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Fear Aggression Training: The Amazing Ability for Dogs to Change

I remember my mum telling me when I was young…

“You know what I love about you, Dan? You always look after the kids that are weak and need help.” She wasn’t talking about dogs at the time, but it’s true.

And I guess I haven’t changed!

My heart always wants to reach out and help. This morning I was able to help a sea bird injured on the beach, and I often rescue honey bees I find lying exhausted around the property. All they need is a little sugar solution and a place to rest before heading off in the morning back to their hive.

I’ve always loved the underdog… Buck, a dog I’ve had the privilege of working with, is one of those “underdogs” who totally captured my heart. He’s a dog I learned a lot from…and I think you will too.

So, before you continue, check out this quick video clip of me working with Buck.

Now that you’ve watched the video, I thought I’d share with you a few things that come to mind as I look back at my time with Buck about aggression, fear and the ability that dogs have to change.

Did Buck try to bite me?

No. If he had wanted to, he would have got me. Trust me…a dog’s bite is lightning quick, and it rarely misses the mark.

So why did Buck growl and snap?

Buck’s growl and snap were simply to warn me off because he was unsure and didn’t want me to stroke him anymore.

It was nothing more.

If you watch it closely, there is no way he is trying to bite. He simply growls and turns his head towards me. Remember dogs don’t speak English, so it’s very easy to misinterpret them.

Dogs will often growl like this at another dog if they get too close to their food or invade their space…it’s how they communicate.

Could the incident have been avoided?

Yes.

With hindsight (video replays are great!), if I had been watching more closely, I might have picked up on what was going to happen and chosen not to pat Buck. However, most dogs when you call them over are happy to have this sort of interaction.

However, knowing what we do about Buck’s past, we need to look after him more than most dogs.

How does Buck feel after the snap?

The fact that Buck stays next to me after the incident and is so relaxed and happy says it all.

He likes me. He wants to hang out next to me; however, right now he doesn’t want to get too familiar, which is perfectly fine. By the end of the clip, he is relaxed in my presence, and he chooses to lie next to me.

In a way, he’s telling me that he’d like to slow the relationship down!

Overall, it’s a great result!

Stuck in the Past

It’s so easy to feel sorry for dear Buck; however, we need to move on from the past and not keep spoiling him because we think of him as ‘poor Buck’. This sort of thinking will leave him as poor Buck forever. Dogs have a very uncanny ability to sense energy and how we are feeling.

If we want to help him get over his aggression and fear, we must start visualising him as a confident boy. Then that’s what he’ll start to feel.

Do we need to tell him off for snapping?

No. Snapping is his way of saying back off. It’s how dogs communicate, so I would listen and learn from that.

If Buck had actually bitten me, then that’s different and yes, I would suggest that we should pop him into time-out to show him that what he did was unacceptable.

A short time-out is more powerful than telling him off verbally–a calm consistent consequence to his actions is what he needs. Not some verbal abuse that leaves everybody stressed.

Let’s remember Buck’s reaction wasn’t one that came out of meanness or aggression. He got nervous and possibly went a bit over the top when he asked me to stop.

In the words of one great horseman…

‘You have to let a horse (dog) make mistakes, they can’t be too scared to make mistakes.’ – Buck Brannaman

The Cause of Buck’s Problem

The socialization period of a puppy is usually classed as the period from 4 to 12 weeks of age.

This has a huge impact on what associations a puppy will make. So, if a dog has good experiences with humans, he will learn to trust them. However, if he doesn’t, then it’s likely that he won’t.

(Struggling with a puppy biting right now? Check out my Puppy Coach training program!)

Buck didn’t get the best start, and that is partly why he’s so fearful around humans.

The issue is also made worse when a dog like Buck feels he is responsible for protecting the pack and the home. This can put incredible stress on him as he may not feel like he’s cut out for the job, leaving him jumpy, fearful and potentially aggressive.

So, there’s a lot more work required to help Buck trust humans again.

How to Help a Dog Who Is Fearful of People

In order to help a dog that fears people, you must first gain his trust.

