog to pester the family in the house by wanting to play fetch all day long. The family was the keeper of the ball and the toys were only brought out when it was time to play. By establishing boundaries in the home, such as no playing, no furniture, and calm behavior, the dog learned high regard for the family. Prey drive can be brought out because of the stable temperament and the family’s ability to shut the dog’s prey drive off when inside. The stability in the dog and the no-nonsense approach of the owner will keep this dog from constantly searching for prey out the windows, barking, and wanting to play. If prey drive is brought out in an unstable hunting dog, it is likely the dog would bark out the windows, launch the spouse in the air going after a squirrel on a walk, and cause issues for the kids by fixating on cars and bikes because the dog could not turn off the prey drive easily like a stable dog can. This dog will need consistent obedience training including a long, calm down stay and excellent recall. It is likely the hunting dog trainer will use an electronic collar for recall, which will be used after the dog understands the commands given due to my training course.
The second example is a family that purchased a slightly insecure, female Rottweiler puppy about five years ago. Their children, ages 6 and 8, were very receptive of direction from the parents and myself, and very eager to help the dog. This family recently purchased another female Rottweiler puppy. This 2ndRottie is confident, with a higher prey drive than her sister dog. My job was to train both to be good family pets and teach the family how to be fair leaders. (Rottie family) For the 1stRottie, the family hired me when the dog was a puppy. 1stRottie had a touch of insecurity and minor resource guarding. I advised them if they followed my training protocol the dog would be a fine pet. If the dog had more extreme resource guarding or was fearful, I would have advised them this dog was not a match with young children in the home. For the wife, this was her first dog, but they are solid, stable people without insecurity or anxious tendencies. The kids being receptive and well behaved were key to this family’s success. I used food rewards to bring up1stRottie’s confidence level. This 1stRottie was attentive for food, but not fixated or too intense for it. She also had a low prey drive, having no interest in chasing squirrels or birds. Using food also gave the kids opportunities to interact with the dog in a leadership role without putting any pressure on the dog. This allowed the children to establish a respectful, trusting relationship with the dog without being confrontational. (Children putting too much pressure on a dog is not a safe practice, and a good way to get children bit.) The children would also play hide and seek with the 1stRottie, hiding in a small spot and then getting a treat when the dog found them. The parents used much less food with this dog and more praise.
With the 2ndRottie puppy, I did not use food as a reward except for long distance recalls. Her prey drive was too high to escalate by using food for a family pet. Using food, in a prey driven dog, can entice prey drive through too much fixation, and encourages dogs to use their eyes, when we want a pet dog to use its nose. For the long distance recall I used food as a reward, but I also would hide a little bit so she had to search for me using her nose to receive her reward. Using her nose kept her out of escalated prey drive. I did not have the children play hide and seek with the 2ndRottie. For one, the kids were older and not into that game as much, but the 2ndRottie would see the kids as prey and get too excited when she found them, creating an association that the kids represent prey and excitement. This was not a desired association, so the kids work the dog more in obedience and walking instead of games.
I also advised the owners to not allow the 1st and 2nd Rottie to wrestle or spar. The puppy (2nd Rottie) was more confident and dominant and the 1st Rottie (adult) acquiesced to her naturally. I advised the owners to allow the puppy to be slightly dominant over the adult dog by the 2ndRottie (puppy) going out the door first, eating first, etc. This would eliminate any conflict between the two dogs later by allowing the natural pack order of the dogs to happen even though the 2ndRottie was still a puppy. The puppy came to my house for a month and was with my adult dogs that would not give into her, so she learned that not all dogs will be submissive and she should not try to be pushy with other dogs. This also mellowed her dominant behaviors with the 1stRottie. Now the two dogs have a nice relationship with lots of gentle play, sharing beds, and enjoying each other. Both Rotties went through a basic obedience program at around five months of age using a prong collar with pressure, not pop and release. Each Rottie also received additional training at nine months with advanced obedience in high distraction locations. For the 1stRottie I used an electronic collar for recall only so the owner could take her with him hunting (only to accompany him). This was done only after a rock-solid recall on and off leash with distractions was taught without an e-collar. I have not decided if I will use an e-collar on the 2nd Rottie yet. It depends… Both dogs are walked on prong collars since they are big powerful dogs with a lightweight owner and children walking them (attended). The 1stRottie never got a pop on the prong collar, only pressure and release. A pop would have been too much pressure for the 1stRottie and may teach a defensive a dog to react to a correction.
