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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 Aggressive Dog continued...

That’s important, because many owners are buying into harmful advice that “promotes an adversarial relationship with dogs,” says Mychelle Blake, a dog trainer and communications director for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Some people think, “the dog’s trying to dominate me, so I need to dominate back,” Blake says. “Oftentimes, as trainers, we get clients after they’ve been following what they’ve read on the Internet or what they saw on TV and ended up scaring the dog even more, and then the dog acted aggressively.”

Punishment can backfire.

“If you punish a dog that is showing signs [of aggression], the dog will stop showing signs, and then next thing that it will do is lunge," Beaver says.

For example, Radosta treated a dog that behaved aggressively toward other dogs. A trainer had told its well-intentioned owners to apply a shock whenever they caught him bristling.

“What happened was that they punished the body language signals, the warnings,” Radosta says. “By the time I got the dog, he didn’t warn anymore. I couldn’t really read him well. The only signal that I had before he flat-out lunged at another dog was that his pupils would dilate.”

Aggressive body language serves a useful purpose, Radosta says. “That dog’s giving you a lot of warning, and now [you] can intervene and redirect the dog quickly to an appropriate behavior or begin to counter-condition.”

When dogs are hair-trigger aggressive or so fearful that they can’t function, anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants can help, Radosta and Beaver say.

“For some dogs, life is fearful,” Beaver says. “Some of them need drugs that decrease that generalized anxiety so that they can then start learning.”

Ruby, now 4, went on a brief course of medication to calm her extreme fear. Seiffer also took her on walks to unfamiliar places, to parks and dog classes -- all in an effort to provide her the exposure that she likely missed as a young puppy.

Although she’s still skittish about strangers touching her, Ruby has overcome lots of her initial fears. When Ruby went on a walk during a garbage collection day, Seiffer says, “She walked by scores of garbage cans and didn’t flinch.”

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Reviewed on September 10, 2010

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