A Message from the Vet - December 2011
Fear Aggression in Dogs

Dogs with fear aggression usually start out being underconfident around strangers when young, backing away from them and barking at the same time, potentially running away when approached. Dogs that have been hit or kicked may be "hand shy" or wary of feet. Fear aggressive dogs more commonly bite when strangers are not facing them, such as when they turn or walk away. As the dog grows older, he learns that intimidation by barking or snapping works in keeping strangers away. This confidence may be enough that the dog no longer shows obvious fear.

Genetic factors may play a role in developing anxious and fearful behaviors. Herding dogs may be more at risk of developing these behaviors. Hypothyroidism may also result in heightened anxiety and underconfidence. Environmental factors such as lack of positive socialization with people or negative interactions with strangers during the first 3-12 weeks of age can predispose dogs to fear aggression. Isolation from people at this stage may develop into mistrust of all unfamiliar people, whereas particular adverse experiences develop fear toward specific situations or types of people (men, people with hats, children, etc).

To address your dog's fear aggression, she should be examined for any underlying health conditions that may directly increase anxiety, or that may be causing her pain or discomfort leading to the anxiety. This examination by your veterinarian will likely involve a blood work panel to screen for several diseases such as hypothyroidism. Your veterinarian may work with you on behavioral training techniques or recommend you to work with a behavior consultant. In many cases, behaviorists will use techniques such as desensitization and counter-conditioning to help your dog overcome her fear. Desensitization is a gradual systematic re-exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus. This approach should be performed alongside counter-conditioning, which is training your dog to have a more acceptable attitude and response at each exposure.

Tips for keeping visitors safe in your dog's home:

1. When visitors first arrive, keep your dog isolated in a separate room. Once everyone is seated comfortably, bring the dog in on a leash and head halter (Halti lead or Gentle Leader). Remove the dog from the room before anyone gets up or prepares to leave the room.
2. Once the dog is relaxed with people sitting in his home, you may desensitize and counter-condition him to people moving around the house. Begin with having guests slowly stand up and sit down again, then reward your dog for not reacting.
3. If your dog remains calm while your guests quickly stand up and sit down, have your guest take a few steps from their seat and then sit down. Gradually increase this movement (always rewarding your dog for remaining calm).
4. Do not have the person attempt to pet or reach toward the dog at this stage, but they may toss a treat toward the dog if she is remaining relaxed.
5. Once the dog is relaxed, he may graduate to a 10-foot nylon training leash and interaction with the guests. Your dog should be the one to initiate all interaction. If he chooses to approach a guest, have the person quietly and slowly offer their hand for the dog to sniff or passively hold out a food treat.
6. If the dog indicates it would like to be petted, the guest should do so briefly, avoiding reaching up over the dog's head and avoiding prolonged eye contact.
7. The goal is to teach the dog to associate visitors with positive, pleasant experiences. These exercises should be repeated with a variety of "volunteer" guests. Remember to take these steps slow - don't try to do everything all in one day!

Jill Yoshicedo, DVM

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