Joan Merriam: Aggression and Fear

Two curious dogs trying to meet each other.
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We’ve all heard of ‘fight or flight’, that physiological response that gives us a quick burst of energy to deal with a dangerous situation or threat to our survival, either by quickly moving away (flight) or going on the offensive (combat). ).

Animals react the same way: Think of watching a deer peacefully graze on the spring grasses, then it hears or sees you and takes off for a dead run. Or maybe you’ve had the experience of accidentally startling your sleeping cat, and it leaps up and hisses at you. Although this answer is automatic, it is not always accurate. You weren’t a threat to the cat, but in the first few seconds after being abruptly awakened, he felt that you were. In other words, he couldn’t tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived a.

In dogs, this can lead to uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous situations.

Which brings us to the subject of aggression.

According to the ASPCA, aggression is the biggest behavioral problem in dogs, and it’s one of the most common reasons people abandon their dog at a shelter, or even go to a shelter. give up or have him euthanized.

Aggression – which can be directed at humans or other animals – involves a range of behaviors that usually begin with warnings like threatening barks, punches, growls and growls. If ignored, these warnings can lead to an attack. (Note the word “may”, not “will”.)

The most common type of aggression is fear aggression, which usually involves these same defensive behaviors, but they are based on fear. This type of aggression is most often manifested towards humans or other dogs. The dog is scared, so he uses all the tactics he can to make the thing that scares him go away. “Maybe you’ll leave me alone or stop doing what you’re doing if I can make you think I’m going to hurt you.” In many ways, he resembles the neighborhood bully, who beneath all the bullying and meanness is pretty much a quivering mass of Jell-O.

One of the worst things you can do is punish your dog for being afraid of aggression. Punishment for being scared only confuses your dog, makes a scary situation worse, and can create mistrust. On the other hand, making soft, cooing sounds and telling your dog not to be scared is just as ineffective, as anyone who’s ever dealt with a frightened child can attest. Telling someone not to feel what they feel rarely works.

One of the key elements in preventing fear and fear aggression is socialization. Contrary to popular belief, abuse isn’t the root cause of fear in most dogs: it’s a lack of early socialization. Think of all the stories of dogs rescued from hoarding situations or puppy mills who are abnormally fearful and shy. Why? Because either they have never been exposed to the world of people and objects, or the exposure they have had is negative. They just can’t trust the thing or the person because it’s either unfamiliar or painful.

If you encounter something that you have never seen before or interacted with you in a positive way, you are naturally going to be afraid of it. For a dog, it can be something as harmless as a vacuum cleaner, which can appear to him like a demon that advances and roars. A hose or leash is a tool that delivers whips. Humans represent nothing even remotely resembling comfort or kindness, but rather embody indifference and neglect at best, or abuse at worst.

In contrast, socialization teaches a dog that the world is not a scary place. Things, people, and environments quickly become familiar, and familiarity produces relaxation and comfort. (Think of you, the very first time you faced an interviewer or traveled to a foreign country or went on a date. At first, you were probably nervous and uncertain…but the more often you had the experience, the more comfortable and confident you probably became.)

For an unsocialized or fear-based aggressive dog, this type of learning takes time and patience. The technique most often used to treat these types of dogs is desensitization and counter-conditioning. In a nutshell, it’s about identifying the things, people, or situations that cause your dog to become fearful, and then getting him to associate pleasant, non-scary feelings (like receiving a treat) with those things that caused your dog to become fearful. the fear.

This learning takes time and patience, and can often benefit from the guidance of a qualified companion animal behavior specialist. Two of the professional organizations that certify canine behavior consultants are the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC); To find a recognized behaviorist, start with a recommendation from your veterinarian. In our area, we are fortunate to have several respected professionals as well as groups such as the UC Davis Behavior Clinic. There are also many good web resources; The ASPCA article on desensitization and counter-conditioning is a great place to start.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada City with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the respectful spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey, in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at [email protected]. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.