Two clarifications on behalf of fearful and feral dogs:
ONE. Fear does not equal aggression. Fear does not imply aggression. Fear does not even mean that aggression is likely. The internet is a Wild Wild West of bad advice and misinformation, including such horrifying declarations as the dangerously inaccurate claim that “fear is the first sign of aggression,” which I recently stumbled upon via a social media link.
Ironically, the claim was part of an article about mistakes in dog training. I’m thankful I found it though, because it needed to be corrected. Because that kind of false statement too easily leads to needless euthanasia of perfectly innocent dogs.
So here’s the truth: Fearful dogs are dogs who do not feel safe, who feel threatened. Aggressive dogs, on the other hand, are dogs who seek to eliminate competition for resources; they do this using a range of behaviors including warning, scaring, threatening, and/or attacking the opponent. It would make no sense for a fearful dog to behave in such ways, since a fearful dog seeks to avoid threats and dangers, not instigate them.
Dr. Roger Abrantes of Ethology Institute Cambridge explains beautifully that “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) don’t work.”
In other words, when an animal is threatened by another, and that other ignores or rejects the animal’s peaceful attempts to resolve the problem, it is the other who is, in reality, acting as an aggressor, and furthermore, that other’s aggressive behavior in that moment pushes the animal to either shut down completely — accept death, for all the animals knows — or self-defend.
TWO. Feral dogs brought into human living situations should not be hand-fed. Sometimes well-meaning individuals, whether in sanctuaries, rescues, shelters or private homes may find themselves in possession of a feral dog whom they hope to “rehabilitate” into a fear-free companion animal. A feral dog — or a “semi-feral” dog — suddenly placed in captivity is not going to be happy about that and will be afraid. A feral dog will want to stay as far away as possible from the humans holding him captive. Even reaching toward a terrified pet dog without first accomplishing a series of preparatory desensitization steps is a terrible idea that is likely to traumatize, so imagine how much worse to reach toward a terrified feral dog.
But insistence upon hand-feeding a feral dog is exponentially worse because 1) the captive feral dog has no other option; 2) the captive feral dog knows that without food, he will die; 3) therefore, offering the captive feral dog food only from a human hand is attempting to force human contact upon the human-fearing dog by leveraging a powerful survival motivator (hunger) and basic survival need (food), which means that 4) the human is flooding the dog, thereby creating additional emotional, behavioral, and physical risks, including but not limited to medical problems, learned helplessness, and/or self-defensiveness that would be labeled “aggression” as explained above. There’s also the risk of creating negative associations with food.
People who do this often claim that it encourages a “bond” between themselves and the dog, but that could not be further from the truth. A fearful dog — which this dog will be in this situation — seeks to increase the distance between himself and what scares him. But the person shoving her hand in the dog’s face is forcing a decrease in the distance between them. Having just lost his freedom, he now loses the small choices that remained — privacy perhaps, a few feet of air between himself and his captor, when to eat, where, and under what conditions.
I watched a video once of a young woman attempting to hand-feed a meal to a newly captive fearful/feral dog held in a “sanctuary.” She had platinum white hair, a wide, white-toothed smile, and a huge ball of some white substance in her palm as she leaned toward the large, beige dog, pressing her insistent hand toward his mouth. The dog, housed in a metal-bars kennel inside a dark barn, shoved his spine hard into the farthest corner of his bars. There would be no food that night. Only fear and the cold floor’s moist, thin strands of hay.
Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, is a certified canine behavior and training professional. Visit her at www.expertcanine.com.