Newly aggressive dog after illness

Posted by Jeanetteirwin
Mar 9, 2010
My Rhodesian Ridgeback Mix is 5 years old and has been with me since she was three months old. She was heavily socialized as a puppy as well as an adult dog. We went to dog parks and on leash with other dogs and people everyday of her life. She was always so loving and playful with everyone.

She has always had strong lunging and hunting instinct but has always been very playful and appropriate with other dogs. Last year she unfortunately came down with encephalitis and in order to save her life we had to take her to a specialty hospital where they performed several invasive tests. The good news is that the treatment worked and she has recovered completely.

The problem is that she is now extremely head shy anytime anyone or dog comes close to her head. I believe it to be fear and defensiveness since she has memory of the invasiveness of her treatment. I also recognize it is common in her bread. She has to be muzzled at the vet now because she won't let them come close to her head to examine her. That part is okay and understandable, but I want to be able to have people be able to pet her when they come over without Ellie initially mistrusting them etc. Most people she is okay with, but sometimes I sense she is very nervous when any stranger approaches. Any ideas on how to desensitize her to the average person? I was thinking of having anyone that comes over or approaches her to give her a treat, but I'm just looking for some real professional advice. Sometimes now with other dogs she can display a combination of dominance and/or fear aggression. It just depends on the dog. My goal is to retrain her the right way to trust and be appropriate with people and dogs. Any help would be greatly appreciated.:
Posted by KOPsRobyn
Mar 10, 2010
Hi there

I’m sorry to hear about your dog’s illness but am glad to know that it got resolved and that she is all better now. Encephalitis is a serious and often life-threatening disease, and so the vets would have had to carry out quite a few diagnostic procedures on her. In addition to all the tests and treatments that she had, some of which would have been quite uncomfortable for her, she would also have been feeling very unwell from the disease, and as she was hospitalized during this time, naturally she will further associate the vets with all the pain and malaise that she was experiencing. Therefore, it is quite understandable that she now doesn’t like going to the vets anymore. Your vets should be well-accustomed to dealing with unwilling patients, and I would not be too concerned that she is being muzzled whilst at the clinic. This is often used as a precautionary practice to negate the risk of the vets and nurses being bitten, regardless of whether the dog is exhibiting aggressive behavior. You can slowly help her grow to like, or in the least tolerate being at a vet clinic by taking her there regularly for visits, even when you don’t have an appointment. The staff there shouldn’t mind at all for you to drop in once a week, or whenever is appropriate, just for her to have a walk around the waiting room. This will allow her to see that the clinic doesn’t necessarily represent a negative experience. To help with the positive association, it would be a good idea to give her treats and play with her when you are at the clinic, so that she realizes that it can be an enjoyable place after all. If you have an actual appointment with the vets, ask them if they would give her a treat too, so that she will gradually overcome her fear of vets. It is important to remember, however, that you must not reinforce her fear. If she shows any signs of fearful or aggressive behavior at the clinic, make sure you don’t pat her or tell her ‘it’s ok’, because this will make her think that it is appropriate for her to behave like that.

A similar approach should be taken when desensitizing her to your friends. It is possible that after her experience at the vets, she has become wary of strangers and therefore is cautious of all new people. It is a very good idea of yours to have your friends give her a treat when they first meet her. This will let her associate visitors with a good experience, rather than being afraid of them. The more people you can introduce to her the better, because this will allow her to gain confidence with lots of different sorts of people. Soon, she will realize that there is nothing negative about them, and she should return to her old friendly self. You will have to preserve with this though and be very patient, because the fear and distrust that she has developed will take some time to overcome. It is also important that you remain calm and be very cheerful when you are introducing her to visitors, because dogs are very sensitive to your body language and she will pick up on your unease if you are nervous. This will cause her to tense up as it will make her think that there is something to fear. Don’t forget that you must never pay any attention to her at all if she is showing fearful behavior. It is also important to apply the alpha dog training principles with her, in that you must be the one to greet your friends first before letting her say hello to them.

It is understandable that she has become quite head shy after all the procedures that she had to undergo at the vets. The best way to desensitize her to this is repeatedly touching her around the head. Make sure she isn’t getting stressed out by it though, or else it could make the situation worse. Instead, take it slowly, starting by patting her on her neck where she is comfortable, and gradually working your way up to her head. Do this as many times a day as possible so that she will see that being touched around the head is not going to result in something negative happening. She will love the extra attention and so it shouldn’t take her long to be completely comfortable with being handled again. You may also want to occasionally incorporate a treat into the handling, just to make her realize what a good thing it is.

