by Jayne Matthews
Any kind of aggression in dogs is obviously a real problem for the handlers, but as with humans, aggression is sometimes necessary to protect themselves. A perceived threat, such as a stranger approaching is not necessarily a real threat. However for a shy or fearful dog any strange environment, situation or person is enough to send the mind into a turmoil of panic causing them to go on the defensive and bark, snarl and sometimes even lunge at the perceived threat in the hopes that the threat will go away. If we ignore this, as some people would, in the hopes that it will eventually sort itself out this can become such a real problem to the dog that he will eventually attack somebody and will more than likely end up being euthanized, purely because his handlers didn’t want to or couldn’t see a way to cure the problem.
One of the reasons for fear aggression is lack of socialisation as a puppy. A puppy’s critical learning phase is between 2-16 weeks and the onset of fear in dogs is 6-8 weeks (Dominance Theory and Dogs – James O’Heare). During these weeks a puppy must be introduced to as many different environments, situations and experiences as possible in order for them to learn not to fear them. Any new experience past this time will be more difficult for the dog to accept without training. At one time I believed, like many others, in the flight or fight response, now however I have learnt that there are in fact 4 reactions. These are known as the four ‘F’s.
- Flight – Run away, if there is an escape route available.
- Fight – A dog will lunge and bite if warning signals such as the following are ignored:
- Yawning, blinking, nose licking
- Turning head away, then turning body away/sitting/pawing.
- Walking away or creeping backwards
- Standing crouched, tail tucked under
- Stiffening up and staring
- Growling/snarling, tail high
- Freeze – Almost catatonic state of immobility, possibly with a snarl or a growl.
- Flirt – Try to initiate play, act like a puppy or generally ‘fool around’ to show they are harmless and no threat.
The signs to look for, which are called ‘fear motor patterns’ are:
Body shrinking back with rear end lower to the ground, ears back and low, and tail tucked between the legs shows the intention to run away. If on the other hand the mouth is slightly open with commissures pulled back in a fear grimace, pupils are fully dilated, tail is tucked, ears are slightly back but paw is raised this means that it is undecided whether to run away or fight (Dominance Theory and Dogs – James O’Heare).
When a dog behaves aggressively towards the feared object, whether a person, a situation or another dog the handler needs to be very careful how they respond. Shouting or hitting the dog will only reinforce the fact that the dog has reason to be scared in that situation, as even his handler turns against him and shows aggression towards him, so can’t be trusted. Showing sympathy and offering comfort to try to calm the dog down is actually rewarding the dog, thereby reinforcing the aggression as he believes he is doing the right thing. Positive reinforcement is the best way to deal with this by rewarding the dog when he calms down and ignoring the aggression; this can be by way of a simple ‘good boy’ and a fuss, or playing tug or fetch. However, if it is a person or another dog that is the feared object, it is imperative that the dog cannot reach them should he decide to lunge.
If the feared object is another dog, the aggression shown can be mistakenly labelled as dominance, when in fact it is fear based. Defensive behaviour is often a coping mechanism designed to keep the scary object at a distance. If a dog barks and lunges, generally the scary object retreats and even disappears thereby reinforcing the defensive behaviour, which in turn strengthens the behaviour and also improves the confidence of the fearful dog. This leads people to the incorrect conclusion that this is just aggression or dominance when in fact the behaviour is fear based.
Another thing to consider is ‘the ripple effect’. This is when the dog has suffered through a traumatic event in the past that has expanded and grown. (For the Love of a Dog – Patricia B McConnell Ph.D)
Parts of the limbic system especially the hippocampus record the details of an event, but because future events cannot be predicted, as many details as possible are stored because it is not known which memories will need to be recalled. If a dog is attacked by a ‘big white dog’ he may always be afraid of big white dogs and show aggression towards them, whilst showing no aggression towards any other dog.
Dogs can also suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which means that behavioural problems don’t necessarily start immediately after the traumatic event. Triggers can be generalised starting with ‘white male dog’, expanding to ‘big, white, male dog’ then finally any ‘big, white dog’ – The Ripple Effect (For the Love of a Dog – Patricia B McConnell Ph.D).
Aggression breeds aggression and if you show aggression towards an aggressive dog you are just proving to the dog that it’s right to be aggressive towards you because you are a threat. Aggression towards a dog includes shouting, hitting or waving your arms around like a demented lunatic.
