Fear, whether caused by a lack of socialization or a genetic shyness, can cause a dog to bite. It is the aggression problem I see most frequently. Shyness is a common temperament problem in dogs, and people often inadvertently make the shyness worse by unintentionally rewarding their dog for shy behavior, as was described in chapters 3 and 8. Such rewarding can turn shyness into fear biting.
Fear aggression can progress to the point where a dog will attack to prevent an approach. Because the dog is initiating the attack, it is hard to see the fear behind it. Since looking at a dog usually precedes an approach, some dogs will attack when eye contact is made. I once worked with a dog who would growl if you made eye contact with him when he was 30 feet away. He put on quite a ferocious display if you approached closer. One time, in the middle of an aggressive lunge, his leash snapped. It was apparent that these attacks were meant to drive people away rather than attack them because he almost stopped in midair and ran back to hug his owner's side. Such behavior always reminds me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. This is the best way to tell if the aggression you are seeing in a dog is based on fear. When a dog with this problem lunges forward to snap at someone, he quickly withdraws.
Treating fear aggression starts by treating the underlying shyness. Some techniques for this were described in chapter 8 in "Shyness." Don't try to have strangers pet your dog while you restrain him. He'll be more frightened because he can't escape and will feel cornered. If your dog lunges to bite, you will not be fast enough to stop him.
A common mistake is to misinterpret fear biting as overprotectiveness. The typical scenario is a dog pressed close against his owner, growling and baring his teeth at someone approaching, while the owner attempts to soothe the dog. The owner thinks the dog is protecting her, when in reality the dog is hoping the owner will protect him! Meanwhile, the owner's attempts to reassure her dog only serve to reward him for his aggressive behavior. The problem gets worse, until the dog darts forward and nips someone. The belief in the dog's "protectiveness" is reinforced by the fact that the dog displays the most or sometimes the only aggression when he is with his owner—not because he is protecting his owner, but because his owner's support gives him the false courage he needs to attack. In this situation, the owner's attitude is often the hardest problem to correct because the idea of being protected by one's dog is so gratifying. The owner may make halfhearted attempts to correct his dog, but the dog will interpret his owner's body language and will know what the real story is.
Dogs can be fear-aggressive of things other than strange people. As with shyness, these problems are treated by pairing the thing a dog is afraid of with something the dog loves, like freeze-dried liver.
An example was an Afghan I worked with who was afraid of grooming. This dog had become horribly matted to the point that his skin was irritated and he couldn't move his legs freely. Of course, the owners were terribly irresponsible to let this happen. He had snapped at the owners when they tried to brush him, so they avoided grooming. They tried taking him to a groomer, but he was too aggressive. He would attack at the sight of a brush because it had caused him so much pain. The owners were going to have him anesthetized to cut off his coat, but anesthesia is risky with sighthound breeds.
We started by placing scissors on the floor next to his food bowl at home when he ate. Then, when he came for a lesson, I placed the scissors six feet away from me and fed him when he approached. He was not restrained on leash, as that would have made him more frightened. He could choose to approach on his own. We continued until I could hold the scissors in the air close to him. I was finally, over several sessions, able to cut off all of his mats, which was most of his coat. He was never restrained for this. That is the power of positive reinforcement.
Was this article helpful?
There are over a hundred registered breeds of dogs. Recognizing the type of the dog is basically associated with its breed. A purebred animal belongs to a documented and acknowledged group of unmixed lineage. Before a breed of dog is recognized, it must be proven that mating two adult dogs of the sametype would have passed on their exact characteristics, both appearance and behavior, to their offspring.