How to respond to fear aggression from dog?
November 23, 2021 3:45 PM   Subscribe

I've posted a bit about him before and he's getting a lot better and he's incredibly loving 99% of the time, but Max still shows his teeth sometimes - my partner was trying to take off his hoodie and it took her too long and he slightly bared his teeth. He does same when he's disturbed while sleeping/nesting. Obviously if we yell at him in the moment it's just going to scare him more and make it worse. What should we do in the immediate aftermath of these incidents?

Of course one answer is "don't do that" but I'd like to get to where I feel safe having him around kids, who can't always be calm or give him space.
posted by ftm to Pets & Animals (14 answers total)
This will sound strange, but you should reward the dog when he doesn't display aggression. Try waking him up. If he responds with aggression, withdraw immediately. If he doesn't act aggressively in that situation, give him a treat and attention. The trick is catching the dog when he's behaving well and rewarding that.
posted by SPrintF at 4:22 PM on November 23 [6 favorites]

I had a dog that was not safe around kids, so as soon as we found out we never put children in that situation. It was just as simple and sad as as that.

Is it actually fear aggression? Have to you talked to a pro? I am not sure of your background, but just baring of teeth might be more complicated than simple aggression. I had a little cowdog that would growl when we did stuff to her that she didn't like, but it never went any further than that: rrrrr, when we were cutting her toenails; or rrrrr when she was being restrained to get bandages changed. We'd tell her to quit it, but she was too broken to take a real correction. Loved children.

Rescue dogs come with their own baggage, fully formed and often permanent. The little cattle dog was never as comfortable around me as she was with women, tile floors were always an complete freakout, and pickup trucks were always irresistible.
posted by the Real Dan at 4:26 PM on November 23

Posting only because I've watched about a bazillion hours of dog training videos recently with my new pup, not because I know how to train dogs - but SPrintF has it according to the latest research. Reward any behaviour you do like, very liberally. Throw a freaking treat party when they do something right. Meanwhile completely ignore the behavior you don't like, or only give a mild correction (a "uh-uh", not yelling) unless you are removing somebody/thing from danger. And don't put them into situations where they are bound to fail. Wake him up gently, reward for not showing any aggression. Repeat, repeat. Slowly, slowly build up to more disruptive wake up calls until he wakes up perfectly every time... and thats when you start phasing out the treats.

IANADT, IJWALOY (i just watch a lot of youtube).
posted by cgg at 5:00 PM on November 23 [3 favorites]

My skittish cat has grown to understand the phrase "it's all right", spoken in a medium-low, calming voice.

I used to have to sit and watch her eat, since she would stop eating if there was a sudden loud noise or any disturbance near her. (I live on a busy street, so there are a lot of sudden loud noises.) When she looked scared, I would say "it's all right, Mystery" and eventually she believed me. These days she still gets stressed about fireworks but takes most other things in stride.

Dogs are, I think, as quick or quicker to pick up on verbal cues than cats. Just agree on a verbal cue like "easy" or "it's OK" or something like that, that means "nothing to fear, stand down". Eventually the dog will understand.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:00 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]

I think you need a professional to help you assess and create a plan.

I had a dog who had true fear aggression and bottom line was he had to be under total control around kids. We worked with him hours a week and he was a good dog - but because of his background (abused and burnt) and assets (Shepherd mix) we just could never have him around kids unsupervised or for very long.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:03 PM on November 23 [5 favorites]

I will add though, he didn’t growl when really threatened - that was one of the hallmarks. If he truly felt threatened he went from still to attack.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:05 PM on November 23

Working with dog trainers who specialize in reactivity has been really helpful for learning how to handle my fearful dog. Any time she's going to be anywhere near kids, though, we have her muzzled. Muzzle training is straightforward, and having a dog muzzled means everyone is both safer and kind of on notice to be mindful of who's interacting with the dog and how. (I mean, ideally, people would be mindful all the time, but they're not.) There's a lot of stigma around muzzling, but genuinely, in terms of the dog's comfort and happiness with it, I didn't see a difference between muzzle training my fearful dog and training my other dog to tolerate wearing a graduation cap for his doggy manners class.
posted by theotherdurassister at 6:09 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]

