Nerves and Fear Aggression: The Difference Between Curing and Rehabilitation.

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Nerves and Fear Aggression: The Difference Between Curing and Rehabilitation.

Nerves and Fear Aggression: The Difference Between Curing and Rehabilitation.

The other day I shared an article on Facebook called “It’s all in how they’re raised”. I felt I wanted to talk a little more about it, so I sat down and this is what became of it.


This article is great for someone to get an understanding about fear in dogs. The visuals and explanation make it very easy to understand and give one a glimpse into what good trainers are looking at and taking into account when they are assessing and working with your dog.

I work with aggression cases and I feel a lot of the aggression that people are seeing in their dogs is a fear based aggression. This fear, many times, is the result of weak nerves. Weak nerves aren’t something that you can just upgrade and fix the dog. It is something that has to be actively worked on, and then can only be brought back to within the range the dog’s genetics allow. This is where many trainers find themselves standing at a crossroad.

Down one path you have the trainers that guarantee that they can fix a dog and its aggression issues. I cannot work out in my head how someone can guarantee to fix nerves and aggression. I’ve thought about it and thought about it and have decided that yes, there can be a few, very rare occasions where a trainer could guarantee this. The problem I see with that though, is that so much information would have to be known about the dog and the dog’s history, that in a practical application the dog would have to be the trainer’s in the first place. So in this situation, I can see a trainer having the confidence to say that this dog can be brought to a level of virtually no fear or aggression. This can only be said because the genetics were known, the history of the environment was known, and the dog had completely matured. But this would be a very rare case where all the variables were known to make that kind of guarantee.

Another quick side note to think about when it comes to a guarantee like this, is what good is it? I haven’t seen a full money back guarantee offered after the months of training invested by both parties, or a trainer offer to give you a fully trained dog that you approve of as compensation, or better yet, pay you to take your dog to another trainer of your choice. None of these things are going to happen! At best, I’ve seen a few free lessons thrown in on the “next” dog you want trained. Why would you as an owner, want to continue to use someone who didn’t do what they told you they could guarantee in the first place?

The second path one could take, would be one from an honest and ethical point of view and make the decision to not GUARANTEE they can “fix” a dog’s aggression or fearfulness. There are limits, and many times with aggression, training is used to get the most potential out of the dog and then it’s a management plan for the rest of the dog’s life. 99% of the time aggression is rehabilitation, not curing. This distinction is very important. You can only bring a dog back to its original state. If the dog was naturally fearful, it will always be fearful to a certain degree. This is why wolves do not make good pets or watchdogs. They genetically are very fearful (cautious). Being fearful of new things keeps them alive.

Through training though, we can change the dog’s perception about certain things and show it a different way to react instead of showing the unwanted behavior such as aggression. When a dog shows this kind of fear aggression, what many people don’t realize is the dog is internally conflicted. Instinct and genetics are telling the dog to be cautious and perhaps flee, but through breeding for certain other traits and being influenced by the environment such as being forced to interact with strange dogs and being restricted on a leash, many dogs decide to “get” what they are scared of before it gets them. I have seen this a lot in pit-bulls (I am not singling out pit-bulls, I own four and work with many in the shelter system) for instance, but it is showing up more and more in other breeds. Pit-bulls get singled out because they have been genetically bred to fight other dogs. On an instinctual level it is kill or be killed. This, and other specific traits used to be desirable in certain situations, but many dogs are not working dogs anymore and are living in urban environments. You pair these bred traits with a weak nerved dog and you get a lethal combination. The only way these dogs are going to have a chance at living in our society successfully, is to have owners become knowledgeable about the problem’s “why”, and then learn and use management plans responsibly.

The problem is not this breed or that breed, and it’s not really the dog’s either. It is only doing what genetics are telling it to do and what we have, or in many cases, have not taught the dog what to do. The problem is that somebody thought another trait was more important than a particular dog showing signs of not so great nerves. If you breed a lesser nerved dog, you will always end up with a slightly lesser nerved dog. They may have even known the dog had weak nerves, and in the specific example of pit-bulls, this may have been a desirable trait in dog fighting. We all know that a cornered and scared animal will fight for its life with alarming ferocity against all odds. This unfortunately by default, makes a very good fight. What happens is the nerves continue to get worse with each breeding and will deteriorate at an alarming rate within the span of a few generations. Now we have these lines of  weak nerved dogs infused across multiple breeds. We can’t just sit back and pretend these dogs have no issues. You can’t make a dog have nerves of steel through training if it never genetically had the potential to have them to begin with. Realizing and acknowledging this is one of the most productive and beneficial things owners can do for the well-being of their dog. This is especially true for shelter dogs! If a loving adopter understands this, they can help that dog succeed by keeping that thought in the back of their mind. But the big thing is to take a proactive role and address the issues by fixing the ones that can be fixed through training and perception drills, and responsibly managing the rest. It does no good to ignore the signs and just hope they go away. They won’t! These signs you are seeing, are more than likely why the dog was in a shelter to begin with, behavioral or aggression issues.

Without having the history of many of these dogs, it’s hard to know what the potential of the dog is until you start working him. At the end of the day, you will have a wonderful, well trained dog. You just may not be able to take them to the dog park and play all day long with strange dogs, or turn them into a therapy dog you take into hospitals. Each dog, no matter the breed is an individual for good or bad just as we are. Dogs are not clones. Just because you had a certain breed when growing up, doesn’t mean if you get the same breed when you are older it will act the same way. Dogs are individuals. They must be treated as such to give them the best chance at a happy life. This is why I take the approach I do to dog training. If I go on the theory that every dog is an individual, I think it is common sense to be willing to train each dog as an individual. To me, this approach means being open to any and all techniques, constantly learning new ones while honing and evolving old ones, and being open to suggestions from other trainers and owners. If I had to sum it all up into two words it would be ATTITUDE and RESPECT. You need the attitude to know you may not know everything and be willing to continually learn and evolve your views and opinions. Once you adopt this kind of attitude, you cannot help but start to give your dog, and yourself, the respect both of you deserve.