Many times what appears to be a merely aggressive dog is in reality a fearful dog. Following are some signs that may help distinguish a dominant dog from a fearful dog.
Why Some Fearful Dogs Have the Potential to Become Aggressive
It may be difficult for a novice dog owner to distinguish a dominant aggressive dog from a fearful aggressive dog. While both types of aggression cause a display of similar symptoms such as growling, baring teeth, snapping and biting, the motives behind each type of aggression are quite different.
A dominant aggressive dog is a dog that has no fear. It will attack if needed either to defend territory or because it feels the need to ‘correct’ a behavior that it does not like. Dominant dogs walk with confidence and may see humans as lower ranking members.
A fearful dog, on the other hand, acts out of fear, the dog often has ‘weak nerves’ therefore has an overexagerrated need to defend itself from harm. It, therefore, will easily feel threatened and will resort to its defensive strategies as needed.
The Body Language of Fearful Dogs
The body language deriving from an aggressive dominant dog and an aggressive fearful dog may be quite different. Both dogs will both growl, snarl, bare teeth and even bite, but the dominant dog will have its ears typically forward, whereas the fearful dog will typically keep its ears pulled back and its head and tail low. This can be barely noticeable to the inexperienced dog owner.
The main problem with a fearful dog is that the aggression is reinforced. In other words, a dog that is fearful of strangers may growl at them to make them back away. Because this works, the dog feels that growling is an effective way to keep people at a distance. Trouble arises, when the dog feels the need to increase the level of aggression because it no longer seems to be working.
For instance, if the dog growls at somebody, and this somebody is not intimidated by the growling, the dog will then begin snarling as this person comes closer. The aggression therefore increases as the person gets closer and may escalate up to vicious biting. This behavior is particularly observed when the dog is cornered and has no place to escape.
How Fearful Behaviors are Re-inforced
When given the opportunity, most fearful aggressive dogs will increase their aggression but will also back away if the stranger gets closer if the space allows them to. Trouble mainly starts when the dog feels cornered or when the dog feels that attacking is the only way out of a situation. A typical scenario where a fearful dog may be seen in action is at the vet’s office, where it may need to be muzzled.
Often, this behavior stems from an internal insecurity: This may be due to genetics or it may have been triggered from going through a stressful period such as a new move. Many dogs have learned to act this way after being abused. These dogs need to build confidence through gradual desensitation.
Punishing a fearful dog will only intensify the fear. If the fear is based on strangers, the dog needs to understand that its owner will do what it takes to protect him. The dog needs to also understand that strangers will not harm him.
A good strategy is to have strangers along the street toss the dog a few treats from a distance until the dog starts to associate the strangers with positive events. In order to work well, the treats should be tossed at a time the dog is not growling or displaying yet fearful behaviors.
The distance then between the strangers and the dog are gradually made closer until the dog sees the strangers no longer as enemies but as friendly people.
Fearful aggressive dogs may be great in obedience training. Because they generally are insecure, obedience training provides them with confidence and they will seek that confidence to feel more secure. They thrive on set routines and like to know what to expect. Agility training may help boost these dog’s confidence and allow them to find an outlet for their fears.
However, because a fearful dog has the potential to be aggressive, a dog behaviorist should be consulted for an appropriate assessment and course of action. The sooner the problem is nipped in the bud generally, the better the outcome. Dog owners should therefore refrain from attempting to deal with a fearful aggressive dog on their own for safety’s sake.