Fear Aggression is a behaviour that is usually a defensive one based on fear.
What is fear?
It is an unpleasant emotion caused by the concern that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or is a threat. A dog showcasing fear aggression may be growling, barking, baring their teeth to try and scare away what they fear whether it is a sound, another animal or in our case at the vet, a person. We mean them no harm but they don’t know that, and it is our job to help them understand this.
Understanding fear aggression begins with ourselves understanding that the concern is 100% from the dog’s perspective. What we may assume is the problem may very well not be. During these moments our pet is not being irrational or misbehaving; they are being a dog, using their instinct and protecting themselves and their “pack.”
There are many different tips in helping your pet cope with fear aggression. Bear in mind that some things may work for some dogs but not at all for others. Like people, our dogs are all different in how they learn. Enroll your pet into some training. It is a bonus to your pet but also yourself. It will allow you to learn ways to connect to your dog and open up to communication and understanding your pet.
Re-enforce good behaviours. Dogs like doing what feels right to them and by helping re-enforce good behaviours you, in turn, are helping them to shape themselves. Observe and reward the right moments as often as you can. If you catch your pet watching you, reward that! They look to you for guidance, and if you can get them to focus on you, it can be a huge help. To desensitize them they must be exposed to small doses of their fears.
Counter-conditioning can be used by taking something that they fear and teaching them to associate with something they love. You can use a tasty treat for very food driven pets or a special toy for the toy-driven dogs. I suggest you begin treating or playing with the toy right before they are exposed to what they fear. It allows you to have their attention and treat them with something highly value as a special reward. Usually when repeated enough your dog will begin to assume that something great comes to them at those moments. Having them “just get used to it” might cause the behaviour to escalate. The more the dog engages the behaviour, the better they get at it. Repeating a particular behaviour allows it to become more natural and ingrained. It is a form of self-reinforcement. Exactly what we want to avoid.
During any exercise, it is important for you to know when your pet may be feeling some distress. Signs such as lip licking, yawning, panting, facing away from a situation, freezing on the spot, whining or growling. A growl should always be known as communication. It is one of the only ways your pet can relay to you that they are uncomfortable or scared. It is a warning that we always need to respect because it may lead to a less than pleasant experience should it be ignored or punished.
Check our emotional state. Are you stressed? Worried? Scared? Your dog will usually always feed off of your emotions as mentioned before your dog looks to you for guidance. A calm and relaxed you can help indicate feeling safe and protected to them.
Lastly, remember changing an instinctual emotional response is not going to be easy. Trust me as a person who has spent a lot of time dealing with this in my very own pets, it takes a lot of time, trust and patience but is worth every bit of it. Remember to celebrate the small success- they are after all that leads up to the bigger ones!
Written by: Amy Hanchiruk