Fear Issues in Dogs

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There have been a lot of questions lately addressed to me about fear issues in pets. So I want to address the issue about fear/aggression issues in this blog. I am a member of the Pet Professional Guild and one of the issues we talk about are fear issues with animals. Here is a great write up by one of our members who is a professional dog trainer. Her name is Leah Roberts.

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Aggression always (or at least 99.9% of the time) is a fear issue. Just like when we feel threatened we have the choice between fight, flight, and freeze, so do dogs make a similar choice. They may hide behind something and shake, lunge and attack, or just freeze on the spot. In all cases, you want to address the underlying fear, not the behavior. Once you have healed the fear, the behavior will change on its own.

There are two methods of dealing with fear that work beautifully. Both are ways of associating good things with the trigger (object of fear) and replacing that with the perception that the trigger is threatening.

Open Bar/Closed Bar: As long as the trigger is in sight, chicken (or a very special yummy treat) is being shoveled into the dog’s mouth. I also like to “cheerlead” – praise in a happy tone of voice. When the trigger moves out of sight, the chicken and cheering stop.

Click the Trigger: Watch the dog’s eyes. As soon as the dog looks at the trigger, click (or use a verbal marker) and immediately hold the chicken to the side of the dog’s nose, so that his eye contact is immediately broken to take the treat. Repeat. Repeat.

In both cases, it is ultimately important to start at a distance/level of intensity where your dog notices the trigger, but is not bothered by it. If he’s already reacting, you are too close. In both cases, you are working toward getting a “yay, there’s the trigger” reaction. Not just tolerance, but happy excitement. Once you get that, you move a teensy bit closer and start again.

If even once during the therapy your dog is placed “over threshold” – where he feels threatened – you have lost your progress. So you may have to change your routine. If you normally walk your dog where there are other dogs who appear too close for comfort, walk elsewhere for a while until your dog is fine with that level of intensity. If you have your dog out in the house when visitors come and he’s upset, put him away before you have visitors in until he is happy to see them.

Best case scenario, locate a force-free trainer who uses these scientific principles of counter-conditioning. Never “correct” a reaction, because you will associate “bad things happen when that trigger is around” and lose your progress. Note that if you get a reaction, YOU made the mistake, not the dog. You’re too close.

First place to look for a force-free trainer: http://petprofessionalguild.com/

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