The third example is a single mother and her teenage daughter that wants a lap dog. Both humans are a bit anxious and want a dog to be there for them as a lap dog. So we needed to find an easy dog they can give lots of affection to and let on the furniture. We recommended a breeder of Shih Tzu female from a breeder I know well. This breeder’s puppies are stable in temperament, be able to handle affection without malfunctioning, and will be receptive to a soft owner’s requests. (Shih Tzu family) Sound genetics for a home like this is paramount. These Shih Tzus are bred to be a rag doll type dog and are suitable for lap dogs. If this family chose an unstable, anxious dog it would be a disaster. We will work on the basics like house training, exposure to the world at a slow pace, and explaining properly timed affection. We will acclimate the puppy to a leash and an EZ Walk harness. A collar may be too much for this puppy and this breed can have a weak trachea. Training will utilize food rewards. I will teach the owners body pressure and proper energy levels to use with this puppy. If the puppy needs a correction, which will be rare, I may use a light touch with one finger on the side of the dog’s neck. This is not a poke, it is just a touch, what I call “positive pressure”, until the dog stops whatever it is she is doing, then I remove my finger. I also use a verbal “uh-uh” which is usually sufficient to stop any unwanted behavior. Obedience with the Shih Tzu will be minimal, I teach the puppy to not cross the door threshold (stay), recall, and a few tricks to make the owners happy. This is a dog I would not use an electronic collar on this dog. It is not suitable or needed for the dog’s temperament.
As for collars/tools, I may use the Transitional Leash with the lab puppy because that puppy could use a little reminder of his place in the pack with the family. It helps calm the dog, and it helps teach the owner to be calm and patient. The Transitional Leash can help keep people from jerking the leash, which would energize the lab puppy. On the flip side we would not want the Hunter to be too harsh in his reprimand, therefor making the discipline harder for the spouse and kids if the dog becomes accustomed to harsh corrections. I would not use the Transitional Leash on the Shih Tzu because it is not necessary. The 2ndRottie received one good correction when she wanted to fixate on squirrels with a rubber-tipped prong collar when she was about 5 months old. Prior to that correction, she understood how to walk on a leash and had weeks of training before I set that situation up to eliminate the prey drive on walks. The owner had to correct her once for the same thing when she returned home. I had trust and respect and clear understanding of expectations with a stable dog.
Please keep in mind that when I don’t use food for training, I do not use only corrections. I use a lot of praise. I make sure the dog enjoys the praise I am giving; that it is not too dominant like kissing on top of the head or patting on the head. Physical affection needs communicate praise, not assertiveness. Release of pressure is also a reward. I use a small bit of verbal with many dogs so the dog doesn’t get too excited, but knows it did well. I would use a toy reward, such as a rubber ball or Kong, with the lab puppy because we want to build and maintain drive. I may also use a squeaky toy with the Shih Tzu because that dog may be too low in drive to play with the owner. Since the Shih Tzu is stable, not seeking high pack status, and has low prey drive, escalating excitement in the Shih Tzu will not have detrimental effects even with a soft owner.
Not all dogs are the same with the same purpose or same families. Being able to utilize different methods according to the dogs’ temperaments by using the right tool at the right time for the right reason is the art of dog training.. It is important in the art and practice of dog training to be flexible and not practice the wrong training for the dog in front of you. If what you are doing is not working, practice using another technique and tailor your training for temperament.
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