[From Tufts February 2011 Issue]
My favorite approach to modifying fear aggression is counter conditioning and desensitization. They’re often the easiest for dog owners to practice on their own without the constant presence of an assistant to help them. They work to change your dog’s association with an aversive stimulus from negative to positive by pairing it with something wonderful.
Perhaps your dog is fearful of and aggressive toward men, especially bearded men. Here are three easy steps to modify that behavior, starting with a beardless man. When your dog is comfortable with him, you can move on to bearded men.
1) Determine the distance your dog needs to be from the man so he’s aware of him and a little concerned but not trying to retreat, growl or behave in any way aggressively. Have the man appear at that distance for a few seconds.
2) When your dog notices, feed him tiny bits of a very high-value treat, such as chicken — baked, boiled or canned. (Rinse and drain the canned chicken.)
3) Then have the man step behind a barrier such as a tree or a doorway. Repeat Step 2, and as your dog gets happier about the chicken and less concerned about the man, have the man remain visible for longer periods of time. Pause every few seconds in your feeding so your dog can look at the man again, then feed more chicken. Your goal is to convince your dog that the man makes chicken happen.
You can gradually increase the intensity of stimulus by having the man stay visible longer and by slowly decreasing the distance between him and the dog (keep feeding!) until the man can walk past your dog without eliciting any signs of fear. Then practice with many different men — some with beards, some without — in different places to convince your dog that all men make chicken happen.
Find a location where men will pass by randomly at a sub-threshold distance of fear for your dog and practice there. When he’s consistently happy about having men pass close by, start asking male friends to drop treats as they pass by and eventually have them hand-feed treats to your dog.