First let me say I am not an expert. I have a dog who was abused sometime before he went to a shelter, and was fostered/adopted out a few times and returned before we got him. He barks and growls sometimes when he sees other dogs _or_ humans (i.e. when we are out walking). It was worse when we first got him. My take on it is to tell him "you're OK. Nothing to worry about. Be nice" while of course keeping him and my other dog on a shorter leash. Sometimes I hold and rub both sides of his neck (sort of like a mother dog might carry a tiny pup, but not lifting him), or stroking an ear while assuring him that there's nothing to fear. It has seemed to help, to the point where _sometimes_ just saying "You're OK" or "Be nice" will cause the behavior to cease
posted by TimHare at 7:31 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I had a dog who was reactive and bitey, although not in the way you describe. I did a lot of work with her using positive reinforcement and she improved a lot, but I could never have her around kids. One reason is that kids are so unpredictable, and can shriek suddenly, run, tug on an ear, or hug a dog unexpectedly. The consequences of even a nip can be so bad for a child, I didn't feel like it was worth it taking the risk.
I aimed for getting her to be safe and in control when she was on leash, and getting a good recall so she'd come when called, when she wasn't.
posted by Zumbador at 7:40 PM on November 23

You need a force-free trainer to avoid the dog's getting into a bad situation. Really. Even if he bites someone in the family who "doesn't mind," it can still be injurious to that person's relationship with him.

Note that you don't want to punish growling, per se. Growling is the dog's way of warning you that he's reaching his limit. It's an important signal, and it's much worse if the dog goes straight to biting without growling.

What a sweet boy, I'm sure he deserves all the effort you can put into making him comfortable and relaxed.
posted by praemunire at 9:55 PM on November 23

Please please please get a professional dog behaviourist. Not a trainer, but a behaviourist who uses positive and force-free techniques of behaviour modification. Your post is full of very common red flags that the majority of dog owners show which indicate a lack of knowledge of dog behaviour, which can lead to real problems down the line. Getting the wrong kind of trainer who uses force and aversion could really backfire with disastrous consequences.

"he's incredibly loving 99% of the time, but Max still shows his teeth sometimes"
This kind of behaviour doesn't have anything to do with how "loving" a dog is and thinking about it in this way is pointless anthropomorphism which will not help you understand your dog and help him in times of stress. Teeth baring is communication. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you. It's not emotional at all. You are just, currently, not able to read and understand the language he is using to talk to you with. This is really really common, probably the vast majority of dog owners completely misunderstand their dogs, but dogs are great at accommodating us. Your dog is less accommodating, but he's actually doing a great job of telling you about what's going wrong, so with a behaviourist you will learn what he is saying and what to do differently.

"my partner was trying to take off his hoodie and it took her too long and he slightly bared his teeth"
This indicates to me that you have a highly sensitive dog who is uncomfortable with being handled. It also indicates to me that you are unable to read more subtle dog communication, leading to your dog having to escalate his communication to teeth-baring in order to get his point across. This is not the same as aggression. He's not even snapping! He is exhibiting, actually, a high level of self-control.

Please watch this video. You can see that dogs have very subtle ways of communicating with humans. I can almost guarantee you that in the run-up to these snapping incidents, your dog will have shown a range of other avoidance and stress signals that you haven't noticed. If he isn't and he is going from completely calm and happy to teeth-baring (which I think is quite unlikely, and do watch the video to see how very small, subtle and easy-to-miss these stress signals are), this is more challenging, but a good behaviourist will be able to help.

Dogs are not evolved to wear clothing, and having someone handling their body and restricting their movements in that way is potentially extremely stressful. Your dog probably doesn't need to wear a hoody, but you do need to be able to handle and touch his body safely and comfortably for all parties, so this is where you need a behaviourist to help you positively condition your dog to accept handling (and, if need be, clothing). You might be surprised how long and involved this process might take. You can see from this video that it can take weeks of positive counter-conditioning to even get a dog comfortable with having their body touched, without even bringing the clothing item to their body. This is why you need a behaviourist who can help you understand your individual dog and guide you through the process of positive behaviour modification to get him comfortable with the kind of handling you need to do with him.

"He does same when he's disturbed while sleeping/nesting"
Again, a behaviourist will help you figure out what's going on here. In general, it's good for dogs to have a safe place where they can sleep undisturbed, like a comfy large crate somewhere quiet in the house. If you need him to come to you, you can train a recall to get him to leave his bed, rather than bothering him where he is lying/sleeping. Again, this is a human/anthropomorphic expectation of your dog to be happy being petted/cuddled/interacted with when he's resting (completely understandable as this is often when dogs are at their cutest and look the most cuddle-able), but again, your dog is quite likely on the sensitive side and finds being disturbed when resting threatening and uncomfortable. It would be really easy for you to find changes to your management of these situations to avoid stressing him out- again, with the help of a behaviourist.

