Using odd ratio statistics, one of our master’s degree students at Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy found that dogs exhibiting fear aggression are 580 times more likely than a control group with owner-directed aggression to have been raised in what we call a suboptimal environment during the sensitive period of development (3-12 weeks of age). She defined a suboptimal environment as one in which the puppy is raised with little contact with people, perhaps isolated in a basement, whelping room, garage or outdoor compound.
It is not hard to see that puppies raised without the benefit of ongoing benign interactions with a variety of people (and dogs other than littermates) might become somewhat insular in their thinking and therefore shy of novel encounters. This shyness can be compounded into frank fearfulness by negative experiences, such as being shouted at or handled roughly.
Because men and children are more prone to behaviors that might intimidate a pup, they are the ones who typically become the subjects of a fear aggressive dog’s attention.
The time course for development of fear aggression in dogs almost exactly mirrors that of the development of a similar type of dysfunctional aggression in humans (when adjusted for life span). In dogs, shyness and backing away from strangers at 4 to 6 months old gives way to approach-avoidance behavior with barking by about 6 to 9 months and, finally, lunging and/or biting by 12 to 18 months with aggression peaking at full adult maturity (2 to 3 years old, depending on breed).
Seeds of Fear
In humans, the same S-curve of development of anti-social aggression occurs, peaking at about 21 years old (i.e. full adult maturity). Once seeds of fearfulness have been sown in a pup from a dysfunctional background, fear aggression often sprouts like a poisonous weed until it permeates all aspects of the dog’s life outside the home and inside the home when visitors are present.
What determines the progression of fear aggression is the gradually increasing confidence that comes with age, coupled with distrust of certain strangers and the progressive realization by the dog that fear aggression works to keep strangers away. Fear aggression is negatively reinforced by its consequences; that is, that people or other dogs the fear aggressive dog does not like remove themselves or are removed from the situation.
How It Forms
Whenever I see a fear-aggressive dog I always ask questions about the dog’s background and record them in the record (that’s how our student was able to come up with her findings). I also ask questions about the subjects who are the focus of fear-aggressive dogs’ aggression. As mentioned, men or children are often targeted, but sometimes it is something about individuals, such as men wearing hats or baseball caps, men with beards or even people of a certain body morph or ethnicity.
When fear aggression is directed toward other dogs, it is usually directed toward certain types of dogs, like big dogs, small dogs, black dogs and so on. I sometimes explain to clients that fear aggression is like a class-action suit against a certain type of individual—though it is true that it sometimes generalizes to include all strangers or all other dogs (an even bigger class-action suit).
Listing details of subjects who trigger fear aggression allows us, in retrospect, to determine the approximate appearance of the individual or individuals who were instrumental in the development of a particular dog’s fear aggression.
One dog I saw that was frightened only of men in white beards turned out to have been terrified by one when he was only 101/2 weeks old at a critical stage of his development. The reason for the dog targeting certain individuals may seem random to us but is perfectly logical to a dog and reflects its past experiences.
I do not find fear aggression in dogs to be as easily treatable as, say, owner-directed aggression or some other canine behavior problems. But by employing a mix of lifestyle adjustment, avoidance, proper control, retraining, counterconditioning and pharmacological intervention, we find we can often achieve a useful degree of improvement.
I tell clients that we should be able to achieve a 50 percent reduction of their dogs’ intensity in the fear aggression, but with luck may be able to attain 85 percent improvement. It is unrealistic to expect 100 percent improvement in this condition as fear, once learned, never goes away. It’s always lying in the dog’s memory banks and has a nasty habit of coming back when least expected.
Don’t Forget Exercise
Our treatment program involves ensuring that the fear-aggressive dog gets as much off-leash exercise as the owner and dog can handle. We sometimes switch them to a maintenance level protein diet (18 percent of dry matter content), especially when there is a strong territorial component to the fear aggression. We teach owners about clear, one-word communication with their dogs, stressing the importance of commands such as sit, down, and leave it.
Another recommendation is to use a head halter for proper control of the dog and in all situations in which it is likely to encounter strangers (i.e. when visitors are coming to the home and when the dog is out for walks).
We get into specifics of what to do when strangers come to the home. Owners are taught to fit and use a head halter and are advised to have the dog on lead before opening the door.
The dog is then brought to the door and required to sit before greeting people. Visitors are told to ignore the dog, other than perhaps tossing a few food treats on the floor. The owner maintains strict control of the dog at the doorside, requiring him to remain sitting while the guest quietly circumnavigates the owner-dog duo and takes a seat as quickly as possible.
Continuing to ignore the dog, the stranger, who has been supplied with high-value treats for the dog, tosses or slides a few in the dog’s general direction. If the dog eats the treats and appears calm, it may be allowed to approach the stranger more closely. The owner always has full control of the dog through the head halter and monitors the safety of the operation.
Particular attention must be paid when the guest stands to go to the bathroom or leave the house. The dog learns by rote what happens when strangers come to the house. He always goes to the door, always is required to sit, is always brought to sit next to his owner and the guest always supplies delicious treats.
The dog also learns that the stranger no longer confronts him by trying to pet him or by offering a trembling, outstretched hand to be sniffed (how weird is that?) and basically keeps clear of his personal space. Note: It’s OK for the dog to bring himself and his immediate personal space to the stranger but the reverse is not acceptable.
We go through similar specifics about how to control the dog on walks when he encounters strangers. He is either walked quickly by the stranger with a head halter in place and any outbursts are controlled by the application of sustained gentle tension to the lead attached to the head halter. Other times the dog can be required to sit, again using gentle upward pressure on the lead/head halter, rewarding him for compliance.
Giving a dog something to do rather than allowing him to react is the best way to handle encounters but, as in the home situation, any people being introduced to the dog should be cautioned not to pay the dog any attention, not look directly into its eyes, not to reach an outstretched hand toward the dog, not to talk to the dog, and not to pet it or touch it.
Toss a Treat
The only acceptable interaction is for the stranger to toss some especially tasty food treats on the ground for the dog to eat (or not). Things usually improve over time but perfection, as mentioned before, will never be achieved.
These measures can be complemented and the time course of improvement abbreviated through the use of certain medications. Fluoxetine (Reconcile) or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is helpful as background medication. Sometimes the effect of such daily medication is quite impressive and other times marginal. It is accurate to say, however, that there is usually some degree of improvement. Since the SSRIs take such a long time to work, we also sometimes prescribe a more immediately acting drug, such as the alpha-2 agonist clonidine.
In addition, if there are any underlying medical conditions that might compound fear aggression, such as borderline hypothyroidism, a painful orthopedic condition, or allergy, we address these conditions, too, as far as possible.
The two measures I consider most helpful for the treatment of fear aggression in dogs, whether directed toward to people or other dogs, are the use of a head halter and medication.
These two tools alone can allow the owner to better control the dog in the previously fearful situations so that she can teach it a new way of responding. The hope is that the new learning supersedes earlier adverse learning experiences and produces a dog that is for the most part more easily manageable and a lot safer.
An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and is founder and director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.