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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...

Pair the bad with the good to create new associations in your dog’s mind. 

Seiffer’s technique works in many different situations. If your dog fears something, use “counter-conditioning,” Radosta says, or “pairing the badness of the thing with the goodness of something fabulous, like foods or toys.”

For example, if your dog fears a certain type of house guest, for example, men wearing hats, don’t let them pet your dog, Radosta says. Instead, ask them to feed it treats. In time, your dog will associate strange men in hats with something pleasurable.  

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.

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