“Frightened dogs, like frightened people, are at risk of generalizing their fears. That is to say, they may become profilers,” says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic veterinarian Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “For example, let’s say a dog had a bad experience with a golden retriever when he was a young puppy. The retriever tackled him and rolled him over — maybe the retriever was even trying to initiate play — but it really frightened him. From then on he will approach goldens and dogs that look like goldens with fear and suspicion and in some cases, aggression.
“This behavior is seen in people too. Think about a person who was mugged by someone in a trench coat,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “He may forever be wary of being approached by men in trench coats.” In humans, this behavior is called post traumatic stress syndrome.
Your Dog reader Bill Livingstone of Goleta, California, has a profiler: eight-year-old schnoodle Charlie. “He loves people,” Mr. Livingstone says, “but he can’t stand dogs his size or larger. He snarls and lunges at the leash to get to bigger dogs when we take our walk.”
Dr. Borns-Weil suspects it has something to do with an interaction with a bigger dog in Charlie’s early life, before he was even three months old. “Especially during a dog’s period of rapid learning — weeks three through 12, when his brain is still really sensitive, like wet clay — an unfortunate encounter is going to leave a deep mark. A bad experience during that time increases the risk of its making significant changes in the brain that influence a dog’s behavior in encounters later on,” she says. “It can even happen to a large Saint Bernard. If he was attacked by a Yorkshire terrier when he was seven weeks old, even when he has grown to 200 pounds, the 10-pound Yorkie will still frighten him. His ability to assess the level of threat will be completely distorted and he will see himself as the quaking, quivering little puppy whenever a Yorkie strolls by.
“Of course, with some dogs,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments, the fear can become very generalized. “The pet may not feel comfortable with any dog.”
Dogs afraid of members of their own species who are shy and run away or hide behind their owner at the sight of another dog do not present a terribly difficult behavior problem. Owners instinctively get that they have to protect such dogs and also don’t have to worry that their dog may hurt another one.
Dogs who are temperamentally bolder, on the other hand, and are therefore willing to turn and face their fears are the ones whose owners have a harder time. In large part that’s because those dogs are misunderstood. It’s so easy to interpret the growling, snapping, and lunging of a dog at another dog as aggression for aggression’s sake. But such aggression is fear- and anxiety-based,
Dr. Borns-Weil notes. And it’s very, very common.
“This is a huge piece of what I tend to every day,” she says. “It’s very, very tough on owners. They suffer in trying to meet the needs of a dog they can’t take outside comfortably because the dog is afraid of seeing other dogs and will act aggressively to try to scare them away. The owner and his dog can’t take a walk with any peace. The next eruption is just around the corner.
“It’s something we are seeing more of now,” the veterinarian says, “because so many people are adopting rescue dogs. That’s a wonderful thing. But many of the dogs that are rescued started life in the school of hard knocks. Either they were insufficiently socialized with other dogs or had negative early experiences with other dogs. Such dogs are not going to be comfortable with dogs as adults and therefore are much more vulnerable to being fearful and to acting aggressively to deal with their fear.”
The seven steps for helping your dog-phobic dog
Dr. Borns-Weil points out that fear-based aggression toward other dogs cannot be cured. It’s important to understand that dogs phobic of other dogs or even just certain types of dogs are always going to have that tendency. “They may never become the easygoing dogs that you can take to the dog park,” she says. “They are always going to be special needs dogs.
“But while the problem will never go away completely, that doesn’t mean the dog can’t live a happy and satisfying life with his family — or can’t be taken on a walk without fear of an altercation. Here are seven very empowering steps you can take to help your dog be out in the world with other people’s pet dogs. They do not involve punishment. Punishment such as choke or e-collar corrections will make the problem worse. Introducing your dog to dogs repeatedly in hopes that he will learn that they won’t hurt him also won’t work. As with PTSD in people, simple exposure of an affected dog to the object of his fear will serve only to further traumatize him and deepen the fear. Here is what you can do.
1. Empathize. It’s very important to understand that dogs who act aggressively when another dog comes near them are not bad or mean. “They’re frightened,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “When people understand what’s motivating their dogs, they can have more compassion and treat their pets more kindly. A dog who’s afraid of other dogs — every time he walks out of the house, he’s on the battlefield. He’s primed to protect himself from the danger of his own kind.”
A lot of people get mixed up because of the way their dog acts with the leash on. The dog is fine with other dogs when off leash but a snarling werewolf with the lead, lunging and causing a major stir. It’s often assumed that the dog is acting that way as a bluff because he’s safely tethered to his owner, and he should knock it off. It’s quite the opposite. Off leash, Dr. Borns-Weil says, “a dog can create space by going away. But on leash, he can’t make that decision. He has to go where you go. So he comes forward to make other dogs go away. It’s a coping mechanism, not a show of chest-beating bravado. Just keeping that in mind will help an owner be kind to his dog rather than yell at him when he’s in the middle of a very fear-inducing situation.”
