Canine Behavior/Aggression


Lucy eating ice cream
Lucy eating ice cream  
I have a one year old toy Austrlian Shepherd.  She is extremely affectionate with everyone in our family.  But she is extremely scared of everything and everyone that is not in our immediate family.  She will urineate when she gets too scared.  She has always been a bit aggressive with our 5lb yorkie.  She will stand over her and growl and even attacks her.  The door bell really set her off she will start barking then keeps trying to attack our yorkie and it is all we can do to keep her from it.  She usually barks at any strangers that come into the house but just in the last couple weeks she has started to bite at people feet or ankles.  Then a couple days ago she bit the leg og a father who's child I keep ( luckily they have a dog with similar behaviors so was understanding).  She is scared of other dogs even smaller puppies.  I tried to socialize her as much as possible but there are only so many places you can take a dog.  In puppy class she would hide under the chairs or urinate all over when other dogs tried to play with her or other people tried to hold her.  I also have to watch her extremly close or keep her away from the kids I watch in my home because she will try to nip at them or if I go pick one of them up she will jump up trying to bite their feet.  Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.

Super cute picture of Lucy lounging on someone's lap. Thank you for sharing. :-)

Thank you for your question. It can be frustrating and even heart breaking when our furry love is so afraid of the world that they behave in the ways you describe.

Most of what you describe does sound like fear based aggressive displays. Her behavior toward the Yorkie when the doorbell rings is called Redirected Aggression. It occurs when the dog is overly aroused (frightened, defensive, angry, etc) and they take it out on the nearest thing to them. In this case, your Yorkie.

There are things we can do to try to help her feel safer about her world, but before I get into that, I am obliged to point out that there is a very serious potential liability issue for you if you are tending to non-family children in your home with a dog who has a known history of being mouthy, and an escalating behavior that has turned from nips to an actual bite. The next parent may not be so understanding. And you've indicated that she has done this behavior toward some of the children. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that she is never in the same space as the children. Baby gates, closed off in another room, out in the yard if the weather permits and there is suitable shade, shelter and water available whenever there are children in your home.

I am firm on this and passionate in how I speak about it because it only takes one bite and your dog's life is at risk. Children have very fragile skin and most dog bites to children occur to the face where severe damage can occur with very little effort on the part of the dog. And if that does happen, then your dog is likely to pay with her life. Don't let that scenario play out. Protect Lucy from herself by making sure she is never in the same space as the children - at least not until her issues have been completely resolved.

OK, off my soapbox now...

It's great that you've made efforts to socialize her. It's important that socialization is more than simply exposing her to things. We have to make sure that those exposures are extremely positive and that her body language is relaxed and comfortable during the exposure. We need to take note of the moments during socialization exposures where she seems less relaxed, then create more distance (or lower the volume or block her view partially, etc) so that she can relax and then practice that particular type of exposure at the lower intensity, making super positive associations until she feels better about it, and then work up to a full exposure.

Example: Let's say Lucy is afraid of the sound of shopping carts. Let's say when one passes her, she growls, barks and lunges toward the cart to try to tell the cart to get away from her. I would take her to a grocery store parking lot, but I'd park as far from the store as I could where she could see people coming and going with shopping carts. Then, every time she saw a cart (making sure that SHE is seeing the cart, not just me), I'd speak sweetly to her, "Yes, that's a shopping cart. They're not so scary...." and I'd give her 2 or 3 tiny bites of something super tasty.

This process is called Classical Counter Conditioning. It is making a paired association where the scary thing reliably predicts the appearance of a wonderful thing. The order of presentation is crucial. She must SEE/HEAR/SMELL the scary thing FIRST and then immediately upon her registering the scary thing, the wonderful thing must appear. For most dogs, food is the most wonderful thing and you use her most favorite dog-safe human food (often cheese, chicken, hot dog or similar). Some dogs prefer to catch a ball or play Tug. Whatever is Lucy's most favorite thing - use that. If her favorite thing is Food, then you can avoid over feeding her by replacing a portion of her daily ration of her regular food by the super tasty treats you use that day for training. So long as her overall treat intake over the course of the week is not more than 10%-15% of her total food intake, we are not risking her health. And so long as you account for those extra calories by reducing her regular food ration on days you train, we can avoid turning her into a chunky monkey.

