Fear Aggression and How to Help

Fear aggression – a behaviour that is usually a defensive one based on fear.

Fear is described as an unpleasant emotion, caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or is a threat.

A dog showcasing fear aggression may be growling, barking, baring their teeth to try and scare away what they fear; be it a sound, another animal or in our case at the veterinarian, a person. We mean them no harm but they don’t know that, and it is our job to help them understand this.

Understanding fear aggression begins with ourselves understanding that the concern is 100% from the dog’s perspective. What we may think is the problem, may in fact not be at all. During these moments, our pet is not being irrational or misbehaving, they are in fact being a dog, using their instinct and protecting themselves and their “pack.”

There are many different tips in helping your pet cope with fear aggression. Bear in mind that some things may work for some dogs, but not at all for others. Like people, our dogs are all different in how they learn.

  1. Enroll your pet in some training. It is a bonus to your pet, but also to yourself. It will allow you to learn ways to connect to your dog and open up to communication and understanding your pet.
  2. Re-enforce good behaviours. Dogs like doing what feels right to them and by helping re-enforce good behaviours, you, in turn, are helping them to shape themselves. Observe and reward the good moments as often as you can. If you catch your pet watching you, reward that! They look to you for guidance, and if you can get them to focus on you, it can be a huge help.
  3. To desensitize them, they must be exposed to small doses of their fear. Only having it increase gradually when they are comfortable. Counter-conditioning can be used by taking something that they fear and teaching them to associate with something they love. You can use a super tasty treat for very food driven pets, or a special toy for the toy-driven dogs. I suggest you begin treating or playing with a toy, right before they are exposed to what they feared. This allows you to have their attention and treat them with something they highly value, as a special reward. Usually, when repeated enough, your dog will begin to assume that something great comes to them at those moments. Having them “just get used to it” might cause the behaviour to escalate. The more the dog engages in the behaviour, the better they get at it. Repeating a particular behaviour allows it to become more natural and ingrained, this is a form of self-reinforcement. Exactly what we want to avoid!
  4. During any exercise, it is important for you to know when your pet may be feeling some distress. Signs such as lip licking, yawning, panting, facing away from situation, freezing, whining or growling. A growl should always be known as communication. It is one of the only ways your pet can relay to you that they are uncomfortable or scared. It is a warning that we always need to respect because it may lead to a less than pleasant experience, should it be ignored or punished.
  5. Check our emotional state. Are you stressed? Worried? Scared? Your dog will usually always feed off of your emotions. As mentioned before, your dog looks to you for guidance. Being calm and relaxed can help indicate feeling safe and protected to your pet.
  6. Lastly, remember changing an instinctual emotional response is not going to be easy. Trust me as a person who has spent a lot of time dealing with this in my very own pets, it takes a lot of time, trust and patience, but is worth every bit of it. Remember, celebrate the small successes – they are, after all, what leads up to the bigger ones! There are very few studies that have been performed on oils. There is still a lot of data missing about safety, potential adverse reactions, and dosages. Some essential oils may be involved in “natural flea products.” However, if products are classified as repellents and not insecticides, then they are not regulated, which means companies must have safety studies performed. Among my veterinary colleagues, there has been an overwhelming number of reports about how pets, especially cats, had bad or severe reactions to “natural” products. It is generally recommended to keep pets away from the following substances: cinnamon, cloves, thyme, oregano, savoury, cassia, bitter almond, calamus, garlic horseradish, mustard, sassafras, wormseed and pennyroyal.

Essentially, very little is known about how essential oils can help pets, and what doses are safe and effective. Until we have more scientific data, please feel free to be selfish and do not share your oils with your pets!

Written by Park Road Veterinary Clinic