Here are some of the key things to bear in mind to helping a dog like this learn to trust again.

1. Provide fearful dogs with strong leadership. It’s important for Buck to know that you are in charge, that you are the protector, the defender of the property and decision maker. Once he understands this, he can switch off, relax and leave all that decision making to you when visitors come round.

2. Learn to reward calm energy. When your dog is barking or growling or very fearful, the best thing is to stay calm yourself. You want to avoid talking in a high voice saying things like ‘It’s okay Buck, it’s alright, nobody’s going to hurt you.’ This only adds fuel to the fire. If a dog is stressed, stay silent and move him away to a place where he can relax.

3. Set him up to win. Fearful dogs need a safe space where they can feel confident and relaxed. For that reason, it’s important to control the environment in which the dog is in. In Buck’s case, if a situation arises where there are lots of people, and young kids turning up, it’s best to move him into a back room where he is safe, and you get through without an incident until he is up to it.

4. Choose carefully the people that the dog meets. When you want a naturally fearful dog to meet a person, make sure that the person is a calm person. In fact, the best person is the one who is happy to come round and pretty much ignore the dog and then leave. Stay away from people who want to go over to him and get into his space. And yes, this usually includes some ‘dog lovers’!

5. Take it slowly. Fearful dogs, like Buck, need time, and there is no rush, so play it safe. Don’t put a dog in a stressful situation until you know he can handle it. Time is on your side…so use it to your advantage.

If you’re interested in learning more ways to work with dogs that have different types of aggression issues, I invite you to request more information about my Dog Trainer Academy program!

Get more info on the Dog Trainer Academy program.

If you’re not interested in becoming a dog trainer, but are still looking for easy, effective, and practical ways to get your dog to listen and respond when it matters most, I invite you to check out my program called The Dog Calming Dog.

Learn more about The Dog Calming Code here.

Cheers for now, and look after your wonderful dog!

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~Doggy Dan 🙂

Doggy Dan

Doggy Dan is the founder of The Online Dog Trainer, a wildly successful online training program for dog owners. His goal is to continue to share his unique approach to dog training with like-minded people who wish to make a difference in the world of dogs. His training methods focus on creating and building the connection between dogs and dog owners, and are shared and used around the world.

21 Responses

  1. Thanks for the video and the information. I appreciate the good intentions and generosity. But on a professional note, I would like to suggest that the dog did not make a mistake, rather, you as the trainer did in not reading his body language correctly and choosing to touch him and continue petting until he had to snap back. You can see that when he walks towards you and you gently put out your hand, he arcs away from it. And then when you touch him, he continues to lower his body and head – again trying to get away from the touch. He was being loud and clear and polite in asking not to be touched. We all make mistakes in not reading a dog’s body language in time, but respectfully, that’s not a reason to put the mistake on the dog. 🙂 Thank you again for being open and sharing this and giving me an opportunity to comment and learn.

    1. Hi there Schlomit, thanks for your post.
      I agree that watching this later its easy to see how it could have been avoided and since he snapped it was clearly too much too soon.
      At the time though my opinion was that (even though he was a bit shy and fearful) he would be accept the connection and we would form a good bond of trust.
      However Buck is a special case and so he needs special care and patience.
      There was no intention to put and blame anywhere, he did his best and I did mine 🙂
      Getting to touch him was always going to be touch and go but the best news is that he is doing really well since the training.
      Always happy to share from what I do. Take care – Doggy Dan

  2. We had a Sheltie when I was growing up who did not want instant friendship with people. She wanted to get to know you before you could pet her. As a result, I always pay attention to a dog’s signals. Do they want to just give you a good sniff? Or do they welcome a fond pat? You can tell if you pay attention.