Now, I just walked through the very first step of counter conditioning. The process is very systematic, step-by-step and she will dictate how quickly you can move through the process. We stay at the same distance (or even back up further if she's still showing signs of fear or stress), until she is completely relaxed and anticipating the good stuff every time she sees the trigger (in my example that was a shopping cart). Once she is clearly comfortable and anticipating manna from heaven at the sight of the shopping cart, then you move a bit closer. Depending on Lucy, and depending on how far away you are when you start, that may be 3-5 feet closer or it may be 3-5 inches closer. And if you move closer and she's too stressed/fearful, then back up to where she was comfortable for a while longer, and then make a smaller shift closer so we avoid setting her up to over react.

There is an excellent book that walks through the steps from beginning to end for Counter Conditioning. It's by Patricia McConnell, PhD and it's called The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears

Another option is Help for Your Fearful Dog - A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Your Dog Conquer His Fears by Nicole Wilde

I also highly recommend Turid Rugaas' book, On Talking Terms With Dogs - Calming Signals as this book walks through a host of communication signals that dogs give when they're feeling stressed, anxious and fearful. Some of them are very subtle and usually occur before they feel the need to strike out with growls, lunges and bites. If you can learn to read Lucy's more subtle cues then you can intervene to help her feel safer well before she feels compelled to defend herself.

Finally, I also encourage you to get Dr. Sophia Yin's book, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days - How to Start Your Puppy Off Right . I like this book because it has a socialization checklist with a scoring system so you can track the types of things Lucy is getting exposed to and how she feels about it so that you can determine what needs more work and what doesn't.

Remember, those socialization exposures must be happy and positive - not neutral and not negative/scary. Much like the counter conditioning, we do this with patience and good things. Letting Lucy decide when she feels comfortable approaching something to investigate, rather than forcing her into the space (even if it's a person - let her decide if she wants to greet them or not), making sure she is relaxed, having fun and that the experience is being paired with games, toys, comfort from you, tasty treats, etc.

Finally, I would encourage you to have a complete medical exam to make sure there are no underlying health issues - pain, illness, disease, etc - as many health issues can manifest with aggressive displays. Even something like out of whack thyroid levels can have a dramatic impact on behavior.

You may also find it very helpful to enlist the aid of a local professional who is well versed in canine behavior and who subscribes to positive reinforcement, fear free training methods. Avoid working with anyone who uses aversive tools such as choke chains, prong collars, electronic collars, and avoid anyone who uses physical dominance, pokes, kicks, hits, so-called alpha rolls and the like as these will all serve to increase her fear. They may temporarily shut down the overt behavior, but they will not address WHY she is behaving that way. And when we shut down her communication without addressing how she feels - that is when we get "out of the blue" bites.

Remember - growling is communication. I never punish a growl, even when directed at a child. I want my dog (or any dog I'm working with) to feel safe enough to tell me that they are uncomfortable. Without that communication, I have no way of knowing that the dog feels unsafe or uncomfortable and so I have no indication that the dog needs my help to adjust the environment so s/he feels safer.

You can search for local professionals through the Certified Professional Dog Trainers website here:

You can search the Pet Professionals Guild here:

You can search the Association of Professional Dog Trainers here:

Finally, this is a link to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists "How to Select a Trainer":

I hope some of this proves helpful. It's possible that you can make a big difference in Lucy's life and sense of personal comfort if you are committed to the time and patient encouragement it'll take. Don't hesitate to reach out to a local professional to help you learn the timing and nuance of doing Counter Conditioning well. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance to you.

Los Angeles Behavior Specialist  

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, CPDT- KA, APDT


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 5 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been professionally modifying behavior and training obedience for 7 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I have just changed the name of my business. It is no longer Good Dog! Dog Training. The new name is Nutz About Mutz!. If you see previous questions with the Good Dog! website information, that is my response.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning. (While I completed my coursework and did the requisite research, I did not defend a dissertation. I am qualified, but not certified and so technically not a doctor. This is commonly referred to as Ph.D.-ABD which means All But Dissertation.) My educational focus was with non-human primates, but my personal interest is with domestic dogs and their relationships with humans and other animals. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences.

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