Dogs that are unknown should always be approached side on preferably in an arcing approach with no eye contact. Leaning over an unknown dog can quite often be perceived as a threat, which can make the dog go on the defensive and bite. This actually happened to a friend of mine. She went to visit some friends who had a German Shepherd and when she asked the couple if he was friendly she was told ‘yes’. She leant over to fuss him and I assume that not understanding the body language of the dog she didn’t realise he was warning her to ‘back off’. The next thing she knew he had jumped up and bitten her on her face. Unfortunately and to my disgust the dog was euthanized after this because the couple took it as aggression rather than fear because the dog felt threatened. Apparently he had a habit of barking at people, but then backing away as soon as anybody approached and if anybody stood their ground he would try to hide. This is why I believe that what he was experiencing was fear and when my friend bent over he felt threatened and responded in the only way he knew as his warnings had been ignored.
When our Border Collie Meg first joined us, she was very fearful of people and in fact of everything, due to lack of socialisation in the crucial weeks. She was 4 months old when she joined us.
Our main concern was that she lunged barking and growling at anybody passing or approaching.
I spoke to a trainer and behaviourist recommended by our vets who said that we should take Meg out and get her used to being around people because going to a training class would be too traumatic for her. She told us to ask people to approach her slowly and when she started barking to back up slightly to the point just before she started barking, slowly decreasing the distance until they were standing next to her.
Heeding this advice we took Meg out to the local park and whilst my husband held her lead I would approach people of different ages, some male and some female and ask them if they would slowly approach Meg. Obviously some people didn’t want to do this, which I can understand, but most of the people I approached were dog lovers and quite happy to help out. I got them to approach her and when she started barking they backed up a step or two and she would stop. When she was quiet again they would take another couple of steps. This time when she started barking they would just stand still, when she stopped barking, they would approach again. Once I could see that she was more comfortable and not so stressed I would ask them to back up a few steps again and this time throw her a treat. After this happened a few times she started showing curiosity and some excitement when strangers started to approach because she linked it with a treat. Now when a stranger approaches her she is friendly and sociable and will quite happily accept a fuss. The only time she shows concern is if a stranger bends over her, which is quite often seen as a threat. My response to this is to explain to any stranger to crouch down rather than bend over so that they are at her level and non-threatening, or better still to completely ignore her until she approaches them.
Knowing what I know now and looking back to how Meg was, I can agree with the fact that a training class would have been pointless because she would never have relaxed enough to learn anything and it would have just shown her that she couldn’t trust us ‘not’ to take her into situations she felt uncomfortable in.
However, I now know that this method will certainly not work for all dogs, as the timing needs to be perfect. The incorrect timing could mean positive reinforcement for lunging or snarling, thus increasing the risk of it happening again and the dog becoming more likely to attack.
Karen Pryor states in her book ‘Reaching the Animal Mind’ that there are 4 ways of overcoming fear, which are:
- Habituation: This means making the dog live with the stimulus until it gets used to it and learns to ignore it. I personally don’t like this method because all you are teaching the dog is that you will not help with his fears so he must help himself by being ready to go on the defensive at any time.
- Desensitisation: This means exposing the dog to the stimulus in small and gradually increasing increments until the dog accepts it. I disagree with this method because all you could end up teaching the dog is that you can’t be trusted because you are the one making him face the scary thing over and over again. If a dog feels that you can’t be trusted then he won’t listen to you when it’s necessary, making the dog very difficult to train. This in turn could be misconstrued as obstinacy. How often do owners say ‘he knows what to do, but he’s just too stubborn’.
- Flooding: Such extreme levels of the stimulus that the dog just gives up and accepts it. I think this is the cruellest method of all because when training an animal you don’t want them to lose all hope and spirit and this to me would just break an animal’s spirit. I have seen our dog Meg totally shut down and accept the car and it broke my heart every time because I was the one who had to force her to do something she was scared of.
- Shaping: Click and treat so that the dog hears the click and pays attention and gets the reward. The second movement then gets a click and reward. Then you wait for the dog to move and click and treat (conditioning). The dog learns that making the right move means he will get a treat and during this form of training any signs of fear/aggression can disappear
Suggested methods of training in order to overcome barking/lunging at other people
Clicker training – Shaping: When somebody is approaching, train the dog to sit calmly and wait for the person to pass by using the ‘click and reward’ method. This would be done by initially clicking and rewarding the dog for the best behaviour whilst the stranger is approaching, this may be not barking, sitting, turning away or just remaining calm. The training progresses at the dogs pace, as he learns the basics of how he needs to behave it is improved upon, until you have the dog reacting in a calm, acceptable manner when strangers approach.
The good thing with the click and treat method is that the dog learns that he will be rewarded for making the right move and starts to look forward to training. Dogs work on a ‘what’s in it for me’ basis, so they soon learn that if they make the right move they will get rewarded. This makes them try every trick they know to get you to give them their reward. However, rewards must be kept constant or frustration can set in. This can make the dog react in one of two ways, they may decide to try harder, or they may just resign themselves to the fact that they aren’t going to get a reward so they lose interest.
