Fear Based Aggression Toward Other Dogs

Over the years, I have worked with many dogs who became aggressive toward other dogs after being attacked.  These attacks usually occur during puppyhood when the dog is more vulnerable.  Afterward, the victim is afraid of other dogs who look like the attacker.  They often freeze, look away, try to escape and refuse to eat when confronted by a look alike.  Unfortunately, the subtle signs of fear are often missed by the pet’s people and not handled properly.  The fearful dog begins to bark, growl and/or snap to drive the other dog away.  With time, the fear spreads to other dogs, animals and even objects.  This is when most people get professional help from a veterinarian or behaviorist.

Here are some basic guidelines for helping fear-based aggressive dogs.  Most dogs require a custom treatment protocol formulated by an experienced veterinarian for successful treatment. 

First Step:  Get the dog back to a neutral, non-fearful state of mind before beginning any desensitization or counter conditioning.  Avoid anything that elicits a fearful reaction.  This includes any situation in which the dog feels confined or trapped (kennels, fenced in backyard while other dogs walk by outside, etc.).  Some dogs are so fearful that anxiolytic drug therapy is required to calm them down.  

Second Step:  Teach them to give you their full attention with the ‘look’ or ‘watch’ command.  Give the command and then reward them for paying attention.  Start with having them look at you for a few seconds and work up to several minutes.  Make sure the dog is rock solid on this command before going to step three.  Be mindful of your own emotional state while working with your dog.  Many dogs learn to be anxious or fearful from their human partners.  Stay calm to set a good example for a fearful animal.  This is especially important in step three.

Third Step:  Slowly reintroduce other dogs or objects that induce fear.  I like to start with objects first since they are easier to control.  Place the object a safe distance from the dog.  The object must be far enough away to avoid triggering a fearful response.  Ask the dog to ‘watch’ you and slowly move toward the object.  Reward the dog frequently for good behavior.  Look for the subtle signs of fear described above and back off when observed.  Be patient!  I cannot stress this enough.  Let the dog tell you when it is safe to get closer.  Forcing the dog will increase fear, not lessen it.  
    When the dog has mastered objects, move onto animals.  Start with a friendly, smaller dog kept at a safe distance and work from there.  Again, go slow and keep the fearful dog focused on you with the ‘watch’ command.  
    If your dog is still aggressive toward a specific dog after using this protocol, watch the dog for subtle signs of aggression.  Sometimes the other dog is the problem and avoidance is the best medicine.  Think of them as the neighborhood bully.   

Last Piece of Advice:  With midly fearful dogs who are emotionally stable, I recommend ignoring attention seeking behavior.  Do not try this with an extremely anxious dog as it will make the situation worse.  For dogs with poor coping skills, withholding human attention is devastating.  Please consult with your veterinarian before using the ignore tactic with your pet. 

Aggression in Dogs – An Introduction

Aggression in dogs is divided into three types, dominance associated, fear associated and resource associated.  Aggression may also be associated with dogs who suffer from pain or anxiety.  For the next two weeks, my blogs will tackle this complex issue.  This post will introduce the types of aggression.  In the posts that follow, I will give general guidelines for treating each type.  Please remember, most dogs require a customized long-term treatment plan for a successful outcome.  Above all, be careful!  Take precautions to make sure everyone involved, including other pets in the family, are safe at all times.

1) Dominance based aggression – Some dogs are born with the desire to be in charge.  They start by dominating their littermates and work their way up the leadership ladder of the family as they mature.  These animals will try to dominate everyone in their family or pack including the humans.   In the end, they may even challenge the adults.  Alpha dominant dogs must be handled with the utmost caution.  Please note that the theory of dominance based aggression in dogs is largely based on studies of wolves which may or may not be true.  This theory which was taught when I was in veterinary school is now under debate. 

2) Fear based aggression – In my experience, fear is the most common cause of aggression in all kinds of animals.  The animal is frightened and bites to protect itself.  Usually, the animal will warn people to back off before attacking.  Fearful dogs will freeze in place, stop panting, refuse to eat, shake, cower, hide their head or urinate.  Unfortunately, people often miss or ignore these warning signs and receive a painful bite.  Fear may originate from a traumatic experience such as being attacked by another dog, learned from a family member or a side effect of anxiety. 
3) Resource guarding aggression – Dogs with this type of aggression guard things they consider important.  Food is the most common resource they protect but I know of dogs who guard beds, sofas, shady spots in the yard, toys and/or special companions.    

Although it’s not really a type of aggression, I always like to mention pain as a reason for biting and growling.  When a dog is painful, it will growl to warn people and other animals to leave them alone.  This is especially common in older patients who suffer from osteoarthritis.  Please contact your veterinarian to discuss any change in behavior. 

