Canine insecurity is one of the most misunderstood behavioral challenges facing dogs today and can be extremely difficult to conquer. The issue moves far beyond mere behavior striking to the core of a dog’s happiness and quality of life. The “cure” for the insecure dog requires possessing the proper knowledge about canine insecurity and making an unwavering commitment to your pet’s wellness. In my career as a canine behavioral specialist, I seek to provide the former while encouraging the latter, writes canine behavior expert Dave Cugno.It can be easy to spot a fearful dog when it cowers but very often the signs of insecurity are masked by outward aggression. To the untrained eye, aggressive behavior in a dog naturally equates to an aggressive, or dominant, mindset in the animal. Sometimes, however, if it walks like a duck, growls like a duck, and bites your hand like a duck, it’s actually an insecure duck . . . or dog, in this case. In fact, about 95% of the aggressive cases I have dealt with have been caused by insecurity, not by a true aggressive intent. The root of insecurity is hard to pin down. Whether it is genetic, as I believe it often is, or a natural canine response to an overwhelming human world is very hard to discern. At any rate, it is clear that many dogs exhibit extreme insecurity from birth. Of these dogs, some will cower and act fearful while others will attempt to frighten away what frightens them by adopting an aggressive approach to other people and animals. The important distinction is that these dogs will bite out of fear, not dominance, the root of true aggression. The insecure dog does not respond well to discipline. Traditional disciplinary methods generally will frighten an insecure dog and make a bad situation far worse. Meaningful and appropriately timed praise is paramount when coaxing an insecure dog toward a trusting relationship. Once trust is established, proper training can begin. Over time, if done with great care, my methodology for training an insecure dog will transform the animal. My beloved dog Amber, for example, was insecure from birth. People that meet her are very surprised to hear this because she often appears to be the friendliest dog in my pack. Before I knew her she was going to be euthanized because her insecurity had bred aggressive behavior. There is an important distinction to be made here: her behavior was aggressive but the cause was her mental state or predisposition towards insecurity. In working with her, I addressed the root cause of her problem, not the symptom. Amber’s owner was a client of mine; a very nice woman who simply wasn’t able to spend the time needed to resolve such an extreme case. The most difficult part for her was that she responded to Amber’s anxiety with affection. Don’t get me wrong, affection is very important for dogs, especially insecure ones. It can seem counterintuitive but it’s essential not to respond to outward displays of insecurity with affection. Affection and praise reinforce a dog’s behavior, whatever that behavior may be. With an extremely insecure dog like Amber this presented a real challenge because she consistently engaged everyone with a high level of insecurity. The key here is establishing trust, slowly but surely, while practicing a great degree of patience. Absolutely no work with her was possible until I built up a level of trust with Amber. What I did, once she trusted me, was to take on the stress of her fear. I became the unequivocal leader of Amber. She became a follower and suddenly her life began to make sense to her. Insecure dogs already want to be followers but are far too confused and fearful to adopt this role without communication built on consistency and trust. Once she trusted me as the leader, her fear diminished significantly. From then on she counted on me to handle every situation. I can only imagine the relief she felt once this burden was removed from her. She was finally able to live a worry free life and she gradually began to have moments where she seemed to glow with joy. While it’s now manageable, she will always have a predisposition towards insecurity to a certain degree but she is now able to hold her head high and feel confident in most situations. The challenge of canine insecurity is that most people don’t know how to help their pet. Often, they don’t even know enough to properly diagnose the dog with insecurity. Far too often, people euthanize these dogs after they have lashed out at someone from fear. The insecure dog craves a life of happiness and tranquility but has no idea how to achieve this. As humans, we have a responsibility to help. I encourage anyone with a “problem dog” to seek a qualified dog trainer with a proven success rate. Whether they assist you with a formalized training program or steer you toward some helpful advice and education, it could make an enormous difference in your dog’s quality of life.
(Dave Cugno is the Philadelphia region’s premier canine behaviorist. His facility, David Cugno’s Canine Center, is located in King of Prussia and specializes in training, boarding and socialization. He is also active with area rescues in the pursuit to connect people with the right dogs and dogs with the right people. For more information call 610-337-0800 or visit www.cugnoscaninecenter.com.)