Dog to Dog Aggression - Fear Reactivity

dog aggression Sep 09, 2020

Is your dog fearful when he's around other dogs?  How would you know for sure?  Here are the most common characteristics of a reactive dog that is behaving in fear or defensiveness.

Key Characteristics

  1. Leash may go tight, but there's moments it's loose.  This dog isn't confident enough to stay at the end of the line to fight for herself.  So while she might be barking and lunging on the leash there are moments the line goes loose.  In these moments, she often looks back to her handler as if asking for reassurance.
  2. Pitch of the bark is low and then goes up a little higher at the end.  Initially, the bark pitch will sound low and threatening.  Because the dog is insecure, the ending part of the pitch will start to go up in a "Woo woo woo" type barking sound, indicating her insecurity.
  3. Dilated pupils.  The pupils of a fearful dog are often wide and dilated.  Because the dog is in fight or flight mode, the body responds with adrenaline.  Dilated pupils are designed to allow as much light into the eye as possible to prepare the dog to either fight or flee the situation.
  4. Barking and lunging increases when the dog/person turns away.  Just like with many people, it takes courage to confront someone head on.  With an insecure dog, it's easier to take a shot at something scary when it's back is facing you versus when it's facing you head on.
  5. Tightening of the leash escalates the barking and lunging.  In this dog's case, the tension on the line is a signal that she's got back up.  Think of going into a fight.  You'd feel much more ready to stand up for yourself if you knew you had friends who would back you up.  This is the same thought process your dog is going through when he's in this state and feels tension on the leash.

Common Causes

Here are the most common causes of how fear aggression can develop in a dog:

  1. Genetics.  Like us, every dog is born with her own unique personality.  Just like us, some of us are born more confident and outgoing in the world around us, and some of us are born quieter in nature, and less secure.  This can be an innate nature in the dog.  
  2. Bad experience with other dogs.  If your dog has had a traumatizing experience with another dog, fear and uncertainty can creep in in later interactions with other dogs.  She may become more cautious when approaching other dogs, and start to react defensively in order to protect herself and hopefully scare them away.
  3. Learned Fearfulness.  As pet parents, we can inadvertently teach and reinforce fearfulness in our dogs.  While it's appropriate to comfort children when they are scared or frightened, when we do it to a fearful dog, we are actually rewarding him for being fearful, and as a result, he finds more reason to be scared and act defensive.  
  4. Combination of Factors.  With many dogs, fear can arise from a combination of the above factors.

What Rehabilitation Looks Like

  1. Desensitization and Counter Conditioning.  This type of training is designed to help your dog reassociate what other dogs mean to him.  The goal here is to show him that the presence of other dogs mean good things happen.
  2. Obedience Training.  Obedience training will be taught with teaching calm focus in mind.  Exercises taught, like the Sit, will not be about the position, but will more be focused on teaching the dog to achieve calm in the Sit and to teach the handler how to recognize the body language that indicates calmness.  
  3. Strategic Socialization.  Using a combination of desensitization and the obedience commands taught, your dog will learn to achieve calm focus with the handler when around other dogs.  Over time, learn to gradually increase the exposure, the energy levels of the other dogs, as well as the number of dogs your dog will learn to maintain his calm focus around.  Here, we also introduce a variety of different pictures that most dog owners will realistically run into in their everyday walks to help you transition your training results to your day to day life.

Do you know what type of reactivity your dog is exhibiting?  Take the quiz here to find out!

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