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. 

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.