Aggression in Dogs: Is Your Dog Aggressive Towards Visitors?

“I’m really afraid my dog will bite someone. We’ve had some really close calls. I can’t have anyone over anymore unless we crate our dog.”

Does it sound like I’ve been eavesdropping on your thoughts?

I had a number of clients recently who called concerned about their dog’s reactivity towards new people and some of the same guests that visit frequently. “It’s alarming and very distressing”, says a client of her 24 month old female lab mix. The aggression came to a head in a dog obedience class she attempted to take because her dog was reactive to people in the class. She had to stop going to the class.

In this particular case, her dog was fear aggressive. She wanted to know why her dog was this way.  She was afraid she had screwed things up. I explained that there are three ways fear comes about in dogs.

The first is genetic.

 Some dogs are born with a predisposition for fear. The dog has a low threshold for things that causes it to startle or spook.  The dog will overreact to a whole lot of things – noises, big garbage cans, lawn mowers and even paper blowing across the street.  What would cause a mild startle response in a dog with a normal fear level will drive the over-reactor crazy. This was definitely not her dog.

 The second is learned fear.  

 As an example, let’s say the phone rings as your dog steps on a thumbtack.  If the phone rings within a millisecond before the pain of the tack in the foot, the dog associates the ring with the pain and will show a fear reaction to the phone ringing. It’s crazy but again, not the cause of her dog’s fear.

 The third is missing out on early primary/secondary socialization

 This takes place during the critical sensitive period from three to 12 weeks of age.  Her dog missed out on exposure to people. Born in the country and not adopted until it was 4-5 months of age caused her dog to miss out on this critical socialization.

 How do you begin to fix this fear problem?

If your dog is fearful of people, know that in general, fearful dogs are usually most afraid of men, then boys, then little girls and the least afraid of adult women. So start with the easy ones first – if you can. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If you only have men to work with then keep them at a tolerable distance where you can get successful sits.

 Here’s an example. 

Sammy, our black lab is fearful of people so we associate high value food treats with visitors. We have our routine of placing a zip lock bag of his very favorite food treats, diced up grilled chicken, on the front porch for the visitor that we meet outside on the porch. From a comfortable distance, the visitor tosses a food treat to Sammy as I click.

After a half dozen treats, we go inside and practice the same routine. After a while Sammy is relaxed but is kept on a leash and Gentle Leader.  Each new guest expands Sammy’s circle of friends. Since Sammy knows his place command, he is very comfortable on his bed by my chair.

It may take your dog a while to reach the level of comfort Sammy has, but hang in there. Have plenty of patience and keep all visitors at a comfortable distance for your fearful dog. A leash is required on this exercise. Working your dog on daily obedience training will give him confidence in performing for you in this social situation. Providing structure in his life by setting rules, boundaries and expectations will also go a long was to lessening your dog’s stress when required to perform sits and downs in front of strangers – even if it is in your home.

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Jim Burwell is a “thanks for making the impossible, possible” successful professional dog trainer having trained 20,000+ dogs and counting and serving more than 7,000 clients.  He has a profound understanding of dog behavior and the many things, we as humans, do that influence that behavior – good or bad.  Jim has the ability to not only steer dogs and puppies down the right path but to also train the owners to understand their part in having a great dog.

(c)Jim Burwell Inc.