It can be hard to accept that aggression is actually a fear response.
Fear and aggression are often misinterpreted, although they are technically, the two sides of the same coin. The fact is that fear escalates to aggression.
People, peculiarly, prefer to use the term “dominant” or even “aggressive”, when they describe their dogs, in stead of “fearful”.
Admittedly, it is more “attractive” and less embarrassing, to call your pet “dominant” or “aggressive”, than a stressed, anxious and fearful little thing…
You should know better though, all these antagonistic, assertive behaviours your dog displays, in front of a trigger, it is actually the result of lack of self-confidence and stress.
There are two categories of dog-guardians, the ones who allegedly “accept their dog as he is” and the others who will punish him for exactly that.
In other words, the category that proudly presents their “dominant” dog to others and warn them for his “aggressiveness” and the category of the people who will punish the aggressive behaviour of their “bad dog”.
Frankly, i can not decide which of them is better…
But i am sure for one thing, dogs belonging to both categories, will suffer from chronic stress and the consequences that comes along with it.
Dogs are not intentionally afraid, to embarrass or distress you and they are definitely not “bad dogs”, because they are afraid of things.
Certainly the constant fear can be exasperating for the pet-parents, but believe me, dogs are not enjoying living under stress and fear either!
Repeated release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – due to fear & stress – into the bloodstream, will impact the rest of his body.
Chronic stress will degrade the individual’s immune system and not only, the digestive system will also malfunction.
When an organism struggles to work, then he debilitates physically and mentally and it will become even harder to cope with his fears.
Managing his environment and proactively protect him from his stressors, will give him some rest and once the stress hormones dissipate, you will be able to desensitise him.
Our goal is to teach him that what he considers a threat, it is actually not that scary and there is no need to over-react.
Sympathetic Nervous System, Endocrine System & Hypothalamus are stimulated due to stressful events.
Their mission is to cause acceleration of the heartbeat, adrenaline & cortisol production, piloerrection, arterial pressure, pupil dilation, thermoregulation, bronchiole dilation, all for the best interest of the dog's survival.
Where Does Fear Come From
There are three main causes, that evoke fear reactions. And of course nature and nurture are the main culprit.
Their nature, will define the DNA and his behavioural traits, when nurture will define his individuality according to environmental influences.
Fear can be caused by any one, or any combination of these.
2. Insufficient Socialisation
3. Specific traumatic event
Fear can also be learned from dog’s human guardian.
Reactivity and fear both stem from a lack of knowledge and in most cases fear is simply a survival instinct.
Our dogs do not enjoy to live in fear, be tense and anxious, every-time they are exposed to the environmental stimuli.
The dog simply doesn’t know how to handle the situation. Either because he was never exposed to it before, never taught how to cope, or learned to be fearful from his parents.
Epigenetics is the changes that can occur to the DNA, after an animal is born.
The epigenome cannot change the individual’s DNA, but it can decide which parts of the genome are needed, in his current environment.
The genome can be switched off and on – by the epigenome, for the dog’s best benefit.
For instance, if pregnant mother dogs living in stressful conditions, they will diffuse to their unburned puppies, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that overloads their bodies.
This will result to the development of puppies, already predisposed, for a stressful world.
Our role as good guardians is to make sure our dogs don’t live in fear. They need to be guided, not corrected nor punished.
Where Do All Start
The limbic system – part of the cerebrum – is the dog’s emotional centre, responsible for experiencing, expressing and regulating emotions.
Happiness, fear, stress, anxiety and aggressiveness, all processed through the limbic system.
Part of the limbic system is the amygdala, a “primitive” area of the brain, which is responsible for survival and defence.
Whenever something arouses the dog’s interest, the amygdala will be activated.
Speed is of paramount importance in these situations, thus to react as quickly as possible.
Consequently there is no time for reasoning…either you freeze, flee or fight.
I give you an example to our human comparison-scale, when you are in a very difficult situation, feeling incapable to pronounce a word, or immobilised on the spot, or you run away, that was due to your amygdala that was in charge!
Your cerebral cortex, or “thinking” brain, did not engage at all.
Instead, your limbic system took control and processed, these primal emotions.
The hippocampus, in the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for processing and interpreting.
It will determine if the threat is real, if the response needs to continue, or if it has ceased to exist, therefore the body can relax.
Unfortunately in some cases, the hippocampus and the amygdala do not communicate properly. The response then can remain blocked.
There are several diseases and illnesses that manifest with sudden fear, also known as idiopathic fear and anxiety, as the result of this lack of communication between hippocampus and amygdala.
According to psychologist Anders Hallgren, first reaction comes from the sympathetic nervous system, then the endocrine system follows and during the last stage the hypothalamus is stimulated.
Their mission is to cause acceleration of the heartbeat and arterial pressure, for better and faster supply in blood, adrenaline production, arterial pressure, pupil dilation, thermoregulation, bronchiole dilation, all for the best interest of the dog’s survival.
All these biological changes though, need to be regulated at some point, otherwise in long term, the dog’s overall health may be in risk.
Dealing With Fear
Dogs have a variety of body language and they use it to manifest their internal state.
There are some behaviours which are totally normal in their daily life, but in different context and combined with their body posture or vocalisations, that could change their original meaning.
Therefore, we have to look carefully in order to interpret and intervene in case of a problem.
When dogs are scared & stressed they will display the following:
1. Yawning, to decompress tense of their jaw-facial muscles
2. Shake-off their coat
3. Lip/nose licking
4. Height seeking behaviour, whilst they may jump on their person in charge
5. Barking or growling, as a demand for more space or distance from the trigger
7. Running away
8. Physical distress, urination, diarrhoea, vomiting
9. Pacing and/or trembling
10. Aggressive behaviour, lunging, snapping, biting.
Before dealing with a fearful dog, is imperative first of all, to recognise the exact reason that induces fear.
Secondary, determine the safety distance, before the stimulus triggers the animal’s agonistic behaviours.
We need to work with a calm, settled dog and handler, then put the fearful animal in a safe distance from the perceived threats.
Observation of his body signs, is paramount, in order to avoid escalating anxiety or fear.
• Decide the distance that the dog needs to be from his trigger, before the anxious signs are shown.
• When these signs appear, increase the distance from the trigger, until the scared dog relaxes.
• Reward the relaxed behaviour.
• From this point, it is important to keep rewarding relaxed behaviour at the same time as decreasing the distance between the dog’s trigger.
• If any anxiety is shown you need to take a step backwards and start from the distance he was feeling safe.
Forcing a dog to confront his fears before he is ready, can have catastrophic results. If the dog feels trapped he may think that he has no option but to attack and bite.
The outdated “flooding” technique, ultimately creates more anxiety and learned helplessness.
You should let the dog take his time, approaches the trigger on his terms and support his efforts.
This way you will build up trust and help him overcome his fears.
Only when the behaviour is observed meticulously, is possible to put in place an accurate and effective, reconditioning programme.
The most important thing to remember is that, fear-induced reactions, should never be punished, because it will amplify the fear.
Never forget to reward for relaxed behaviour!
Eradicating fearful behaviour it is not done in a day, dealing with emotional reactions takes a lot of time, empathy, consistency and patience.
The objective is to make the dog’s life and ours, easier and i suppose that worth all the extra time we can afford.
There is an abundance of books on the canine-market, by great scientists, dog instructors and behaviourists, that will help you to debut with behaviour modification.