    1. Hi Ann, I know exactly what you mean! I personally treat all dogs with exactly the same respect because I know that in their instinct I could be a very real threat to them and their family. So to take pressure of the dog I initially give them time to get used to my presence and I don’t speak to them, touch them or make eye contact until I feel they are calm and have left me alone. If I think they are ok with my presence then I will call the dog to me for the pat/fuss as this gives them a choice. If they are not ready to interact with me then they won;t come, but if they do come them they are ready for a pat/fuss. Also, if I haven;t asked them to approach me and they do, then I don’t pat them at this point as they may just be assessing me at a closer distance rather than them being ok with me. In this example I then wait for them to walk away a couple of steps and then call them to me for a pat/fuss. This is a really important interaction to get right, for both the dog and the human! Best, Dan

  3. I have a friend with a 6y.r GSD. Ally was scarwd by someone when she was about 1 or 2 yrs old but was always on the skittish side. My friend did not work through this with her and now Ally will just snap when your getting up from a chair, couch etc. She got me once although I feel it was my fault for not watching her. She will soften and look at you and be totally relaxed until you move. what to do??

    1. You can retrain her to be less reactive however the best way to do this is indirectly by showing her she can relax, that you have it all under control. I am sure that a lot of her skittish behaviour is due to her being on edge. If you want to give the method a go for $1 trial for 3 days its here TheOnlineDogTrainer.com Its exactly what I showed the owners of the dog in this video and its working well…all the best Dan

  4. How can I handle a 18 month old 85 lb. Boxer who is charging agressively after small kids and cats uncontrollably? It is a very different kind of growl. He is a very happy go lucky fun loving boy since he was a baby and all of the sudden he will agressively go after cats and kids (small kids not teenagers) out of no where? I don’t know what to do about it. He loves the dog park and plays well with others unless you’re a cat or. Kid. Please help! I love my boy so much and want to help him and don’t want people to fear him.

    1. Hi Sheri,
      Some dogs do commonly behave this way around small children, especially if the children are running around playing and screaming/laughing. Young children are less predictable in their actions and body language than older children and adults and they can be a little confusing and unsettling for some dogs. Also, if young children are running and screaming then they can sound a little like ‘prey’ and it can trigger a dog to chase them…..of course I am not saying that your dog wants to eat these children but the behaviour you describe can be very instinctual.
      The most important thing is that you are proactive and cautious when your dog is off-leash around small children. If your recall is not all that great around distraction then it may be better to place your dog back on-leash and spend a little time practicing recall in these situations. Allowing him to observe children playing, at a safe distance and on-leash, may also help as you will be able to control his behaviour but it will also allow him to analyse the situation calmly. If he gets a little excited then gently hold him by the collar until he relaxes again. You can also try to use some treats/toys to refocus him on you, but often these things aren’t very effective if he is really excited and so you are better to move him away so he can calm down.
      I have given you a few strategies but really the best way to overcome your dog’s behaviour around small children and cats is to deal with the behaviour from it’s origin. My website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com shows you very clearly how to achieve this…maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

  5. We have a 10 pound 5 year old dog with a skin/cyst problem and no hair. He was found walking the streets one winter. Naked and no pigment to his skin. We have had him for several years and continue to address his skin issues. But what we can’t figure out is what looks like a fear aggression problem. He is fine with me. I am the one who cares for him. From the beginning, he has been scared to death of noises, people, animal. Even if a bird flew overhead. He has been aggressive toward my husband (in a wheelchair) but that has started to slowly improve He’s done well after being in doggy day care and is an absolute doll at those places. But if anyone tries to come into our house, he goes after them and he has bitten a neighbor’s leg when the neighbor tried to discipline him for barking at him. Even though he’s been with us for several years, he still jumps at any sharp noise. I don’t know his history but want so badly to find a way to let people who want to visit us, come when Possum is home. Right now, we have to have him on his leash or just put him in day care if the family member is going to stay a while.

