How To Handle Fear & Fear Aggression In Dogs

By Mark Nunez

When most people think of aggression, dominance aggression typically comes to mind, especially these days when some popular trainers feel as though every abnormal behaviour is a result of a dogs struggle for dominance and “pack” status.  Fear aggression, however, is MUCH more common.  There are actually about 21 different forms of aggression.  Not all fearful or fearfully aggressive dogs bite, they may only growl or bark aggressively in situations that upset them.  These dogs generally react inappropriately when they sense an intrusion and worsen if they feel cornered.

Many people feel that fearful or fearfully aggressive dogs have been abused or have otherwise suffered from some extremely traumatic event.  While this logic is reasonable and understandable, more times than not it is because something did NOT happen.  That something is socialization.  Improper socialization can make accepting new things difficult when dogs become adults.  Anything from a blowing leaf to hats to men to only men with beards, etc….  Socialization is SO important!

Signs of fear and fear aggression include head held low, wrinkling of the nose, lips curled with many teeth (front teeth and back teeth) showing as the corners of the mouth are pulled back, ears are back and usually pinned to the head, raised hackles, tail tucked, body lowered, and possibly fast panting.   The body language with dominance aggression differs in the following ways: head held high, just the front teeth (incisors and canines) show when lips are curled, ears are up and forward, tail is upright and stiff or with a slight stiff wagging motion, stance is upright and stiff, and usually the mouth is closed (no panting).  It is paramount to differentiate between these 2 forms of aggression because they are treated VERY differently.  If you approach a fearful dog the same way you approach a dominant dog, you will likely end up with a fearfully aggressive dog that will eventually bite.  Teeth motivate people.  Once a dog figures this out, it can be really difficult to teach them otherwise, not impossible, but very difficult.


There are many triggers that can cause a fearful response.  Approaches from dogs and people are very common triggers.  Many dogs show a fearful, or excessively submissive response to people they know all of their lives. I must say, in all fairness to dogs out there, that many people just bring this response on themselves.  A large number of people greet dogs in a very threatening and unnatural way when looking through the eyes of the dog.  Picture the scenario, you see a dog that you think is cute, you get excited and make a beeline towards him, making eye contact, arms stretched out, high pitched/excited tone in your voice, reaching and leaning over him as you come up to him.  I’ve seen people go right up to strange dogs and try to kiss and hug them!  Guess what folks, a dog that is fearful in this context is displaying normal canine behaviour.  Dogs that are taught that this approach is how we humans do it, may be okay and tolerate it, but even many of them show signs of stress when approached this way (turn their heads away, lick their lips,  avoid eye contact, or lick faces excessively).

For comparison purposes, I will discuss a proper/normal canine greeting.  When one dogs sees another one and BOTH want to meet, the approach will not be a direct beeline, it will occur in more of an arc, or c-shaped direction.  Next is the doggie hand shake.  You know what the doggie hand shake is, don’t you?  That’s right, they sniff each others butts!  Nose to butt, not nose to nose.  There is a greater chance of the greeting not going so well if it starts nose to nose in two dogs that are tense and excited.  Next, they sniff each others flank area (side of the body just in front of the rear legs).  NOW, it’s time for the nose to nose part of the greeting.  See the difference between how 2 dogs greet each other compared to how people greet dogs?  Most dogs bites are the fault of people, the law doesn’t see it that way, but that’s the simple truth.


Children will often  trigger a fearful response for several reasons.  Children don’t always make the best decisions and will occasionally pull ears or tails and poke eyes.  Their movements are uncoordinated and clumsy, and older arthritic dogs commonly display pain aggression because of this.  Children can also be at eye level with many dogs and make direct eye contact and stare, which can be viewed as a treat by any dog. Speaking of children making bad decisions….  I remember a story from a few years back (can’t remember how many years, they are all kinda running together these days).  There was a young to mid age St. Bernard, no issues ever, a family dog.  I can’t remember how many kids, but I know there was one because suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the dog attacked the kid, and killed him.  It was all over the news.  People freaked out and wanted to give away or euthanize their St. Bernard’s because they were afraid that there was some genetic defect that the was causing them to snap and kill kids (talk about mob affect).  Well, come to find out, the kid had jammed a pencil into the dogs ear.  Moral of the story?  Don’t EVER leave children alone and unsupervised with any dog.  Things may happen that are not at all the dog’s fault, but tragedy is the outcome nonetheless.


Noises and noise phobias can certainly create a fearful response.  Many dogs are just naturally timid and fearful and will have difficulty accepting new things.  Again, socialization can help to either avoid or at the very least decrease the degree of fear that a dog experiences.


