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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Sorry in advance for the long post - our pup has a lot going on.

NOTE: I’m aware of the great threads on leash reactivity/fear aggression, this is more about preventing/handling redirected fear aggression in a puppy.

SHORT version:
~4 month old pup has severe fear aggression issues (barking/lunging and now nipping/biting) towards everything (people, dogs, certain locations, moving objects, strange stationary objects, etc.) and had his first episodes of redirected aggression towards us (first was a nip but hard bite most recently). What’s the best way to handle redirected fear aggression if it happens again, especially early on with a puppy?

(Yes, we are counterconditioning/desensitizing to triggers, among other things - see below for those details)

LONG version:
BACKGROUND / TRAINING / LIFE AT HOME

We have a ~4 month old GSD that we got at 8 weeks from a BYB (I realize that mistake and nothing we can do now but work through it. Please don’t berate me as I’m already reminded of the decision every day, but we did make a commitment to the dog and I don’t want to fail him as an owner).

Since the week we got him, signs of severe fear aggression (crazy barking/lunging, mostly while on leash) with a huge distance threshold towards EVERYTHING: all people, dogs, cars, certain locations, large moving objects, some unknown stationary objects, etc. His first response to a new ‘threat’ (even inanimate objects he sees for the first time like traffic cones or Tupperware in the street) is to bark/lunge aggressively, it always has been. I can wrap my head around the fast moving objects (used to have high drive JRTs), but I wasn’t ready for his reaction towards 99% of all non-threatening people/objects going about their business clear down the block, moving or not. This makes it nearly impossible to step outside our home without going below threshold.

He has also shown aggression when visitors first come into our home, or when they leave briefly (after he has acclimated and even played with them) and then came back (usually barking plus one time he nipped a friend, which we immediately corrected via a timeout and he was neutral to the person after). We’re making faster progress with the visitors issue via Place and Crate commands until the initial arousal dies down.

That aside, I’ve read many of the threads on leash reactivity/fear aggression and we’re counterconditioning/desensitizing him best we can below threshold in our busy urban environment, taking most of our walks in the quietest neighborhoods nearby where we can see things approaching from afar. He’s getting much better with cars (if they’re not going too fast or not too many pass at once) and does surprisingly well with squirrels/birds/actual prey when I tell him to Leave It (maybe easier to cap prey drive vs. resolving fear), but slower progress on the others that fall directly into his ‘threat’ category. I think his overall thresholds are gradually decreasing though, improving from end of the block to across the street (still pretty far). Cuttoff/refocus cue is getting better and having him heel has helped with engagement during walks in order to ask for alternate behaviors and management - great loose leash walking when no triggers are around. We also practice door manners every time we go through thresholds, including his crate, and similar focus exercises before getting his meals. NILIF as much as possible. Essentially using positive reinforcement (treats, tug, praise) for good behaviors and verbal corrections/remove attention/withhold rewards for the bad (except the fear reactions).

We’ve also had a couple evaluations with trainers (mostly PO around here but one upcoming with a balanced trainer that I feel better about), are in facilitated puppy classes and socials (he has fun in the socials once he settles in), have regular playdates with older/balanced dogs, and do daily obedience/scentwork/walks/play. Trying to do all we can. I’m usually outdoors every weekend and was hoping for a fishing/shed hunting/tracking/hiking partner, but unfortunately we’re in the city for most of the week where so many things can put him into a panicked state if we miss one of the many passing by. He has the same issues outside of the city too if we run into anything, unless we’re deep in the backcountry with virtually nothing around.

Aside from all that, he’s been amazing and loving to us and the friends/family that he knows. He runs around like a happy pup and is the easiest dog I’ve ever potty and crate trained, loves his scentwork to death, great at tug/out as a reward before he entered potential teething territory, and picks up obedience quickly. He no longer mouths me at home and will stop immediately with a verbal correction if he ever forgets, though still a WIP with my gf if I’m not there as he still tries to mouth and demand bark at her. While some overall progress is being made, the recent episodes on walks and hard bite in the stairwell while panicked is concerning - see below.

SPECIFIC PROBLEM
Recently, my gf and I were on a walk when he started yawning and getting visibly anxious - no people, dogs, cars, etc. were around so something about the location itself must have triggered him (haven’t figured out yet). I saw his normal signals and a glazed over look in his eyes, so I immediately redirected into some obedience and focused heeling while trying to leave the area - it helped for a little but then we somehow went below threshold and he lost it and started barking/lunging at my gf (closest thing to him besides me), jumping to nip as if he didn’t recognize her. This lasted until we got far enough away from that spot, then all was back to normal as if nothing happened. She was obviously bummed. He has never reacted like that to either of us before then.