The aggression with dogs should also be dealt with as soon as possible. It is likely that this is all tied in with her low confidence levels at present, and thus she feels as though she must defend herself. You can help her overcome this by showing her that you are the leader of the pack and so will defend her should the need arise. This is done by re-establishing your position as the alpha dog in the pack. There are a few things that you can do to indicate to her that she is supposed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. These include insisting that you walk ahead of her through doorways and when walking on the leash, and feeding her after you have finished your own meal. You must ignore her if she comes up to you for attention, as she has to learn that attention from you is earned and not just given out whenever she wants it. Before you pat her or play with her, give her a command, such as 'sit-stay' so that she will see that your attention is a reward for good behavior. This will act as an incentive for the future. If you are playing a game with her, make sure it is you that chooses the toy and when you decide that you have had enough, take the toy away with you so that she realizes that it is you that controls playtime. When you first come home, you should greet the rest of the household first before saying hello to her. Once she is comfortable with you as the head of the hierarchy, she will look to you for direction and protection in all situations, and therefore not feel the need to be aggressive towards other dogs. Don’t forget to remain calm yourself when approaching other dogs, so that she doesn’t pick up on your apprehension and feel the need to get on the defensive. It may be a good idea initially to distract her with a command, such as ‘sit-stay’ and then reward her with a treat or a toy, so that she is not watching the other dog from a long way off and getting wound up about it.

I hope this helps and all the best with the training!
Posted by Jeanetteirwin
Mar 10, 2010
Thank you for such a thorough and insightful response. I have already started re-establishing myself as the alpha dog and Ellie has been responding very positively. I was thinking about taking her out to places and asking people to give her treats, but not sure if that is too much to begin with. I will ask any visitor at our house to give her a treat and slowly incorporate more places. I appreciate the validation I am getting with your response regarding the seriousness of her illness and the miracle it is that she is still with us. For that in and of itself I am grateful. My goal is to get her to return to a trusting and confident dog. Thank you for your suggestions. If any other ideas are out there I would greatly appreciate any ideas. She has never been aggressive towards us or friends she has already met, but just strangers and new dogs. Usually it is worse if she is on leash. The part I find difficult is knowing which type of aggression I am dealing with. She can be a very dominant dog and has been in the past, however I also sense a very vulnerable and fearful dog at times. As her owner I am trying to understand better her body language as to which type she may be displaying. does anyone have specifics on things to look for in order to decipher the type of aggressiveness she may be displaying. Again, thanks for the thorough response in regards to Ellie. She really is such a good dog, but in need of a bit of rehabilitation. I welcome any help that is out there.


Jeanette Irwin
Posted by MaxHollyNoah
Mar 10, 2010
Hi Jeannette,

I am so sorry to hear that your RR had to go through such a terrible experience. We wish we could just erase all the bad things happened to her and bring her back to what she was before

It must have been such a traumatic experience but as you said it was a blessing that she survived from the disease.

I have a fearful dog towards big dogs myself. Sometimes I wonder if his aggression is "fearful" or "dominant" but I believe what he presents is "Fear Aggression" based on the following observations:

1. He never goes himself to a big dog to start a fight. A fight breaks out only when a big dog comes to him and puts his face too close to Noah's face too long. I can see Noah getting nerveous and his aggression gets triggered.

2. He lunges at a sight of big dogs but it is only when he is leashed. When he is leashed he has only two options; "fight" or "flight (run away)" but the second option is unavailable.

3. I can tell when he gets aggressive by his posture/body language; his tail high up, he is showing his teeth, he sometimes snaps before actually getting into a fight. Whether it becomes a fight or not is all depends on the other dog's personality. If the other dog is well socialized and confident, he (most of cases a male dog bothers my dog) would not come this far. They can tell that my dog needs a larger personal space by his body language. When an un-socialized or too playful dog comes too close to my dog and if he doesn't read my dog's body language, it triggers my dog's fear and ends up a fight. Usually it won't last long but sometimes there is a minor injury, such as a little cut on their lips, etc.

Now that I have been dealing with his issue for over 3 years (it doesn't happen so often but he is still a "troublemaker" sometimes) I am pretty good to judge other dogs that my dog will react at or not by just looking at them from distance. I personally think fear aggression is a very natural behavior of dogs while I wish he didn't have one. I have been working on it with him but all dogs are different and I am pleased that he has come this far.

Here is a link that I think it will be very helpful to your RR's fear aggression too.


The key is to observe your dog and come up a list of things that trigger her aggression and desensitize those triggers. Good luck.
Posted by Jeanetteirwin
Mar 13, 2010
Wow, thank you so much for the additional information and resource. I have begun working with Ellie with these techniques and I now feel like I CAN do this. Hearing other people's similar situations and support have actually re-instilled some faith in my own training capabilities. Ellie has been responding quite well to the feeding treats technique as strangers approach and I am encouraged to continue for as long as it takes to get her to a better emotional state. Thanks for the empathy and encouragement regarding Ellie's fearful/aggressive behaviour after her illness. I know she can overcome this because she overcame being so sick. She has it in her to be well, so now comes the emotional rehabilitation. If anyone else has gone thru anything similar with their dog after an illness, please let me know your success stories with fear aggression etc.