Your veterinarians office is another place that can elicit a very strong fear response.  We vets (in the eyes of your dog), I tell ya, are up to no good.  We are always poking and prodding and sticking with needles and sticking long plastic things in ears and trimming nails and squeezing anal glands, etc…  No matter how many times you or I try to convince your dog that we have his best interests in mind while I’m doing all these things to him, the message usually doesn’t get through.  Hell, it’s hard to get that message through to my head when I’m at the doctor’s office .  The best way to help your dog is NOT to freak-out and say “it’s okay” over and over and over again for the entire appointment.  That goes for “you’re a good boy/girl” too .  This is application of human psychology at it’s finest.  What your dog sees is a change in you from a relatively relaxed body posture to one of concern.  You are concerned for him and his mental well being, but he thinks you are concerned about what he’s concerned about, me! .  The best thing to do is remain calm and avoid eye contact with him.  Absolute silence also helps TREMENDOUSLY.  I NEVER speak a word while examining an extremely fearful dog.  This is a big reason why I can examine dogs that many other vets need to muzzle without a muzzle.  Plus I know how to speak to them with my body language .

When fear turns into fear aggression a bite is the next logical progression.  Many fearful dogs go though years of giving fear signals and warning signals only to have them ignored, challenged, or suppressed.  A common way that fear aggression develops through the suppression of warning signals such as growling and baring of teeth.  Most people misinterpret these two displays as a threat or challenge that the dogs is giving them.  Our egos kick in and we essentially say “Oh no you don’t!  I’m not gonna let you get away with that,” and we either tell them to stop or punish them for doing it.  So, the dog is doing it’s best to say to the person that he is scared and uncomfortable and the human (inadvertently) tells him to shut it and stop giving warnings.  What’s a dog to do?  What’s left to convey that he likely fears for his safety, or even his life?  You got it, a bite.  This is why dogs “bite out of nowhere” or “turn on their owners.”  Plain and simple.


When fearful dogs bite, the mechanics of the bite/contexts are very predictable.  They will often choose escape if that is possible, but if they also have territorial/protective aggression, they may not.  These dogs often bite from behind, as you are turning to walk away or as you are walking away.  It is usually a “snap and retreat” type of motion, but there can be several bites involved or they can latch on and not release.  They also often will bite when they are cornered or when they are hiding under a chair or table and are being reached for to be pulled out.

There are many signals that dogs give us when they are uncomfortable.  These signals are called displacement behaviours, or calming signals.  They are very subtle, and many of them are either missed or misinterpreted.


So, what to do, oh what to do?  Not so fast!  I want to talk about what NOT to do first.  Many people feel that all you need to do is bring the dog to the object or place him in the context that causes fear and keep him there until he is no longer afraid.  This is called flooding and, more times than not, has disastrous consequences.  It can be very difficult to prevent a dog from escaping when he fears for his life or his safety.  If you fail, and many more times than not people do fail, to will have taught him to be even more afraid than he already was AND you have damaged the trust he had in you.  Trust in a fearful dog is like gold, expensive and hard to come by.  Don’t chance losing it with flooding.


The cornerstones of treatment are desensitization and counter-conditioning (DCC).  During the DCC program it is important to NOT expose your dog to any of the stimuli that he is afraid of unless you are controlling the presentation.  Basically, this involves exposing your dog to the fearful stimuli, one at a time to begin and then in combinations, in a CONTROLLED manner, to a degree that does not illicit the fearful response.  Then, you reward your dog for remaining calm.  Start by carefully analyzing the situation that you want to work on.  Think about it step by step from start to finish.  As you do this, be very aware of what triggers your dog.  You want to be aware of the trigger as early in the process as possible.  Say your dog is relaxed, ears down (but not pinned to his head), panting normally with a relaxed jaw, and tail level.  Then, all of a sudden he looks up, stops panting, ears go up, tail stiffens and goes up OR tucks, and then the fearful behaviour begins.  In the beginning, have the stimulus at a distance that causes your dog to just look at it/be aware of it.  Duration is the next variable.  At first let him see the stimulus, reward him for being relaxed, then make the stimulus go away or distract your dog and reward him again if he focuses on you and not the stimulus.  Over time, first allow for a greater duration of exposure, then start to close the distance.  When you close the distance, GO SLOW.  It is important not to rush because if he gets really frightened during the process he can loose ground.  If it happens, it’s important to remain very calm and go back to a distance that doesn’t frighten him.  Repeat the distance/duration process until he can be relaxed next to the stimulus or at least is manageable around it.

General Rules to Follow


Fearful dogs are challenging.  They take time and patience, two things that many of us in this busy world are often short on.  A good number of people want quick fixes, kind of a “give it to me in pill form” type thing.  Create a way to loose weight that doesn’t require you to do anything different/require no effort, and you will be so rich you won’t need my advice .  Unfortunately, there are no short cuts.  In most cases great strides can be made, but many will never be normal.  Expecting an extremely fearful dog to turn into a happy go lucky stereotypical lab is unrealistic.  What is realistic is variable degrees of improvement.