I Think My Dog Is Fear Aggressive. How Do I Know?

12 01 2009

gang-chillingA longtime dog owner wrote me recently, inquiring about a possible fear aggression issue with her pet.  Fear aggression is a scary issue to deal with, because when it does present, the provocation is typically an everyday action.  Before pursuing any behavioral or training issue, the first thing necessary is to take your dog to his vet.  It is especially important that you go to YOUR vet, as the long-term relationship will help him diagnose any issue.  Your dog needs a clean bill of health from his Doc to see if there is anything physically wrong with him before you attempt to change his behavior.  We are unable to tell you when we are in pain, so getting the vet involved is imperative.

In this situation, the human has a 7½ year relationship with her dog.  I assume that she has been working outside the home for most of these years.  As with any routine, the dog became quite content with the situation, but when she was able to stay home with him more, about 1½ years ago, it totally flipped his universe upside-down.  I think that it is a great thing that she is able to spend more time at home with her dog, but that means that things changed in his world, probably all at once.  Being creatures of habit and routine, we do not really care for change.  We do adapt to change, but situations with drastic changes may take us awhile.

Since she has been spending more time with him at home, she needs to evaluate their situation.  Has there been anything that may confuse your dog, especially about his position in the pack?  Oftentimes, simple things that you take for granted can create chaos for your dog.  Little things, like allowing him positions of authority too often.  This includes laying on the bed, sitting on the sofa, especially when you are not present.

One concerning thing that was mentioned in her letter, was that he does not like when she is near his bowl.  He needs to know that this is not acceptable behavior.  As the human, and leader of the pack, you need to be able to go over and pick that bowl up anytime you desire.  Mom always says, “my bowl, my food, my dog, my water.”  Basically everything is hers and she just lets us eat it or play with it.  My advice for breaking his unacceptable behavior about the bowls is to pick up the floor from the floor.  Next, put a few handfuls of food in his bowl and make yourself comfortable at a table.  Place his bowl on the table and call him to you.  When he has arrived (and he should do so quickly), feed him one piece of food at a time.  If he shows sign of aggression or gets too pushy, get up from the table, taking the bowl with you.  Then, place it where he cannot get to it.  Go about your normal activities, completely ignoring him.  After ten minutes of ignoring him, try again.  Here the lesson is that good things come from you, the alpha, and if he behaves, good things will continue.

Many times as dogs and people get older, we tend to not become more lenient.  With the extra time to be spent in this situation, this would be a great opportunity to practice some of the basic obedience commands you learned together when he was younger.  He may not like it, but you are not asking him to like it.  Remember, you are in charge!

To complicate the dynamic of this family, there is a husband.  Our human stated that she was the one who took the dog to obedience classes.  While it is important initially to establish ONE leader, teaching a dog obedience is part of establishing pack position.  When only one parent attends classes, only parent gets the respect of leading the home’s pack.  In this case, the dog established the following as the pack order, Mom, him, and then Dad.  He may be confused as to the actual order, and when the husband presented himself to the dog for whatever reason, the dog let him know as a more superior member of the pack, “Leave me alone!”  Of course, the husband probably did.  Dog 1, Husband 0.

The entire dynamic of the home changed once there was another person living in his home.  The pack order has changed, but he is not sure how.  An aunt was introduced to the equation.  The question for Mom is, “Does your sister ever give him any kind of commands?”   She came home from work one day and began to play with the dog.  Then she sat down and allowed him to put his paws up on the furniture.  She was petting, but not playing, with him.  That was not good enough, as he put his face closer to hers as if to say, “I said get up and play!”  The dog perceives the sister to be a lower ranking member of the pack, and he did what he would do if he were playing with another dog.  He snapped a little at her face.  This is totally unacceptable.  Humans should never allow a dog to get in their face, and humans should never attempt to stare a dog down.  Once I got really close to Mom’s face, and she did not ask me to be there.  She did not even look at me.  Instead, she just said, “Have you lost your mind?”  I have become very adept as reading the tone of her voice, and I knew that I had crossed the line.  I wait to be invited close to the alpha’s face.

One more problem that I see is that she seems to be afraid of the dog sometimes.  It is not a secret, and he knows that you are afraid and when you are afraid.  When people are afraid, the fear triggers a flow of adrenaline into the body.  We do not understand the scent that humans emit, so we are on the lookout.  This translates to our being way more interpretative about your actions, and we do not always get it right.  Remember that in the dog world, fear means weakness.  When your dog senses your fear, he feels that he has been put in a position to protect the pack.  This may cause him to act aggressively.

One time my mom was working with a lady and her dog.  The lady was extremely afraid of the 4 lb. Mutt.  Mom told her she had to empower herself.  The action she suggested was to walk around the house, reminding the dog that everything is hers.  So the lady walked around her house and said in a stern voice, “My toy!” as she picked up one of the dog’s toys, and she would keep it for a while.  Sometimes, the lady would go into her kitchen and block the doorway so as to not let the dog pass.  She would then tell him, “My kitchen!”  She also fed him from her hand, to reinforce that he or she that controls the food deserves to be a very respected member of the pack.

Finally, it was mentioned that the dog had “the look” on his face.  Keep in mind, that we do not have much in the way of ability to control any looks on our faces.  Some people claim that their dog knew that he did something wrong because he had a guilty look on his face.  The only thing he is exhibiting is a body language change, when you change your tone, upon discovering his misdeed.  He has the same look on his face that was there before you discovered the problem.  We do not feel guilt, we are merely responding to your actions.  If something bad happens and you did not like it, you may feel guilty, but your dog probably feels that it was worth it.

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