    1. Hi Claudia,
      As far as most dogs are concerned their number one priority is the safety of their family, and they can view strangers as a threat to that safety. If your neighbour does anything to validate your dogs belief that he may be a threat, like yelling at your dog or entering your property unexpectedly, then this can be really counterproductive in calming things down. You can certainly change this behaviour but it does take knowledge of the right way to do that, to remove your dog’s sense of responsibility. At the very least around strangers I would have your dog on-leash so you have greater control and also ask your neighbour not to shout at your dog if you feel comfortable doing that. If not then it may be better to have your dog indoors if you aren’t home to supervise his behaviour with your neighbour.
      We deal with both barking & aggression in great detail on my website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com …maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

  6. Hi Doggy Dan. You sound extremely interesting and can relate to your article. We adopted a 6 month old male spaniel who came from a home with two small children who it seems terrorised him and a most uncalm household. He was always locked out when people came to visit as he barked and jumped up in an excitable puppy way. Was left alone outside whilst owners went to work. He was given to them at only 5 weeks. Anyway we fostered him on 3rd June 2017. We have 2 other spaniels also rescues male and female. They are 5 and we have had them for 16 months now. We have had a very hard 3 months I was bitten twice as he was so afraid of people and insecure. But finally Doggy Dan I think we have succeeded with lots of love, lots of disciplining and Scotty learning to trust again. Quite a difference. We also had him neutered soon after we got him. My female spaniel has helped so much and has been like a mother to him and one thing he has learnt is when she gives a growl is to stop pulling an ear or annoying her. We are not fully there yet but yes happy with our progress. His socialisation skills have improved so much with humans as he used to bark continuously now it’s a few minutes and a treat from them and much better. We also have him house trained. My male spaniel is a slight problem as he does not want the puppy in his space and has become a real growler of note which he never was. How do we try and overcome this or shall we give them more time. Thank you Doggy Dan.

    1. Hi Valerie, there is no doubt that some dogs do require a little more patience than others and it sounds like you have make great progress. If your male spaniel is unhappy about your new dog being too near him then I would advise you to call or move your new dog away from him. It is important that your spaniel feels he has the ability to communicate that he wants to be left alone with your new dog but it’s also important that you intervene if you feel things are escalating. The fact that they are both male dogs may have a lot to do with the behaviour but just monitor things to ensure they are relaxing around each other. Keep up the great work! Dan

  7. I have adopted a chihuahua to give my other chihuahua company after our other two dogs died. The new one is from the pound, a sweetie who was very nervous at first but good with me and my husband. He tried to be protective of us by nipping any one else who came round. That behaviour has almost ceased. The problem we have now is that our older dog stalks him, will growl and they lock eyes and then it’s all over rover. Our older dog is usually quite cruise, a bit skittish due to a bad experience when a young dog, but was great with the new one for the first couple of months. We don’t know what to do, have thought about giving the new dog back to the pound but don’t really want to do that to him. Help!

    1. Hi Adele,
      Adding another dog to the family can be a big adjustment for both dogs, the existing and the new dog. It’s a time where they both try to work out where they fit and so owners can play a very important role here in ensuring this is done respectfully. If you notice your older dog behaving in a way that you don;t like then intervene before things escalate. You could place your dog calmly in another room for a minute or so so he understands that this behaviour will result in him losing everyone, or you could calmly place him on a leash and have him with you until he relaxes and shifts his focus away from your new dog. It’s really important that you stay calm and relaxed as telling him off or getting overly excited will not be helpful. Set the rules and stick to them consistently so that your dog understand exactly what behaviours are not tolerated. Be patient, this is actually a very normal transition process and it often does calm down quite naturally.
      If you feel things are not calming down or you would like a little more information then my website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com covers this issue…maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

  8. At what point do you recommend, if ever, that someone skip aggression re-training and seek out a Veterinary Behaviorist? My dog was clearly either undersocialized when a puppy, or can’t shake the past trauma of being found on the streets by someone who knew of a popular “dumping ground” for dogs in general. Besides “prey drive,” he may have both fear aggression and leash aggression; since he basically wants to attack almost ANY dog that gives him a hard, fixed stare and it’s worse if they’re also pulling on their leash towards him, just being happy to see another dog! He was ok at the dog park unless another dog gave him the unwanted body language of a challenging stare. He’s nearly perfect with people, UNLESS they give him a hard stare too (Normally eliciting just a disapproving howl), OR has tried to bite me if I didn’t pay attention to his warnings, etc. Like humans, how he’s feeling and how the weather is (sunny, windy etc) will also play a part in his behavior.

