Anxiety Based Aggression in Dogs

As discussed in my prior post, some dogs become aggressive due to fear.  These animals live by the slogan, “The best defense is a great offense.”  Some dogs become aggressive after a specific incident such as being attacked by another animal.  The other common cause is anxiety.  Anxiety causes fear in both humans and animals.  If the dog can’t escape from the anxiety provoking stimulus, it becomes aggressive. 

The principal behind treating an anxious dog is simple – build up their confidence.  But doing that can be challenging.  As is often the case, a little common sense and patience go a long way.  Here are some tips for helping an anxious aggressive dog.  Please note, some severely anxious dogs require anxiolytic therapy before implementing the following steps.   

Step 1:  Identify anything that triggers an anxious response in the dog and avoid it.  I like to have people keep a log with the following information; date, time, environment (includes temperature, noise and scents as well as objects), brief description of what happened and how the dog responded.  Once a trigger is discovered, remove or avoid it to lessen the dog’s anxiety.

Step 2:  Create a consistent environment for the anxious pet.  Knowing what comes next is a great stress reliever.  Even people prefer consistency – think of how financial markets sometimes respond before a close election.  Keep things as consistent as possible by following a strict schedule for feeding, playing and resting.  Only the animals and people who actually live in the dog’s house should be present.  No visitors or guests until the dog’s anxiety is under control. 

Step 3:  Provide strong leadership for the dog.  Since dogs are pack animals, they will naturally look to their people for direction.  Set a good example by remaining calm, using a gentle voice and touch.  Consistently reinforce good behaviors with praise, treats (in moderation) and attention.  When a dog knows you have the situation under control, it reduces their anxiety.  (Please see note regarding the term ‘pack’ below.)

CAUTION: Providing strong leadership does not mean dominating the dog.  In my experience, dominance based training will make anxiety worse, not better.  In my opinion, and as a veterinarian, I find some of Cesar Millan’s approach in this regard quite disturbing.  Punishment teaches the dog to mask their feelings until it is too late and they bite.  I would rather have a dog let me know how they are feeling with a growl than wait and bite. 

Step 4:  Teach the settle command.  Engage the dog in something they really like to set a positive tone.  Perhaps the dogs likes to lie on their back and get a belly rub.  When the dog is relaxed, give the command “settle” repeatedly.  Once they understand this command, engage the dog in an activity such as playing with a toy.  After a few minutes of fun, give the settle command and reward them for calming down.  Practice the settle command several times during play sessions before using it during a stressful situation. 

Step 5:  Start desensitizing and counter-conditioning the dog to anxiety inducing triggers.  Go slow!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  If your dog is anxious around strangers, start by letting them view the person from a distance.  When the dog becomes anxious, use the settle command and reward them when they calm down.  Slowly, bring the dog closer and closer until the friend is the one rewarding the dog.  This might take weeks (or longer) in severely traumatized animals.  Patience, patience, patience!

Note:  The term ‘pack animal’ to describe dog behavior has fallen out of favor with some behaviorists and trainers.  They believe dogs are basically loners, who only get together for brief social interactions before heading off to find their next meal.  These studies suggest that dogs do not form strong relationships with other individuals, dogs or otherwise.  While this might be true of feral dogs, it does not correlate with what I see in the clinics.  In my experience, dogs form strong attachments to the people, dogs and other animals in their lives.  They love their families!  Whether their social unit is termed a pack, group, gang, click or family doesn’t matter to me.  The important point is that dogs seem happiest when they are part of a family.  Here’s to forever homes!   

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.