Rocky’s “Fear Aggression”

6 02 2009

There are times when you have conversations with “dog” people that know little or nothing about dogs or their behavior.  They are often looked to for suggestions and advice because they hold a position of influence.  Oftentimes, they will dispense advice throwing words around that they may have overheard in a conversation.  Some of those words or phrases can be dangerous in the hands of untrained, uneducated individuals.  Phrases like fear aggression are among those that are dangerous.  They think that because they were thinking fast enough to throw out that phrase, it will impress people, increasing their influence among those they encounter.  Some of these people do not have a clue as to what fear aggression actually is, let alone what can be done to modify or manage it.

A few years ago, this man called saying that he had been told by a “trainer” in some big retail pet store that his dog was fear aggressive.  The “trainer” explained to the man that fear aggression was what dogs do because they are picking up fear from their owners.  WHAT?!?  In fact, fear aggression is typically a defensive reaction.  A dog’s body language may show his tail between his legs, while his mouth is snarling.  This is him signaling that he is afraid, and it is your signal to back off.  Some people do, some people do not.  Those that do not usually will find themselves with a dog bite!  Also, dogs with fear motivated aggression will typically hide behind their owners, rather than making eye contact.  Dogs that are fear aggressive certainly do not charge another dog!

The dog whose mother wrote me to find out what is going on is named Rocky.  Though not fear aggressive, Rocky does have a behavior problem.  I believe that Rocky suffers from possessive aggression, with a little territorial and protective aggression sprinkled in to complicate the situation.  Possessive aggression happens when a dog feels the need to guard objects that they feel are important to them.  Those highly-prized objects can range from steak to dirty underwear to humans!

Protective aggression is generally toward a threat to his family, or pack, whether real of perceived.  In Rocky’s mom’s letter, she stated that she is Rocky’s alpha.  I congratulate you and send you a great big sloppy Spike kiss.  Smack!  Smack!

Now that the kisses are drying, I have some bad news.  I am about to burst your bubble.  If Rocky perceives you as his alpha 100% of the time, he would not be acting aggressively toward strange dogs.  As it was stated in the letter, he DOES want to mind you, but he feels the desire to address the other dogs more!

The first thing to address is Rocky’s possessive problem.  Rocky’s mom said that Rocky does not like to share toys.  TOO BAD!  Mom has made it well-known that everything is hers, and she is not ashamed to say it.  She says, “My house, my food, my dog, my toy.”  You see, Mom owns everything, even the things that she has no use for, like dog toys.  To help Rocky modify his behavior about “his” possessions, I suggest that you get a toy he really enjoys and sit down in the floor with Rocky, one on one.  It is very important that there are no other dogs or people around.  Before play starts, make sure you have some treats in your pocket.  Then, begin to play with him using the toy.  When Rocky has full possession of the toy for a few seconds, tell him to “DROP IT” and show him what you are willing to trade, the treat.  Play with him for a few minutes, and when he is really having a great time, stop playing entirely, taking the toy and leaving the room.  This will show Rocky that you control everything.  The alpha (you) started the game, controlled the game and ended the game.  Play this game daily with Rocky for a few weeks, but make sure that you never leave the toy with him.

This will also give him a strong understanding of the “DROP IT” command, and you can give him the squeaky toy to play without your presence.  Again, there should be no other dogs should be around during his play with the toy.  Allow him to start playing with the toy.  Keep an eye on him as he grabs it, shakes it, throws it up in the air, growls at it and chews it.  These are all acceptable forms of play, but the second that he begins to be destructive with it, he loses the toy.  Remember, you have already established that it is YOUR toy, and you do not want it to be destroyed.  Using the “DROP IT” command, repossess your toy and walk away with it.

While you are working on Rocky’s possessive nature, I want you to also feed Rocky from your hand.  This is also something that you should do one-on-one, so put the other dogs away.  Take a bowl of Rocky’s food and sit at your table.  One piece of kibble at a time, allow Rocky to “TAKE IT” from the palm of your hand, NOT your fingers.  You should do this for about three minutes.  Then, put several pieces of kibble in your hand, and gradually increase the amount of kibble.  If Rocky shows any signs of impatience or becomes aggressive because he thinks he is not receiving food fast enough, immediately put the food away and ignore Rocky.  You can try again in about ten minutes.  In a dog’s world, he who controls things, especially the food, is ALPHA!

The reason you should do this one-on-one is because if there were other dogs present, Rocky could become frustrated with the situation and blame the other dogs.  This is redirected aggression, and we are already dealing with enough aggression from Rocky.  Rocky believes that he owns everything and therefore must protect everything, including you.  Rocky believes you are his possession and wherever you and he are is his territory and he must protect his possession…  YOU.

Knowing that you and Rocky attended a training class in one of the mega retail pet stores, I need to comment again on how important it is to find a strong trainer with a background in behavior.  A good trainer would have seen the signs that Rocky was giving left and right.  However, those signs were ignored or overlooked.

Also, while Rocky is roaming the house, you should to put a leash on him and let him pull it around the house.  This will reinforce the message that you are the sending about “my house, my food, my dog, my toy.”  Reminding him that you control EVERYTHING! “I AM ALPHA, HEAR ME ROAR,” if you will.  Since Rocky is not your alpha dog, to keep a good pack, you must establish the pack order for him.  While you cannot choose which dog is the alpha, you must make sure that the other members of the pack respect him/her as the alpha.  If the cocker in Rocky’s family is the alpha, you must reinforce it to Rocky.  The cocker must be fed first, he must be given treats first, he must get a toy first, he gets affection from you first.  All of these actions are designed to let the other pack members know who is in charge when you are not around.  Being alpha has nothing to do with the size, sex, or age of the dog.  It is simply a state of mind!

I think that once the possessive problem is under control, Rocky will realize that he really has no territory unless you give it to him.  Since you control everything, you do not need Rocky to protect you.

Rocky’s mom mentioned taking him to day care in her letter.  If the daycare is located in the same place as Rocky’s previous training class, you may want to do some shopping for another center once you have whipped the issues that Rocky currently struggles with.  Remember, this was the place where Rocky was labeled fear aggressive.  The attendants working in the daycare center probably have just as much training and education as the trainer who did not recognize Rocky’s real problems in the first place.  Do not be afraid to ask around and get references for doggie daycare or a trainer to help you with the aggression issues.  Keep in mind that a real, honest to goodness, knowledgeable dog trainer will never be ringing a cash register or stocking the shelves, so see a pro!

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2 responses

7 02 2009
K Aponte

A very interesting approach to a common problem Spike, but it does make sense. “Bottled trainers” like the vast majority you see at pet stores nowadays get so little training in animal behavior that it really scares me when I see so many good intentioned parents sitting down and following their instructions. With our last puppy one of these trainer’s suggestion to fix a urinate-wherever-you-can problem was to cover the whole floor with puppy pads. Like you said, this rings the register and helps them in the long run but me as a parent gets stuck with pee-pee all over the floor. Instead of teaching tricks they should be teaching patience… that what we all need as humans when dealing with our furry kids. Great post!

22 02 2009
Trying To Find The Inner Alpha « Ask Spike Online

[…] present.  You should also make it a point to hand feed her several times a week like I discuss in this article.  One other way to show your dog that you are in control and therefore, the leader is to leash her […]

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