Ears and Rears – Food Allergy in Dogs

Whenever I work with a dog who suffers from chronic ear and anal gland infections, I worry about a food allergy.  My dermatology professor called it, “Ears and rears.”  When I see a patient with ear problems and impacted anal glands, especially in younger dogs, food allergy goes to the top of my rule out list.  I recommend a 12 week food trial with a novel antigen or hypoallergenic diet.  If using the novel antigen approach, make sure both the protein and carbohydrate source are new to the dog.

During the trial, the patient cannot eat anything but the test food.  One treat can ruin the entire trial!  Here are some of the common ways that food trials are ruined;

1)  Treats – All treats are forbidden during the trial.  All family members and neighbors must be on board with the trial.  No sneaking allowed.  This includes treats through the backyard fence. 
2)  Medications – Heartguard may not be given during a food trial nor can other flavored medications.
3)  Free roaming – It is impossible to conduct a food trial on a dog who goes outside unattended. 
4)  Cat food, vomit or feces – During a food trial, the dog must be kept away from cat food, hair balls and the litter box. 

After the trial is over, I like to introduce the original food again and see if the signs return. 

2012 Desert Dog Police K9 Trials

It time for the annual 2012 Desert Dog Police K9 Trials!  Come to Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday April 14th and Sunday April 15th to see the police dogs and their handlers compete.  Pictured below is Kaos competing at the 2011 competition.  You may recall Kaos visited me in the hospital and brought great joy when I was fighting cancer.  I’m glad he didn’t think I was a bad person like this poor fellow in the yellow shirt!  More information is available at http://www.desertdogk9trials.com/

Announcing The 2012 Animal Charity Grant Winners

It is my pleasure to announce the winners of the 2012 Animal Charity Grant:  The Humane Society of Southern Arizona in collaboration with the Pima Library Foundation!  This November 4th, I look forward to speaking on their behalf.  This is a great example of two terrific organizations coming together to create a wonderful event for donors. 

If you wish to learn more about these non-profits and their good work in Pima County, here are their links:



Around year-end, I will announce the application process for the 2013 Animal Charity Grant.  Congratulations to this year’s winners! 

Treatments For Cats That Meow All Night

My last blog post discussed how several medical and behavior problems may cause nighttime meowing and yowling.  This post will discuss treatments and how to get your cat back on your sleep/wake cycle.

First, have the cat examined by a veterinarian to find medical problems that might be causing the meowing.  In my experience fleas, hyperthyroidism, pain and dementia secondary to aging are the most common reasons.  If your pet isn’t sterilized, schedule a spay or neuter right away.  Those hormones cause a host of undesired behaviors. 

If no medical problems are discovered, it is time to move on to a behavioral evaluation.  Set up a video camera and record your cat’s nighttime behavior. Is another pet in the family blocking their access to valuable resources (food, water, litter box or resting areas)?  What is the cat doing right before the meowing starts?  Were they looking out the window or sniffing the front door? Keep a log of your cat’s daily routine for one week and then look for patterns.  

Here are some remedies for common problems:
1)  Hyperactivity after eating – Giving snacks or feeding a high carbohydrate diet is like giving sugar to children.  Feed canned food which is lower in carbohydrates one hour prior to bedtime.  
2)  Meowing due to hunger – Cats on a strict diet will often beg for food.  To curb this behavior, get an automatic feeder.  They even come with ice packs to keep canned food fresh.  Set the feeder before the humans retire for the evening at the opposite end of the house.  When hunger strikes, the cat will smell the food and take out their frustrations on the feeder instead of the humans.   When it finally opens, the cat thinks begging from the feeder worked.    
3)  Territorial protection – If your cat is running between windows or marking the door, look for another animal in their territory.  Some cats are highly territorial.  They view any foreign cats as intruders that need to be driven away immediately.  To stop this behavior, keep neighborhood cats away from the doors and windows in your house.  Motion activated air cannisters work well for this.    
4) High prey drive – Some cats want to chase, catch and kill anything that moves.  See #5.
5) Lack of exercise/boredom – This is a big problem for all cats which leads to obesity as well as undesirable habits.  As my professor in veterinary college stated on several occasions, “A tired animal doesn’t get into trouble.”  Before bed, exercise the cat.  My cats love kitty feathers dusters.  Play with the cat until they can’t chase the clump of feathers anymore.  This also works with cats who like to bite feet through the covers.  Schedule regular play times to give your cat an outlet for their energy.  Playing with your cat everyday will also build a stronger human-animal bond.  I predict you will come to enjoy this time together as much as your cat does.