A couple days after that, he bit me very hard in a very panicked state and broke skin through my pants in the stairwell, which has always been a trigger location for him (not stairs but the actual stairwell in anticipation of running into people in close quarters - he’s fine on stairs otherwise). We haven’t had much progress counterconditioning him to the stairwell without setbacks - people frequently come in and out without warning but it’s our only route to get him outside, so I’ve defaulted to asking for alternate behaviors while trying to avoid people there entirely. Otherwise, he has a nervous meltdown and barks/lunges at nothing and tries to pull up/down in a panicked frenzy. We have good and bad days in there, but mostly bad. We don’t want to flood his fears but also need to teach him not to pull us on these stairs in panic, because that’s going to be dangerous when he’s older. Rock and a hard place, really. We practice door manners there which has helped, but on his really bad days he will lunge and try to bite the metal door when I release him into a heel - this time my leg took the hit instead when the door was out of reach.

QUESTIONS
  1. What’s the proper way to handle this new redirected fear aggression in a puppy if it comes up again, knowing we can only manage his environment so far? We’ll probably move after our lease is over to find a place with a private entry and no stairwell. He’s already over 45lbs and not quite 4 months old, so I’d like to get a proper handle on this soon but I know things are tricky with fear.
  2. Also, is fear biting and fear of everything just poor genetics? Or did we screw up his socialization/training somehow? His nerves and degree of fear seems insane and every trip outside sucks TBH. My head is constantly on a swivel for everything, all the time, while consciously keeping a relaxed composure and another eye on his body language to quickly formulate plans for approaching ‘threats’. I wish it were just people, or just dogs, or just cars, or just the occasional weird looking object, or just 2 of those things…it’s all of the above plus more. We’re putting in so much work to get him along and are committed, but it’s a pretty fatiguing lifestyle shift on top of the normal puppy antics. Has anyone made it past this level of fear to a more manageable state? Trying not to lose hope.

Thanks in advance.

PS: Our first session with the new trainer is still a month away, so just looking for any insight/experience until then.
 

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WOW you've really acclimated to your dog's training and problems. I tip my paw to you for sticking with it. I'll let the
more experienced people answer a lot of your questions. But I have a couple questions for you.
1) Have you ever had his eyes checked? Is it possible he does not see clearly or well?
 

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1. Moving seems great, if you can...The stairwell seems like a bad scene, a disaster waiting to happen, and it just sucks to be nervous when you take your dog out every day! If you see somebody at bottom of stairwell getting ready to come up, I would not be shy about hollering, "Could you wait just a minute? My dog doesn't like strangers in his space and we don't want to have to pass you on the stairs!"

2. if he's been like this since he was 8 weeks old...I sadly in my opinion think he is wired to be a more reactive/edgy dog and living in a busy urban environment is not helping things any. I think you are right to work with a trainer to see if things are salvageable. We all wish it could be solved simply with "more exercise!" or "obedience training!" but your trainer hopefully can assess your situation realistically...

I'm no expert and have never dealt with a dog this extreme, so will leave you to more expert people.
 

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What leads you to believe this is fear based behavior?

Has the dog been evaluated by an experienced trainer?

Has the dog received a correction for biting?

Where are you located?

Would you be willing to shoot some video and share it?
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Thanks for the responses so far, really appreciate any insight and resources - answering some questions below:

1) Have you ever had his eyes checked? Is it possible he does not see clearly or well?
Yes, we had the vet check his eyes and they're fine so that's ruled out...

What leads you to believe this is fear based behavior?

Has the dog been evaluated by an experienced trainer?

Has the dog received a correction for biting?

Where are you located?

Would you be willing to shoot some video and share it?
Thanks for your input, David. Was hoping you'd join in after seeing some of your other posts.

1) Input from our initial evaluations from the trainers that have seen him, our puppy class instructors, and the vet/vet techs that mentioned their active work on the side with behaviorists. I'm not a professional, so I've taken their input to heart. From my own observations and limited understanding of temperaments, I believe he may be a weak nerved dog with a low threshold and high defensive drive - I really hope I'm wrong though.

2) Yes, one of their immediate responses was, "Wow, that's pretty bad..." and both had the same takeaways and recommended approaches. I have another evaluation with a balanced trainer who has more experience with shepherds and working breeds, but still a month away unfortunately.

3) Yes, correction for the occurrence at home with the visitor as mentioned, but would love input on appropriate level/method of correction for a 4 month old puppy, specifically when outside of the home and for redirected aggression since we don't let him get close enough to strangers for a nip (he's well beyond his current threshold by then). Lots of conflicting info out there.

4) Portland/PNW area - do you have any referrals?

5) Sure thing, I'll try and post something in the coming days.
 
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