Q: My 3-1/2 year-old German shepherd is really a very good dog. However, he got loose not too long ago and was picked up by animal control. They said they had a hard time with him because he is a fear biter. They recommended training for this aggression problem. Any suggestions?
A: A dog’s fear is rooted in a basic instinct to protect him or herself for survival. In this case it’s a “fight” response. Three aspects are involved that can trigger a bite: things that move around or towards him, things that touch him, especially being physically restrained and/or things that he hears. Obviously being picked up by animal control involves all three and this can be overwhelming for some dogs.
To modify this behavior, you would use counter conditioning, that is, change the way he feels about the touch, sound and motion. And you also would use systematic desensitization to gradually get him used to whatever it is that is triggering the bites. It is important to avoid situations where his aggression is triggered while the training program gradually takes hold. In other words, use your good old common sense. The bottom line is getting him to relax no matter what and building up behavioral reliability and trust in you so that he becomes convinced you will protect him. You can go to www.dogwise.com for books that deal with aggression. The ones by Patricia McConnell and Jean Donaldson are very good.
A professional trainer (positive methods only) is needed to set you up on a behavior modification program. You can find a trainer in your area that uses only positive training methods through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.APDT.com) or The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (www.NADOI.org). Also, check with friends, neighbors and your veterinarian for possible referrals.
Until the problem is resolved, keep everybody, including your dog, safe.
The Dog Whisperer DVD, Vol. 2 for Puppies and Dogs focuses on solving many problem dog behaviors.