This method can also be frustrating for the handler, as they know what they are looking for, but they just aren’t getting it, so they start to confuse the issue by talking to the dog to try to encourage the correct action. Also timing is imperative because , for example, rather than clicking a dog for lowering his bottom towards the floor for ‘sit’ it is very easy to click the dog for starting to stand up again, thus the dog is being clicked (rewarded) for standing rather than sitting.
The first step would be to get the dog to focus on them and make eye contact. This would be done by lure initially. A treat would be shown and lifted up to the forehead for the dog to follow. Once the dog makes eye contact the clicker would be used and a treat given, from the other hand.
Then this would be done without the lure, until the dog was making eye contact each time. Clicking and rewarding constantly for good eye contact.
The length of time eye contact lasts for can also be lengthened, until the dog is maintaining eye contact for a few seconds at a time. Only when he has held eye contact for the required length of time should he be clicked and rewarded.
Once this is being done confidently within the house, this exercise should then be tried with slight distractions, e.g. another member of the family walking around in the house, or in the garden with the sights and smells of nature. Once this is successful, it can be taken outside the house with the dog on the lead.
From there it could progress to friends and family passing by.
Then it would be time to turn practice into reality. Take the dog out on a walk keeping him on the lead at all times. Whenever the handler sees anybody approaching, start the exercise, ensuring the dog makes eye contact at all times, still clicking and treating to reinforce the good behaviour. By this time it should be perfectly possible for the dog to keep eye contact the whole time somebody passes. Once the dog is behaving consistently then the reward can be slowly phased out, but only when the dog is consistent in all environments.
It is my opinion that this method would work because;
- The training starts off without the dog being under any pressure or in a stressful environment.
- The dog starts to learn the reward based behaviour and looks forward to being trained in this positive way.
- It builds a positive relationship between the dog and his handler.
- It is fun for the dog and the handler whilst exercising the dog mentally.
As the exercise progresses the dog works harder in hopes of being rewarded.
The only negative I can see here really is the length of time it may take for somebody to train their dog this way. Not everybody would have the patience or understanding to train a dog this way, which could make it very frustrating for both the dog and the handler.
Victoria Stilwell – Dog Trainer and Behaviourist
On her TV programme ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ Victoria Stillwell quite often has to deal with dogs that bark and lunge at people when they approach. Her suggestion is to allow somebody to approach and when the dog starts barking give him a ‘time out’ by walking him away from the group. Then take him back and when he barks give him ‘time out’ again. Continue this method until the dog no longer barks when being approached.
This method certainly seems to work on her show and I must admit I can see why it would. Dogs are social animals and want to be part of the ‘family’ or ‘group’. When taken away from the family group they will attempt to do whatever is necessary to become part of the family group again. The only problem I can see with this is that if a dog is scared and wants to get out of the situation and away from the scary object/person, then taking the dog away could be seen as rewarding the behaviour thus encouraging the dog to maintain this behaviour. Also when out walking with your dog, it is not always possible to avoid approaching people or take a different route because there is only one path or the path is narrow. Therefore this method can only be used with forward planning and arranging for people to approach in a wide open space so that you have room to remove your dog to give him a ‘time out’.
Another method is the time honoured tradition of the ‘check’ chain. Now called the ‘choke’ chain due to the fact that it tightens around the dog’s neck when it pulls or lunges. It is now known by the more enlightened trainers that pulling a dog back by its lead only encourages the dog to pull all the more. As I learnt in my first dog behaviourist course, pressure invites counter-pressure. It is natural for force to be met by resistance. Therefore pulling a dog back is not going to help when being approached by a stranger. The dog is going to pick up the emotions of anxiety and maybe even fear from his handler, which will add to the dog’s arousal and confirm to the dog that he is right to be scared and show aggression, plus the dog will also learn to connect a stranger approaching with punishment, so will want to do whatever it can to avoid said punishment.
Personally the method I would choose would be the ‘Watch Me’ method. This method can very easily become part of the daily playtime and learning time with our dogs. It can be very rewarding for any handler to realise that his dog is making eye contact every time it is asked for and the dogs also get to look forward to the training time for the rewards involved. It also helps to strengthen the bond between the dog and his handler and as time progresses the dog will look to his handler more and more in uncertain situations to see how to cope with an unknown situation. ‘Watch Me’ can then be used in a lot of situations where your dog is uncertain and will build and strengthen your dogs trust in you.
Dominance Theory and Dogs – James O’Heare
Reaching the Animal Mind – Karen Pryor
For the Love of a Dog – Patricia B McConnell Ph.D
Stella Bagshaw Dog Trainer and Behaviourist with APDT
Victoria Stilwell – It’s Me or the Dog! Channel 4 TV programme