As a veterinarian, I have encountered many fearful animals over the years. As a Fear Free veterinarian, I encounter them almost daily. When I dove head-first into the realm of Fear Free veterinary care, I created a reputation as a doctor who was open to seeing fearful pets and hopefully would help them overcome their fears. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way a magic worker - but I do pride myself in taking the time to listen to my clients, observe my patients and try to discover the best course of action to improve their life. I have also been fortunate enough to work alongside some fantastic rescue groups as well as educated, fear-free minded dog trainers in the past few years that have enabled me to learn more about canine behavior and fear as well as help pets beyond my veterinary office.
Fear aggression is often mistaken for a dog who is vicious, fractious or just angry. Fear aggressive dogs do not necessarily want to be vicious - often times their fear and subsequent behavior stems from a lack of socialization as a young dog. We know that dogs have a very short window of opportunity to socialize them as puppies - socialization means going beyond just getting out in the world around other dogs. Socialization encompasses exposing a dog to any and all new stimuli that you want it to be adjusted to in its adult life. ANY AND ALL - this means cats, dogs, horses, chickens, loud noises, strange sights and sounds, different footing terrains, different people, people wearing hats, people with facial hair, people withcanes/walkers/wheelchairs...you name it, your dog should see it during this window. How long is the window you ask......well it opens at about 5-7 weeks of age and closes at around 16 weeks of age. That's right - about 9-11 weeks of time to expose your dog to everything it may ever meet. If you ask me - that is not much time at all. Especially if you have been told not to take your puppy out of the house until they have all their vaccines - something that often doesn't happen until a puppy is 16 weeks of age. Those of us who are interested in behavior and Fear-free care know that behavior issues are the number 1 cause of death among dogs under the age of 3 - read that again....a dog that lacks socialization has a higher chance of euthanasia than contracting parvovirus (or other infectious diseases).
So what happens to the dog who isn't socialized until he is over 6 months of age - his brain literally interprets every new experience as fearful. And dogs that are fearful behave oddly - even becoming aggressive if they feel that their body language and cues of being afraid are not being interpreted by their human counterparts. Dogs that growl, bark or snarl at a new person, an unfamiliar sound or place, or who attack the strange stroller/vacuum/car etc are not acting offensively....rather they are acting defensively. The dog's goal is to try to distance himself from the fear inciting agent - and if he can't because his owner has him on a leash, or he is in a veterinary exam room, or worse, his owner is encouraging, or even pushing, him towards the inciting agent; well he has no choice but to try to defend himself in the only way he knows how.
Often times dogs that are fear aggressive become labeled as 'difficult to handle', 'fractious' or 'caution' and their owners are often not counseled appropriately on how to handle these situations. Instead these dogs are not brought out among guests, are not taken to dog parks, are not visiting the veterinarian frequently, etc and the cycle worsens. Each time they are subjected to the very thing they are terrified of, they react in a bigger and more dramatic way - imagine if you were afraid of snakes and someone continually put you in a pit of them without giving you the proper tools to learn how to interact with them OR how to handle your body's stress/fear reaction to them. You might do anything possible to escape that situation. The poorly socialized (ie fear aggressive dog) does the same thing.
Fearful dogs give us many cues before they resort to biting, growling, lunging, snarling - unfortunately most people are not aware of these subtle cues or how to interpret them. It is up to us as veterinarians to help pet owners learn to recognize these cues, how to understand them and how to work with our pets to desensitize them to these fearful moments. Aggression of any kind can become a serious safety risk for those around the pet and certainly the family, and those visiting etc, should maintain the safety of all those involved. Fear aggressive dogs can be rehabilitated however this MUST be done with a knowledgeable veterinary team, canine trainer and potential veterinary behaviorist. Desensitizing and training a dog that has lacked important steps in socialization should not be attempted without the proper team.
I hope this gave a little insight into the mentality of those canine patients who seem to lash out for no reason or react dramatically when scared - often times they are doing exactly what their brain is telling them to do - as their owners it is up to us to help prevent this and help manage it when it occurs. For more information and how to help fearful pets, I encourage you to visitwww.fearfreepets.com andfearfreehappyhomes.com