What Still Needs Fixing in Fearful Dog Fixers

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Because fearful and feral dogs are my heart, I'll waste no time, but lead with answers:


1: Stop trying to feed fearful and feral dogs their meals by hand.


2: Stop making statements suggesting that fearful dogs are aggressive dogs.


There are other issues, to be sure. But these two seem the worst because they may appear to the layperson as loving and kind (#1) and are assumed to be fact-based and therefore mistakenly accepted as obvious. (#2)


Thankfully, there are not hordes of individuals still doing #1 as far as I can tell--though some who do practice #1 work for large organizations, which poses a problem similar to having lots of people practicing the error. It's a well-meaning but misguided practice that becomes dangerous advice when coming from someone in an influential organization, because that makes the advice not just bad, but broad in its ability to reach many other helpers and thereby negatively effect millions of dogs.


#2 still gets a lot of play from laypeople and professionals, and that is literally killing thousands of dogs every year. I would say millions, which is probably closer to the truth, but then I'd need to cite studies that just aren't available. (I'm working on that.)


Here are some of the reasons you should not feed a fearful dog meals by hand:


1. Without meals, the dog will die. By insisting a fearful dog take her meals from your hand, you are leveraging a powerful survival motivation--hunger--to force that dog into contact with you, regardless of her fear. This is the antithesis of what a humane animal behavior professional, especially one specializing in fearful dogs, would do. And yes, it is force, since most people working with these dogs have the dogs in captive situations. The dog has no way to escape and get food on her own. See also "flooding."


2. By flooding the dog, cornering, pressuring, or otherwise invading her space before she is ready, in order to rush contact in this way, you are adding to her fear, not helping decrease it. Rather than changing negative associations with humans to positive ones, as you might think you are doing, taking her food bowl away and pushing your hand into her space or face only serves to add to the fearful dog's negative associations she has with humans. If you are looking at her, or worse yet physically entering into her kennel or other living space at the same time, it's even more threatening for her.


3. Repeatedly flooding a dog risks installing Learned Helplessness in that dog.


4. Repeatedly scaring an already fearful dog, while creating further negative associations with you, not only creates a -CER to you, but likely increases the -CER to humans in general. If that happens, it will be very difficult for you or others to help this dog.


5. If you deny the dog's options for flight, and you ignore her fidget and freeze responses, that leaves only fight (if learned helplessness doesn't take over). If you get hurt, will you recognize that she was self-defending, practicing distance-increasing behavior, because you were acting like an aggressor? Or will she be punished via pain training or 'euthanized' for your errors?


Which leads to the second item. Recently I stumbled upon a comment that I found very disturbing in its inaccuracy, especially since it was written by a person who provides online dog training advice to the general public. Her claim, that "most experts agree that fear is the first sign of aggression," is the kind of irresponsible falsehood that gets myriad innocent dogs dumped and killed year after year after year.


When you want expert advice, go to the true experts in the field. I find Dr. Roger Abrantes' advice on the dynamics between fear, human error, and aggression to be among the best in the field:

"Fear does not elicit aggressive behavior. It would have been a lethal strategy that natural selection would have eradicated swiftly once and for all. A cornered animal does not show aggressive behavior because it is fearful. It does so because its natural responses to a fear-eliciting stimulus (pacifying, submission, flight) are ignored."

-Dr. Roger Abrantes, Ethology Institute Cambridge



In other words, if you corner, or trap, or threaten, or hurt, a dog and then ignore that dog's attempts to resolve the threatening, painful, or whatever situation peacefully--e.g., when she tries to run away from you, show deference or appeasement, et cetera--it is your refusal to respond appropriately that elicits self-defensive behavior as a last resort from the dog. By either refusal to play fair, or by honest lack of knowledge of canine behavior and communication, it is human error that elicits the dog's attempt to increase the distance between the human aggressor and herself. Humans have labeled that distance-increasing behavior "aggression" and in fearful dogs we have unfortunately labeled it "fear aggression." In truth, it is merely self-defense, a normal response to human aggression for which every normal dog, and every normal animal, including the human animal, has capacity.


Per Abrantes, true aggression is "behavior directed toward elimination of competition from an opponent," and, by the way, "predatory behavior is not aggressive behavior." While these two additional clarifications are not exactly on the topic of this post, they nevertheless are valuable pieces of knowledge I wanted to share, as I know that so many people struggle with the varieties of behavior currently deemed aggression in their beloved canines. I hope this will be of some help, and hope, to you. Do feel free to contact me if you need assistance.

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