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Is Your Dog Emotionally Scarred?

How to tell if bad experiences are making your dog fearful or aggressive -- and what to do about it.

The Fearful Dog continued...

Don’t punish a fearful dog.

It’s never a good idea to hit your dog or use negative reinforcement to try to help it overcome fear, experts say. “If your dog’s afraid of you, how could she possibly think that you’re going to keep her safe?” Radosta says.

Instead, “Set up a really good, structured, positive reinforcement relationship with your dog. Teach your dog a trick, then reward it with a tasty treat,” she says.

“You’re setting up this paradigm where the dog is looking to you for instruction and reinforcement and starting to view you as ‘safe,’ and that’s the key to changing fear. If the owner is not considered ‘safe’ in the dog’s mind, the dog will try to keep herself safe and that’s how you climb that ladder of aggression.”

The Aggressive Dog

Dogs act aggressively for many reasons, including to protect their food or territory and to protect their young. But fearful dogs can turn aggressive because they’ve learned that a growl or lunge gets people to back off fast.

“Aggression is an intent to cause harm,” Radosta says. “It doesn’t mean that the dog’s malicious. It doesn’t mean that the dog’s a high thinker and he’s decided that he has to hurt you. At that moment, he’s so neurochemically aroused that he will hurt you because he’s in ‘fight or flight.’”

Aggression can develop at any age, but from ages one to three, “that’s when you’re most likely to see a fearful dog become an aggressive dog,” Radosta says.

Recognize your dog's aggression.

What does aggression look like? “There are a lot of different signs,” Beaver says. “A dog that tends to lift its lip, growl, stare, raise its hair over its back, put its tail very high up when it’s not a normal position for that tail -- those are things that say, ‘I’m kind of getting angry here,’” she says.

Others give no warning, she says. “Some dogs show no signs, except that they lunge and bite.”  

Get help.

Because aggressive dogs pose the serious threat of biting, consider getting professional help, Beaver says. “You have to look at what’s setting it off [and] protect whomever it is showing these signs to.”

Your veterinarian is a good starting point for advice. If he or she can’t treat the behavior problem, a referral to a veterinary behaviorist may be useful.

Dog trainers can help, too, but there’s no licensing requirement, Beaver says. Most veterinarians know the trainers in their area, so ask them for recommendations, she says. If you use a dog trainer, she says, make sure that he or she uses “positive training, so they use reward, rather than punishment.”

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