"Obviously if we yell at him in the moment it's just going to scare him more and make it worse"
"What should we do in the immediate aftermath of these incidents?"

You're absolutely right and I'm glad you're aware of this! Again, like most humans who own dogs, you don't have the skills and knowledge to know how to understand your dog and communicate and work with him effectively, and it is our human default to yell and punish what we perceive to be bad behaviour. Once again, a behaviourist will help you to see these situations as readable and logical situations of stress/avoidance, and give you the tools to deal with them using management and positive behaviour modification.

"I'd like to get to where I feel safe having him around kids, who can't always be calm or give him space"
You need to guarantee your dog will always have somewhere calm to go away from children. This is the case for ALL dogs but especially one like yours who is clearly sensitive and needs to resort to scary-to-humans types of communication in order to make his needs known. Think about the fact that you and your partner, grown responsible adults, have had troubles recognising and interpreting your dog's behaviour, leading to situations you find uncomfortable and frightening, and then imagine what kids are like. Kids are, to be honest, completely unable to understand dog body language and once you start understanding dog body behaviour more, almost 100% of the time watching kids and dogs interact is absolutely teeth-grittingly stressful. This article sums it up.
So you as the adult and dog-owner who knows your dog is uncomfortable with handling should be absolutely hard-line about policing any interactions between the dog and any kids, letting go of your anthropomorphising need for your dog to be good with kids. Some dogs are and can be, but I think it is much rarer than common practice would have you believe, and I don't think it's likely for your dog. Working with your behaviourist will give you a better idea of what's right for your dog, and whether he can be around kids and to what extent and with what safety protocols in place, but I think ALL dog owners should default to not simply allowing children to touch, pet, play with or hug dogs without a huge amount of supervision and attention from the adults at hand, and for dogs' comfort and need for personal space and calm and quiet to be taken seriously and prioritised 100% of the time over a child's desire to play and mess with the cute pup.

It's great that you are taking your dog's discomfort seriously and I hope you have fun learning more about dog behaviour (good starting point articles for your learning here) and how we can be better friends for them. It really is a fascinating world, and can open up much deeper and stronger bonds with our dogs than we are able to have when we see them only through human-centric anthropomorphic lenses.
posted by Balthamos at 1:10 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]

Also, yes, what to do in the moment in the meantime while you are learning and working with the behaviourist: try and avoid subjecting him to things that are stressful in the first place, and if you have to do them liberally ply him unconditionally with treats. Do not scold, tut, "uh-uh", touch him or physically threaten him. If he teeth-bares, back off calmly if possible, give him a treat, and take it as a learning opportunity and try and back-trace your steps to see what's led him to that moment.
posted by Balthamos at 8:14 AM on November 24

Balthamos' comment is really excellent and I'd cosign all of it. I'd like to highlight this point:

your dog having to escalate his communication to teeth-baring in order to get his point across. This is not the same as aggression. He's not even snapping! He is exhibiting, actually, a high level of self-control.

Teeth-baring, growling, and snapping are behaviors that humans find startling or frightening; it feels violent or aggressive. But a dog who snaps is not a dog who tried to bite but missed--if they wanted to bite you, you'd get bit. Dogs have a high amount of control over their mouths, it's their primary tool for interacting with the world. So in those moments when your dog bares his teeth or growls, please try to set aside that initial alarm and remember that your dog is trying to communicate with you, using the abilities he has.

If he doesn't like being suddenly woken, do you need to suddenly wake him? Does he need the clothing? Some things are important, like letting the vet check him over or you being able to put on a leash: approach those moments calmly. Some things that might help: not hurrying, letting him see your movements (not approaching from behind), allowing him time to adjust to unusual touches, and of course lots of praise and treats.

It may be that you will never feel comfortable leaving him unattended around children. Or only a few carefully selected ones. But also he may just be a dog who is happier snoozing in his crate and then snuggling up with you on the couch after the kids are gone/in bed. Regardless, if you and your partner put in the effort to really learn to "hear" and understand him, it's so so worthwhile. Good luck to all of you!
posted by radiogreentea at 12:07 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]

In addition to radiogreentea and Balthamos' great comments... I have a greyhound who loves his clothes but has politely but clearly told us that he doesn't like ones with armholes or sleeves. He's very very tolerant of handling and those are just not OK with him. So something easier to get on and off might help.
posted by sepviva at 9:47 AM on November 25

« Older Where to buy home decor cheap?   |   Best place for cocktail shrimp in SF? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments