Aggression or fearfulness?

21st Nov, 2017

Please could you help me? My rescue Staffordshire Terrier-mix dog, Sandy, is a year old. He is warm and loving around the home (except for the vacuum cleaner, which he attacks).

When we take him out, however, he wants to attack every dog that comes near him. His first trainer said he was aggressive, but since we moved he’s with another trainer who says he’s actually fearful. How can that be when he is the one wanting to attack dogs on his walk?

Lindsay Pretorius – Randburg


Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner, addresses this dog behaviour and what you can do about it…

Many dogs that are labelled “aggressive” are actually fearful although their behaviour might appear similar. Basically, it comes down to how the dog perceives his environment and his reaction to the stimuli he sees. His reaction to stimuli he perceives as a threat will be to flip into fight/flee/freeze mode. When he’s out walking, he cannot flee or freeze, so he will move into fight mode.

This all happens physiologically (not the same as psychologically). When he’s not facing triggers and is calm, he doesn’t react aggressively.

However, when he flips into “fight” mode, the nervous system triggers the danger response. This results in the production of stress hormones and, amongst other things, shuts down the digestive system to permit all resources to work towards dealing with the danger.

The point at which the physiological change takes place is called the threshold. It’s reached when triggers stack up to the point above this and cause his change in behaviour. It may not be just one thing, such as thunder; it can be, and often is, a number of triggers stacking up. Our aim is always to keep our dogs under this threshold point, as once over it he loses focus on his owner and may even refuse treats.

And, of course, that which we may perceive to be non-threatening may not be viewed in the same light by the dog.

Tips to help your dog

·     Dogs communicate largely through their body language – fearfulness/anxiety may cause a tucked tail, lip licking, avoidance, etc. Learning to observe your dog and detect his signals is helpful for intervening before he reaches threshold.

·     Then, you can keep him safe by maintaining a good distance from the threat, distracting with treats or toys.

·     You can also use the “turn around”, which simply means changing direction to get as far away as possible.

·     Avoid unsupervised interaction with other dogs in the “my dog is friendly” group by calling out that your dog is not and asking them to put their dogs on leashes and give yours space. Ask your trainer about the BAT way of helping a dog in this regard.

The vacuum cleaner trigger

As far as the vacuum cleaner is concerned, it is clearly a strong trigger. Here we use desensitisation and counter conditioning.

      Desensitisation involves getting him comfortable with the vacuum. Put the vacuum in an unfamiliar space (e.g. in the garden) and place lots of yummy treats around it. Bring the dog out, and sit quietly, letting him explore in his own time. This begins the process of seeing previously perceived threats as the dispenser of yummy things.

·     Give him time, and move slowly through the stage of moving the vacuum silently, switching it on and off, finally moving it when switched on.

·     Keep calm, praise the behaviour you want to see lavishly and shower treats.

·     Eventually, you can ask him to settle in a safe space when there are scary things around the home (such as equipment and strangers).

Working with fearful/anxious dogs requires endless patience and persistence. Allowing the dog choices of whether or not to get friendly with the vacuum (or other perceived threats) and setting him up for success improves bonding and behaviour.

As always, these are just guidelines, and you should get help from a qualified behaviourist if you need it. Good luck.