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Fears and Fear Aggression

Debra F. Horwitz DVM Diplomate ACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations
St. Louis, Missouri

Many behavior problems in dogs are a result of underlying fears or anxieties. Fearful and anxious dogs present a challenge to practitioners and owners alike. Their presentation can be variable, from hiding, shaking, panting and pacing to aggression. Dogs with fearful or phobic behaviors can pose risks to people, property, themselves and other dogs. Treatment protocols include habituation, desensitization and counterconditioning.


Fear is the interaction of physiologic, emotional and behavioral responses 1. Whether an animal behaviors fearfully in a situation is influenced by its environment, past experiences, its species and age. Typcial fear responses include freezing, fleeing and fighting. Fears are not necessarily maladaptive, but can be if they interfere with quality of life and the pet-owner interaction. Fears can develop for many reasons including but not limited to genetics, traumatic early experiences, inadequate early exposure, repeated exposure to fearful stimuli or owner fostering 2. Fearful behavior is often maintained by genetic factors, ongoing exposure to the stimulus and owner responses. Fears can potentially be prevented by adequate early socialization, ongoing exposure to people and places and the owner response in potentially fear evoking situations. Owners who respond confidently and with a happy vocal intonation and relaxed body posture help animals adjust to new and potentially fearful situations.

History taking in fearful behaviors must include the eliciting stimuli (what, where, when and who), people and/or locations, and the posture and factial expressions of the pet. At times it may be helpful to look for both initiating factors and maintenance factors for the fearful behavior. In addition any and all treatment attempts should be noted and discussed.

Diagnois is based on the history of fearful behavior, body postures and actions. It is often helpful to categorize fears as situational, fear of animate stimuli or inanimate stimuli. Carefully delineating the contexts and situations will help with formulation and implementation of a treatment plan.

Treatment includes avoidance of fear inducing situations, cessation of counterproductive treatment methods, change the owner response and teach the animal new responses.2 The goal of treatment is to teach the animal to experience the fearful stimulus without being afraid.1 Generally this is accomplished using various behavior modification techniques including counterconditioning, desensitization and habituation. Another treatment modality that is occasionally used is William Campbell's "jolly routine" 3. This involves owners "switching gears" and engaging the pet and themselves in activities that make the dog happy and wag its tail.

For some dogs with extreme fears, drug therapy may be indicated. The goal is to enable the dog to work with a treatment plan and learn how to respond appropriately. Overall, drug therapy alone will not eliminate fearful behavior, but may merely suppress it.

Fear Aggression

Dogs that exhibit fear aggression come in all sizes and histories. These dogs present a real challenge, because at times it is difficult to determine if it is indeed fear aggression and what they are afraid of. It is essential in the diagnosis of fear aggression to understand and recognize what the fearful dog looks like. This dog will have the body and head lowered, the tail is tucked and often there is piloerection. The ears are pulled back and often the dog is snarling. The initial aggressive encounters will be snapping and growling, but if pressed and cornered the dog may lunge and bite. The fearful stimuli may be very predictable, but frequently it will start slowly and increase over time with repeated exposure to the fearful stimuli. However, over time as the dog learns that aggressive behaviors stop unwanted encounters, fearful body postures may yield to more assertive ones.

A detailed behavioral history is essential to correctly identify the aggression and plan therapy. Facial expressions, body posture and vocalizations are important pieces of information. Attempts should be made to identify all eliciting stimuli, i.e. what stimuli cause the dog to respond aggressively? Additional question should include: Where do these episodes take place? Who is present at the time? When do these episodes occur? What did the owner do? Did the owner speak reassuringly to the dog, or was there reassuring body contact (i.e. petting, soothing phrases etc.)? How does the owner perceive the behavior? Does the owner want protection from the dog, or is the owner also fearful in certain situations, like walking the dog late at night.

By persistent questioning, and/or proceeding backward in time through the events, a pattern will often emerge. It is important to be able to identify the stimuli and the circumstances eliciting aggression for formulation of a treatment plan. Dogs with fear aggression pose a risk not only to family but also to the public and therefore the owner must be made aware of these risks when therapy is undertaken. It then becomes important for the owner to understand when the aggression can occur and if that is not clear-cut, to take the responsibility to see that the dog is prevented from injuring anyone. This can be accomplished with confinement when appropriate, a leash, a Gentle Leader headcollar and/or a muzzle. It is also important to emphasize that all we really are trying to accomplish with therapy is to reduce the probability of the dog biting as close to zero as possible, but there is always a chance that the dog could bite. Even once the dog responds to therapy, there still may be times when the owner will see that the dog is not comfortable in the situation and may need to confine the dog. Also if the situation changes, retraining may be necessary to reinforce previously learned responses. Some changes that may influence the behavior include moving, new babies, new job hours etc. In reality, we control aggressive dogs, but rarely are they cured.

The basic treatment modalities used are counterconditioning and desensitization. These two techniques work together to help change the animals behavior. Counterconditioning is teaching the dog a response that is incompatible with a fearful response. Desensitization works by placing the fearful stimuli along a gradient and gradually exposing the dog to the stimuli in such a way as to minimize the fear. Punishment is contraindicated in the treatment of fear because while punishment may stop the dog from showing the fear in an aggressive manner, the underlying cause of the fear is still present and may manifest in other ways. Or, the dog may learn not to signal their aggressive intent, but rather lunge and bite without warning. Treatment is greatly facilitated if the dog is fitted with a Gentle Leader headcollar.

To start the counterconditioning program the owners must teach the dog to sit, stay and relax for a food reward. The food should be something highly desirable to the dog to increase compliance and motivational change. While we are teaching the dog an obedience task; sit and stay, it is the motivational state that is most important. In other words, the dog must be relaxed and happy while performing the task. What is additionally important is that the dog practices the task in multiple locations. The owner must practice in all sorts of locations including the one where fear aggression may take place. After the dog knows the sit/stay well, the owner must begin to phase out food rewards while always rewarding with praise. Finally the food rewards become intermittent and random. Once the dog knows how to do the sit/stay/chill well the owner and pet are ready for the next phase of the program which is the desensitization.

Before you start, it is important to arrange the fearful stimuli along a gradient, from low to high. In other words start with those situations, people or places that are least likely to cause a fearful and/or aggressive response and all the way up to the situation that most likely will cause the fearful/aggressive response. Then begin to expose the dog to the stimuli least likely to cause a response and let the dog succeed with food reward for remaining in a sit/stay/chill while in the situation. If the dog has been successful gradually move up the gradient each time only continuing if the dog is able to sit/stay /chill without a fearful or aggressive response. It is extremely important that owners are aware of early signs of anxiety or aggression in their dog. They must always be watching the pet for any signs of aggression or anxiety and reduce the stimulus intensity at the very first sign of either. Continuing exposure when the dog is experiencing anxiety or aggression undermines the learning process. For this reason, progress can be extremely slow and owners must be committed to long term treatment. During retraining it is helpful if exposure to the fear eliciting stimuli can be minimized to decrease further inappropriate responses. This may mean confinement with company, curtailing walks, or limiting exposure to certain stimuli.

With accurate diagnosis and a well-designed treatment plan fearful dogs can improve. The keys to successful resolution include precise identification of the eliciting stimuli, teaching relaxation and increased owner control, gradual exposure to the fear producing stimuli without producing the unwanted response and good avoidance of the stimuli until new responses have been learned.

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