    1. Hi, we have a lot of members who have sought us out to assist with dogs who behave aggressively towards strange dogs. One thing to be aware of is that dog generally view all other dogs as potential dangers and so they may react in a way that is motivated by keeping themselves safe and alive. This is a behaviour you can change just by showing your dog that he doesn’t have to worry about other dogs because you know how to keep him safe. The key is knowing how to respond to his behaviour so that it enables him to stat to relax around other dogs. His past is a factor, especially if he has had negative experiences with other dogs, but you can start to change his future behaviour by remaining calm and consistent when he starts to show signs that he is uncomfortable. My website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com shows you very clearly how to achieve this…maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

      1. Right, but he has (rarely) been aggressively REACTIVE towards people too, which includes me since the beginning! There haven’t always been warnings, generally speaking. Even if your site has answers for the dog situation, I cannot stay on at $37 p/month. I have to put his food and supplement need(s) first. That’s why I don’t know what to do.

  9. My dog is a year old. Lab/Cattle dog mix. He resource guards his food (we hold the bowl, hand feed, make him work and break up portions), and other high value items: (no bully sticks or long chew bones for him) from us (his people) and my dogs. He will body block me if I get in the way of my other dog eating and try to pet him near the mouth his lip goes up and his teeth are revealed. I spray him with a water bottle. He snaps out of his misbehavior. I try to put my hand through a hole in the chain link fence or through his crate and he growls, shows teeth, lunges, and nips. If someone or another dog approaches me or my dog my dog gets fearful and growls. If someone tries to run at him on leash he is over the top. He will put his head down if someone goes to pet him while he is walking. He is only 1 and his brother was returned the shelter for the same reason (protective over food and his people). Plus I am fearful of him and don’t trust him because of what I have seen him do. What do I do? I want him to be himself and I want to trust and not be afraid of him.

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      Many dogs do prefer to eat undisturbed and generally I respect their rights to do that and leave them to eat in peace. I know that if I’m in a restaurant eating I also prefer if the waiter doesn’t interrupt me to often, I guess I also like my personal space in these situations as well because I love my food! The reality for dogs is a bit more serious though because their instinct is to feel perfectly justified in protecting food that is in their possession. They don’t want to risk it being stolen from them otherwise they may not survive! In some cases the more you get involved in touching them when they eat, the more unsettled they become because they see this as constant competition for their food. A growl is a warning to back off and it’t generally a communication that owners should respect, rather than punish. If it’s causing your dog to be unsettled around food then my advice would be to leave him in peace to eat and if he isn’t happy about other dog being fed nearby then give him a little more space or feed him in a separate area. We do discuss this issue on my website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com …maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

  10. Hi Dan

    I have a 2yr old Wolfhoundx who has aggression tendencies, currently I am seeing a behavioralist for him but it very much seems like it is 2 steps forward and 10 steps back!!
    I am really worried that he will never achieve the level where I freely take him around humans and dogs, I have spent so much time and money on trying to solve the issues but with little to no result!
    I am worried he will hurt someone and it will be a mistake that ends his life (not cause I choose but cause the law does)
    He misses out on fun and interaction cause he can’t be trusted and I feel trapped cause I can’t go away or anything like that cause I can’t allow him to be looked after by anyone…he could have a lot better of a life if he could learn but it doesn’t seem he can be helped! I follow all training but I am losing hope.

    1. Hi Landon,
      It really does depend on the type of information you are giving your dog when working with this type of behaviour. The key factor is that you are actually assessing the behaviour correctly, so you understand why it happens, but then you also know exactly the right response to help your dog relax in situations he may find threatening. A lot for aggression is fear-based, where a dog is in a situation where they feel overwhelmed and they panic. By recognising how your dog feels about these situations you will be able to formulate a strategy that means you are proactively addressing the behaviour before it happens…if that makes sense! I have an extensive list of topics covering aggression but more importantly I teach you the strategies that deal with the root cause of this type of behaviour….or any other behaviour!
      My website TheOnlineDogTrainer.com shows you very clearly how to achieve this…maybe take a quick look…its a $1 trial for 3 days…all the best Doggy Dan

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