What is Fear for a Dog?
Fear is estimated to cause over 80% of aggression in dogs, and is a normal response for their survival. Fear and aggression in adult dogs can largely be prevented by ensuring puppies between the ages of 3 and 14 weeks old experience positive social play with pups their age, as well as gentle handling by friendly, non-threatening humans.
Fear is learned when dogs are scolded, punished or in any way hurt, which often happens at the hands of people. Though it may feel like dogs know “what they did” and understand “why they are in trouble” in fact, dogs are usually very confused by people. They may look apologetic because they know the person is upset at them, but they do not fully understand how to prevent the person from being upset in the first place. Scolding and punishment can cause them to see people as unpredictable and threatening, and begin to cultivate aggressive behaviors.
Signs of Fear
Dogs may cower, retreat, try to escape or hide. Ears go back and tails are lowered or tucked. Dogs may try to make themselves as small and non-threatening as possible. Dog eyes may become wide (more white) and fixed.
A fearful dog may gain confidence and learn to show aggression after it works to make the feared dog or person retreat. Then a fearful dog may show more confident body postures such as leaning forward or lunging. The fearful dog bites and retreats or acts “sorry” with a roll over or crouch with head down.
What about urination when greeted?
Dogs may urinate when greeted out of fear or excitement. A fearful dog may roll over and urinate in the air. Some dogs have medical issues that contribute to fearful or excitatory urination.
What about growling or freezing around toys, or eating food faster in sight of a person, other dog or cat?
It is a normal behavior to guard objects and food. Dogs who practice these behaviors may have experienced items or food being taken away. Sometimes puppies are fed in one big bowl and learn to compete for food. If there are not enough chews or toys, puppies may learn to compete rather than go without. Dogs learn to show aggression once other dogs and people show fear or back off. A once fearful dog then begins to show more confidence.
What causes aggression on a leash or when in a kennel?
Dogs that have even one bad experience with other dogs or did not have any early, positive social learning with other dogs may be afraid of new dogs. If lunging and barking work to make the dog or person retreat, and dogs feel their fear relieved, they learn to repeat these actions and can start to enjoy the experience. Dogs do not think or learn when they are emotionally stressed. Dogs with kennel aggression may have had a bad experience in the kennel or may have had one or more previous painful experiences at a groomer or veterinary facility.
Tips to Avoid Scary & Painful Experiences for the Fearful Dog
Approach a fearful dog slowly and wiggly. Face sideways and do not stare in their direction. Look down and glance up as needed. Crouch and offer the back of a hand to sniff. Allow the dog to approach you.
On a regular basis, walk by all confined dogs and toss treats into the kennels of quiet dogs. Say the dog’s name and praise as you toss a treat.
Never take away chews, toys or food bowls. Instead, “trade up” by tossing or giving the dog special treats.
Walk unsocialized and fearful dogs on a front clip harnesses. Have treats with you at all times and give those treats at your pant seam. Use treats to lure the dog to sit and wait at curbs.
If the dog lunges or barks at other dogs during walks, make a U-Turn at the first sight of a new dog. Act happy and keep your dog’s attention on you as you increase the distance between you and the other dog.
Do not jerk on the leash.
Introduce dogs with parallel walking.
Give dogs a long walk and aerobic exercise daily. For instance, follow up walks with off leash play sessions.