2. Don’t assume your dog will get over it if you push him into situations with other dogs. “Just exposing a scared dog over and over again to other dogs is not socializing or ‘de-sensitizing’ him,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It’s flooding him” with the very thing he’s scared to death of “and may sensitize him even more. I once saw a TV segment in which Cesar Milan stuck a fear-aggressive dog in a room with 15 or so other dogs. The dog didn’t react. But he was not ‘cured.’ He was frozen, completely overwhelmed — outmanned and out-gunned.”
The thing to do, she says, is take your dog to places that are not going to be crowded with other dogs. And avoid situations where the dog is going to be on leash but other dogs are going to be off leash and in his face. Let people know, too, ‘he’s in training; he’s a rescue.’ That is, protect your dog from interactions that he doesn’t want to have.
“It doesn’t mean he will never be able to be around other dogs. But he will need to make individual dog friends through carefully orchestrated introductions, where each gets praise and delectable treats for getting along. That’s not going to happen for dogs who are thrown together willy-nilly.” Your dog is not going to simply “get over it” with repeated exposure.
3. Use a head halter like a Gentle Leader or, if your dog is brachycephalic or small, a body harness. “This allows you to communicate with your dog through touch,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It does not cause pain like a choke or chain collar but will still be able to keep your pet from lunging and snapping at the end of the leash. Gently tugging on it applies pressure on the head and neck exactly where the dog’s mother would have when the dog was a puppy to get him to comply. It’s biologically sensitive, giving your dog the message that you’re there for him.
“Yes, it does take control away,” Dr. Borns-Weil says, “but for a frightened dog it’s like an umbilical cord. The dog comes to rely on your using it to protect his perimeter. It’s much better than telling your pet, ‘No.’ You’ve probably tried that for years, and it hasn’t worked. The Gentle Leader guides your pet on what to do rather than saying what not to do with yelling and choking. Some dogs actually gain confidence with a Gentle Leader. They feel the presence of their person in a biologically significant way.”
4. Practice clear, unambiguous communication. To get the best results for your efforts, use what Dr. Borns-Weil calls “power words” as you redirect your pet with the Gentle Leader — words like “Leave it”; “Sit”; and “Stay.” When your pet complies, even if he complies at first because you’re making him comply with the head halter, he learns that he’s going to get a reward, perhaps a delicious morsel of chicken or a wonderful stroke on the side of the muzzle with soothing, appreciative praise. “Life becomes predictable” that way, Dr. Borns-Weil says. “The dog can hang his hat on the sequence — command, response, reward — and that makes him feel calmer, helps him manage his baseline anxiety.” With a clear sequence, she adds, you’re setting up your dog for success.
5. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. Exercise is critical to decreasing anxiety. “It actually increases the amount of serotonin in the brain,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. With a fearful dog who gets aggressive, sometimes people have to be creative about finding ways to get their dog out and working their bodies. Sometimes it may be running with your dog on a leash, if he in fact likes that kind of activity. Other times, it may be good to go to an enclosed area after hours, like a town tennis court in the evening, where you can throw a ball around for the dog to fetch (as long as you clean up afterwards if your pet voids). Some people may need to let their dog off leash only if he’s wearing a basket muzzle to insure that he doesn’t bite another dog out of fear.
“The Baskerville Ultra is my favorite,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It’s really ugly, like a hockey mask, but designed for the dog’s comfort. Your pet can pant in it, drink water while wearing it, and accept food treats as rewards for good behavior. The muzzle is not a punishment,” she emphasizes. “It allows your dog to have a life.”
6. Consider a lower-protein diet. Protein decreases the amount of a chemical called tryptophan that crosses the barrier from the blood supply to the brain. And since tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, a high-protein diet can lead to lower levels of serotonin.
The aim is not to make the protein level too low to be healthful, Dr. Borns-Weil points out, but on the low end of the normal range. “There are many excellent commercial diets that achieve that range,” she says. “What we’re looking for is 18 to 20 percent protein as dry matter. That’s plenty for pet dogs to live very well and be able to muscle up and run and grow hair and nails. The range for normal can go into the high 30s. It’s common in a lot of the grain-free foods. For dogs that don’t exhibit fear-aggression, those higher amounts are fine. But fearful, aggressive dogs may do better with less.”
7. For some dogs, medication is the key. If you can’t reach a dog with the combination of methods described above — he’s just too anxious to settle down even with all those steps in place — “medication can help a dog become more available to learn” that he doesn’t have to guard himself from other dogs, Dr. Borns-Weil says. There are both “situational” medicines that last a few hours to help a dog stay calm during his time outside, such as clonidine, and SSRIs like fluoxetine (Prozac) that work 24 hours a day to lower overall background anxiety. Your vet, or a veterinary behaviorist, will help you determine which is right for your pet. Sometimes the two kinds of drugs are used in combination with a gradual easing off of at least the situational medicine. n