I have in the past written briefly on fear aggression, as it is a fairly common problem.
I am writing about it again now because I was recently discussing with someone about a protection dog with fear issues and I just wanted to explain a bit about what it may mean to those who hope to interact with him.
Basically, fear aggression is about broken trust. For some reason, a dog no longer believes he or she is safe. Simple enough, right?
Your job as someone interacting with such a dog is to do two things:
- Keep him or her feeling safe
- don’t give them any reason to further betray his or her trust
Again, this is simple enough, but here is the downside: You can lose trust in one simple incident, while regaining trust can take years.
While there are definitely genetic inputs to fear aggression, I suspect that environment is the main driver: Something (or some things) happened to the pup during a formative time which caused them to lose sight of what the rules of life are, and how to live safely in the world without “bad stuff” happening. Not really the focus of this article, but something to consider anyway: He or she is insecure about what they need to do to be safe in our world, for some reason, and we have to deal with it now.
In this example, the dog in question is owned by someone who got him at an older age from an unknown past of multiple owners, and immediately realized that despite a wonderful pedigree he was “just not cool with things.” The owner did not want to give up on the dog, thus discussions about what to do and what not to do to “make him uncomfortable.”
In most fear aggression cases, the main trigger is personal space. Occasionally, there are other issues, such as food, toys, etc. but personal safety (and thus space) is the most common.
Basically, we all have that invisible bubble around us where we don’t like people pushing into. If we are with someone we trust, we allow that bubble to collapse a bit. If we are being yelled at by a drunk, our personal bubble is a bit larger.
A fear aggressive dog also has a comfort bubble, and that is important to remember. Most dogs have been conditioned to ignore their bubble, so kids walk up to them and hug them tight around the jugular and they know they are safe. A fear aggressive dog may have a bubble that is far, far bigger than this.
More confusing to the casual person who is attempting to interact with such a dog, is that the bubble is not stable. At some point they may be coping fine, thinking “okay, he seems to be cool, he’s not a threat to me.” but then he catches a glimpse of something you are holding in your hand which hearkens back to some dark incident he remembers, and then he suddenly expands his safety bubble to the size of the room, and you are in danger of a bite.
What can you do?
- Be constantly aware of any warning signs. Dogs with severe fear aggression have that “baked into” their brain so deeply that they need to constantly reset themselves back to safety. You can sometimes see them doing this in real time. If they get nervous, back off. But to do that, you need to be able to recognize if they are nervous. With fear aggression it can be notoriously hard to see, but most people will report “a stiffening” of stance, etc. that is subtle but telltale. Also, if you’re lucky you will get a warning growl. Don’t count on it, however.
- Be aware of both your position in his or her space, and your “directionality” (if that’s even a word.) What I mean is, be aware if you’re walking right towards him or her, even if it’s just to grab a phone that happens to be on the counter behind him or or her. I often suggest when working with a FA dog that I sit down somewhere first, then the dog be let in. That prevents the situation where I have to be the one to test the bubble: It empowers the dog to bring his bubble as close to me as he feels safe. It has the side benefit of allowing one to observe how bad the situation is.
- Be aware of quick movements. If he or she is dozing off, feeling relatively safe, a sudden movement of any kind can be interpreted as potentially threatening and may suddenly break the calm. Hand waves, rapid foot movements, even loud noises can quickly turn things sideways, especially if the person doing so is a lesser known person to the dog. A lot of this is potentially related to whatever demons he or she may be battling from the past (for example, a dog that was beaten with a bat like this poor guy would be understandably fearful of people carrying objects.) This is really, really hard, but if you are standing beside a FA dog, remember that simple things like bending over to scratch your leg too fast can set things off. It’s really important to stay self aware.
I have personally been lucky enough to be “bitten” in the face twice by two different protection dogs who were NOT fear aggressive. Both times I just made bad decisions about personal space. One was a horseplay thing, where I fell into the dog’s belly area and she did not appreciate it, and another time I was leaving a house where the dog was sleeping by the door, and reaching over the dog to get my shoes woke him up in “protection mode” which found my face in his mouth very briefly.
In both cases I had minor punctures, but the point is, the combination of protection dogs which are already a bit trigger happy, and fear aggression is not something to underestimate. If things do go sideways, it can get really, really ugly. Keep kids away from these situations, keep people who are not willing to take a risk away from the situation. It is quite possible to live with a fear aggressive dog, but it’s not something to do without a lot of planning and commitment and some common sense (for example, if you’re having a party, lock the dog in a room with a big beefy bone while the party is on to protect them and your guests.)
Again, there is hope for a fear aggressive dog, but it takes thought, work, and time to regain trust.
Finally, if you ever see someone being unduly harsh with a very young dog, I’d suggest intervening and educating, because these sorts of mental scars are sometimes forever, and that’s not a fair thing for a dog to live with.
[As a postscript, I have done enough work in rescue to know that fearful protection dogs are typically destroyed. This is done because of the wonderful concept of “liability.” While this is understandable, I strongly disagree with the belief that this should be the only option is someone is brave enough to take a risk.]