This summer, I was working with a client whose dog has some fear and angry/scary issues. The owner isn't quite sure what had happened or why it had started. She left for a week and returned to her house-sitter telling her that her dog was a monster and nearly attacked another dog while they walked through the park.
Before she called me, she talked to three other trainers and breeder. The first trainer told her to use a choke chain (ew!). The second one suggested purchasing a prong collar (ew! ew!). The third trainer wanted her to sign a document stating she would only train with the trainer around and not to take the dog for a walk until the "problem was fixed" (what?). Finally, the breeder told her she may have no choice but to put the dog down.
All of this not-so-great advice based on a telephone interview with a woman who didn't know a lot about dogs other than she loved them. (No offense to my client, of course.)
Most dog trainers constantly reiterate that it is important not to ascribe human ways of understanding fear to dogs. Dogs don't develop fear and learned responses the same way we do. And when it comes to uncovering what is wrong, we can't ask probing questions and get insightful responses in the way we are accustomed to doing with our friends. Dogs don't get to sit around and talk and decompress with their friends by shopping. Or over a couple of beers and a game of pool. Or coffee. Or shopping. (Did I say that already?)
The sometimes frustrating thing is that the dog's body language that shows fear to their own species often causes fear in humans. Behaviors like lowering heads, growling, hackles raised and backs arched, or close fake-out snaps are warning signs to dogs and other animals. Dogs are saying, "Dude, I'm serious about this. Back off." We read, "I'm going to attack you any minute."
In animal minds, this message is received, processed, and the decision is made to either fight or leave. Most of the time, territory or food isn't worth the hassle. Other dog walks away. This is neither cause for alarm or remembering. It is a communication.
Female dogs with puppies have a very low tolerance for crowding and tend to skip the first few signs and go straight to snapping. In dog's experiences, this is no worse than your parent smacking you upside the back of the head for saying something rude to your cousin at the dinner table.
For humans, especially children, just seeing a dog in what we perceive as an aggressive state can be traumatizing. If I child misreads the subtler signs like shifty eyes and a very low murmur, a bite can appear to come out of no where. Dog bites, lunges, even nips that draw blood or cause bruises can cause a child to grow up to be an adult with an irrational fear of dogs.
For some reason, some trainers want to correct aggression with more aggressive response. Dominance. The dog equivalent of, "If you don't stop smacking your brother, I'm going to smack you." It may stop the behavior at the time, but it doesn't stop the cause of the behavior. I wasn't necessarily surprised by those trainers jumping to choke chains and prong collars. I was just offended by the lack of professionalism and wondered if my client had managed to find three people in a row who had an unrealized fear of dogs.