“Does he bite?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Does he bite children?” was my next question.
“Well,” she said, “We don’t want him to. That’s why we brought him here—to get socialized.”
I had approached this little dog to distract him when I noticed him in a staring contest with two big dogs. He was acting tough but was clearly terrified. My concern was that someone would run between them and be frightened or injured if the tension between the dogs escalated. The owner of the little dog immediately came over to tell me to stay away from the dog, which is when we had our conversation.
The mom in me was furious that she had brought a dog who bites to the park during a children’s soccer tournament and tied him to the back of a goal, putting so many kids at risk. However, the canine behaviorist in me looked at the situation differently. I know from over a dozen years of working with dogs with serious behavior problems (and specializing in aggression) that people often think they are doing the right thing with an aggressive dog even when they’re not.
Most dogs who are behaving aggressively towards people are acting out of fear. The aggressive behavior diminishes only when the fear does.
Taking a fearful dog to a place full of people will not help him conquer his fear. It will actually make the fear, and thus his behavior, even worse because he is having yet another experience of being terrified. This is not intuitive because it’s natural to think that if a dog is misbehaving around people that he should go to classes, to the park, or any other place with lots of people for socialization. Though this seems sensible, it’s not actually true.
Socialization refers specifically to the process that occurs during the sensitive period— between three and twelve weeks of age—when puppies are becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Anything or anyone that a puppy experiences in a positive way during this critical period of development is unlikely to produce fear in the dog later in life. Proper socialization includes providing puppies many good experiences with new people during this brief and specific period of development so that they accept new people throughout their lives without being afraid. Only puppies can be socialized—not adult dogs.
Taking a fearful dog out and about to be with or near people is unlikely to help a fearful dog become less afraid. The exposure elicits fear in the dog, giving him additional experiences that confirm how scary it is to be around people. This usually makes the fear worse, along with any undesirable behavior that is a result of the fear.
Most people dealing with an aggressive dog desperately want to improve their dog’s behavior, and knowing what NOT to do is an essential part of success. Though it may seem like a good idea, it’s counterproductive to take fearful dogs who are behaving aggressively to crowded places.
Many dogs can overcome their fears with desensitization and counter classical conditioning, both of which involve exposing them to low levels of whatever frightens them and preventing them from becoming overwhelmed. Two great resources are Patricia McConnell’s book The Cautious Canine and Debbie Jacobs’ website fearfuldogs.com.
Have you run into people trying to help their dogs in this way?