Help! My Dog is Aggressive, Reactive, Fearful, Anxious, etc. – What do I do?

By Don Hanson

Step one – Know that you are not alone. I receive several calls per week from people that are concerned about the manner in which their dog is behaving towards them, other people, other dogs, other animals, or maybe some combination of things. Aggression, reactivity, fear, and anxiety are all on a continuum of behaviors and the primary reason I see dogs for behavior consultations. Fear is almost always the direct cause or a major factor in aggression and reactivity. Previously in this column, I have discussed the 2015 American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines which reported that “Behavioral problems affect more dogs and cats than any other medical condition and are one of the most common causes of euthanasia, relinquishment, or abandonment of pets.” You are not alone.

Step two – Act Now!! Accept that behavioral issues will not go away on their own nor will your dog outgrow them. Commit to act NOW! Understand that these matters are every bit as traumatic to your dog as they are to you. You are both suffering. Delaying action is only likely to make the resolution of these issues harder and in all probability take longer.

Step three – Stop the use of force, fear and pain. Immediately stop the use of any and all aversives for the management and training of your dog. Common aversives include but are not limited to; prong, pinch, choke, or shock collars, alpha rolls, squirt bottles, and the entire dominance/alpha construct. Aversives impair our dog’s ability to learn, damage the human-dog bond and trust, and often result in an emotional outburst resulting in the very behavior problems you wish to resolve. The AAHA guidelines categorically oppose the use of aversive techniques. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) also oppose the use of aversives in training and behavior modification.

Step four – Talk to your veterinarian. If you have not already done so, make an appointment with your veterinarian to have a detailed discussion about your dog’s behavioral issues. Aggression can be caused by many medical problems. Pain, neurological disorders, tumors, thyroid disease and other hormone related problems, and even an adverse reaction to a vaccine, can cause aggression. Any medical issues related to your dog’s behavior need to be identified and resolved if you wish the behavior to change.

Step five – Seek help from a behavior professional. If your veterinarian determines that your dog’s behavioral issues are not the result of a medical problem, seek the advice of a professional animal behavior specialist, someone who understands canine behavior, ethology and behavior modification. Do not try to resolve this issue on your own or based on what someone tells you on Facebook. It is unlikely that you will be successful and you may, in fact, may make the problem worse and harder to resolve.

Behavior modification is not the same as dog training. Dog training is about teaching your dog to offer a particular action when given a cue. Behavior modification is about changing your dog’s emotional response to a stimulus. Aggression and reactivity are emotional responses typically based on fear or anger. Making your dog sit when a stranger approaches is very unlikely to make your dog less afraid or angry, but in fact, may make your dog feel more threatened. Behavior modification is about helping your dog develop a positive emotional response instead of barking, growling, lunging, or cowering.

There are three levels of professionals that specialize in assisting pets with behavioral problems.   Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (CDBC) and Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (ACDBC) credentialed by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) are qualified to work with most behavior problems. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (ACAAB) accredited by the Animal Behavior Society work with more advanced behavior problems. Diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), who are credentialed by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, are veterinarians with advanced training in behavior. They are skilled in dealing with the most dangerous behavior problems using both behavior modification therapy and medications.

Step six – Be patient. While an undesirable behavior such as reactivity towards strangers can be created in a single event, it will likely take a significant amount of time and effort to change your dog’s behavior. Our brains and our dog’s brains work much the same. If we are exposed to something we perceive as dangerous or frightening, we are genetically preprogrammed to remember that for life. It is all about our instinctual motivation to survive. To successfully reprogram the brain can take weeks and even months of carefully planned desensitization and counterconditioning. It is human nature, especially in today’s culture to be impatient and to what instant results. That is not behavior modification works. Be patient.

About the Author

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine, where he is also the Director of Behavior Counseling and Training. As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP) and Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), Don also assists pet parents and their dogs and cats with behavioral problems such as separation anxiety and aggression.

Green Acres Kennel Shop is a full service pet care business offering pet-friendly boarding, daycare, grooming, training classes, and behavioral consultations for cats and dogs. Additionally we offer a full range of wholesome pet food and quality pet supplies. The business was established in 1965 by Judy and Bob Mooney, who also bred Yorkshire Terriers. In 1982 the business was purchased by Chuck and Mary Jones, who ran the business until it was purchased by Don and Paula Hanson in October of 1995.

Green Acres Kennel Shop is located at 1653 Union Street, in Bangor, ME.

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