What is the biggest problem in modern day dogs? Most people will say “aggression.” Partly this is because we as a culture continue to inflate the meaning of the word over time, thereby giving our population an inflated sense of its presence in our dogs. This mis-sense is then perpetuated by our institutions, including animal welfare institutions, giving it a disturbing amount of power. It used to be that aggression in a dog meant biting — an aggressive dog was a dog that physically attacked, bodily injured, or even killed — a dangerous dog, proven dangerous by direct evidence. Bizarrely, some now place aggression’s starting line at barking — an invalid placement since almost every dog in the world barks, and very few people would label every dog in the world “aggressive.” So why has the word’s definition become so flaccid? Fear. It is easier to hate what we fear, to attack it, than to learn about and modify our reactions to it.
Fear is also the answer to the opening question: Fear is the biggest problem in modern day dogs, and just as humans may find it easier to let fear turn to anger, dogs who are afraid may appear angry. We call that behavior reactive, not aggressive, however, since they are not attacking but rather reacting to their fearful feelings in less than healthy ways, just as we often do. We do a huge disservice to the dogs of our community if we overlook their fear and insist on labeling them aggressive, because most fearful dogs became fearful as a result of their past experiences. Having lost their homes, being left in a shelter, perhaps being surrendered and moved from family to family multiple times, chips away at an animal’s sense of security. Add any number of additional mishaps such as accidents with children, mistreatment by strangers or someone in the home, punitive or painful training methods, etc. These things pile on the fear. There may also be genetic components in some dogs, but experiences play a huge part. Once you know you have a dog shouldering fear, you should also know there are things you can do to help:
1. Ensure the dog is always safe. Safety is one of the most basic needs for all animals. A fearful dog is a dog whose needs went unfulfilled in the past.
2. Ensure the dog feels safe. If the dog doesn’t feel safe, fear continues to overwhelm the dog. Feeling safe is crucial to modifying fearful behavior.
3. Use food that is high value and novel to the dog to change the dog’s associations from negative to positive via classical counter-conditioning and R+ operant conditioning. (Please contact me for details. This is not something you want to try on your own; these methods require a certified, purely positive trainer.)
4. Keep training and conditioning sessions short and fun for the dog.
5. Learn and stay attuned to the dog’s signals, taking your cues from them.
There are many ways to help your dog feel safe. Consider actual dangers to the dog and to those on whom the dog relies, as well as perceived dangers. Consider actual and perceived threats. Consider extreme temperatures, natural disasters, fights between animals and people, loud noises inside and outside, volatile people, especially those who express their displeasure, e.g. by stomping around, slamming doors, tossing things, or just muttering passive aggressively under their breath and carrying around a head of steam all day. Ask every person in the dog’s vicinity to set aside habitual expectations and behaviors that might harm or scare your dog. Dogs are sensitive creatures, and fearful dogs moreso. Consider the quality and availability of food — another basic need. Do not take the dog out on walks if it feels safer to the dog to just stay home, which is often the case for fearful dogs. Falling prey to societal norms is a common problem when caring for a fearful dog, so remember to always ask yourself: What is going to keep my dog safe and feeling safest? Exercise is nice, sniff missions are great, but safety and the sense of safety are far more important for a fearful dog trying to heal.
The last fearful dog turned in to me was a feral who couldn’t be touched for weeks. Now he’s head in lap every chance he gets.
Rain Jordan of Elevate Dog Training & Behavior is a certified, professional dog trainer. Contact her at ElevateDogTraining@gmail.com.