I used to see just a couple of cases of fear aggression every few months. Now, post-COVID, I see a couple of cases every week. The number of fear aggressive dogs has increased worldwide, seeming to indicate that those dogs born and raised during COVID lockdown and experiencing a lack of socialization with groups of people and other dogs during that time period, are having trouble adapting to this post-COVID world where they are now walked in busy public spaces and taken out of their homes and their comfort zones. It's also the case that these COVID dogs are now old enough to breed, so we are now seeing puppies born to under-socialized COVID-raised mothers having (inherited) issues in fear and fear aggression.
Fear aggression is typically a defensive behavior by design, meant to move people or other dogs away from the fearful dog. Those growls, lip curls, and whale-eyes, while backing away, are meant to communicate "Stay Away!" Unfortunately, however, these signals often go unheeded, putting these dogs on the offensive and making aggression (and potentially a bite) imminent. Fear aggression is about a dog perceiving a threat; the threat does not have to be real, just perceived to be so. For these dogs, it is very difficult to teach them that their fears are unfounded. And for some dogs, their fears are real, meaning they don't want you to touch their feet/nails because someone grabbed their feet and cut their nails so short they bled, for example.
Fear aggressive dogs look very different than, say, dogs with status aggression or resource guarding aggression. They are often so scared that they freeze, defecate, urinate, or express their anal glands while trying to escape. Their heads are low, bodies low, tails tucked, etc. While you may see a low tail or a frozen body posture with other forms of aggression, you certainly won't see that unloading of the bowels! The big difference and the one that often gets people into trouble is recognizing the difference between a fearful dog and a fearfully aggressive dog until it is too late. So, a dog who is afraid will back up, cower, and tuck their tail to avoid confrontation, but if you reach for them, they will not vocalize aggressively or snap/bite you. Reaching for a dog who is afraid is never a good idea; reaching for a dog who is a fear aggressor is an even worse idea. So what can you do?
First and foremost, you have to avoid putting the dog into those situations that trigger the fear and aggression. If it's the groomer, skip the groomer. Your vet? You'll obviously need to work on that, but not taking them to the vet until you can work on the fear and aggression is key. For dogs afraid of strangers and/or other dogs, don't walk them where there are other people or dogs! You can exercise them at home and it's less risky. Basically, all situations where the dog might be fearfully aggressive must be avoided until you can slowly desensitize your dog to those scenarios. Fearfully aggressive dogs must be counter-conditioned to view previously provocative situations as non-threatening. You do this by starting at a distance from their triggers and teaching them to exhibit or engage in a behavior that runs counter to their fear. So, instead of backing away or cowering, you teach them to sit close to you, for example. The process will be slow, but worth it, as you watch your dog gain confidence and overcome their fears in a safe, predictable environment that you control for them.
For safety reasons, never corner a fear aggressor, instead call or lure them out. Give them a safe space, however, and let them go there whenever they feel overwhelmed. It goes without saying that fearfully aggressive dogs should not be physically punished as that will just reinforce their fears. Never tell them that it's okay or that they are alright; they aren't okay and doing so just reinforces the fear. Instead, provide a safe haven for them, ask for that counter-conditioned behavior, and reward them for doing that. It's also true that many fearfully aggressive dogs require anti-anxiety medication to fully achieve counter-conditioning long term.
While your friends and family may be "dog people" and want to help you with your fearfully aggressive dog, it's in everyone's best interest if you protect your dog from these well-meaning folks. Remember, fearfully aggressive dogs are behaving abnormally; they are just as afraid of gentle approaches as they are of unfriendly approaches. Instead, keep your dog in their crate or in another room with something fun to do. They won't see this as punishment but as a reprieve from a situation that will trigger them to behave fearfully. And if you must have your dog with you in a provocative situation, muzzle train them so that you keep them and others safe. Remember, though, your fearfully aggressive dog is still afraid while muzzled, they simply can't bite anyone. You still need to work with them to keep them under threshold.
My hope is that I will see fewer and fewer fearfully aggressive puppies and dogs as we move further away from the short term effects of the pandemic. If there's one thing I learned from the pandemic it's that people and dogs need to see and engage other people and dogs, even if it's just exchanging pleasantries as you pass them on the street. Avoidance fuels anxiety and fear in all of us.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.