Fear Aggression in Dogs: How to Manage and Help!


Reading Time: 9 minutes

There are few things scarier than a dog that’s displaying aggressive behavior. If you have ever been up close and personal with a large dog breed who is showing all his teeth, salivating, and looking as though nothing would please him more than to see your bones strewn for miles, you know what I am talking about. For that matter, aggressive behavior even on the part of a small dog breed or puppy can be unnerving.

Now, if you have had a dog from the time he was a puppy, trained him effectively and taken advantage of opportunities for socialization, you probably won’t have behavior problems of this type with your pet. If you do, it’s important that you deal with the aggressive behavior immediately – it’ going to go away on its own.

In the material that follows, we’ll talk about reasons for fear aggression and how to correct and manage aggressive behavior. You don’t have to be a superb dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist to deal with behavior problems in a pet dog. However, if once you’ve read this article and put into practice what you’ve learned, you feel that you’re out of your league, there’s no shame in contacting a pro. It’s far better to turn the job over to a dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist than it is to run the risk of your dog harming someone.

What Causes Aggressive Behavior in Dogs?

In very protective dogs, territorial aggression can be a problem. This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – if you have a dog of a breed that is known to be extremely protective, you want to practice socialization early and often. Take your dog to places where he can meet lots of people. Take him to the dog park as soon as his puppy shots are fully up to date. Enroll him in doggie daycare. You want him to get the idea that most of the time a strange human or dog isn’t a threat – just a friend he hasn’t gotten to know.

Sometimes there is a physical component to aggression. In older dogs, this could be due to a brain tumor. You might be surprised to know, too, that sometimes aggressive behavior in dogs can be due to mental illness. If you suspect either of these scenarios, consider consulting a veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists have both the psychological training and the medical training needed to determine the source of the problem and can work to identify the best way of dealing with the aggressive behavior.

Most of the time, though, when a dog is aggressive, it’s due to fear. Let’s talk a bit more about that.

Fear Aggression

When anxiety in a pet dog escalates to the point where the dog becomes fearful, the dog is going to weigh three different options. His preferred course of action is going to be to run away from what is scaring him. If he can’t do that, his second choice is going to be to submit – to roll over and expose his underside in a way that says “Okay, you can rip out my vital organs right about now but I’m thinking you won’t.” If this isn’t an option (for instance if he’s dealing with another dog that’s displaying highly aggressive behavior and is perhaps much larger), there’s only one choice left. He has to fight.

Are Fearful Dogs Always Aggressive?

No. Sometimes a fearful dog will simply cower behind his human, assuming that the person he loves most will protect him from any threats. However, when you take fear and combine it with poor training and bad socialization, you have a recipe for disaster. This recipe is often “seasoned” by owners and trainers who think that the best way of dealing with an aggressive dog or puppy is to use physical punishment.

If you’re punishing your fearful dog, stop it right now! Behavior modification (more on that in a bit) is the way to combat aggressive behavior. If you’re not up to the task of training, choose your dog trainer carefully. If you perceive the slightest indication of harsh training methods, find another dog trainer.

Related Content:

Top 3 Reasons for Aggressive Dog Behavior, and What to Do About It
Why Would a Loving Dog Suddenly Become Aggressive?
What To Do When Your Dog Hates Your Significant Other?

Identifying Fear Aggression in Dogs

We often think of aggressive behavior in dogs as lunging, snarling, snapping, pulling the lips back from the teeth, flattening the ears, and generally giving the impression that it would please the dog in no small way to tear you limb from limb.

Okay, sometimes this is what it looks like. But often an aggressive dog will cower, turn his head toward his hindquarters, and lick his lips. This is fear aggression.

I remember when I was growing up, a neighbor who had a nasty little Shih Tzu that used to yap at me, back off, and then when I’d turn to walk away, nip at my ankles. I was afraid of that little monster, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that she was at least equally afraid of me. Those nasty little nips were her way of telling me that she didn’t really want to hurt me – she just wanted me to go away. She was telling me, in the only way she could, that my presence was causing her anxiety.

Watch your dog’s body language. If it’s fear aggression, your dog will likely behave much like my former neighbor’s Shih Tzu. If it’s territorial aggression, the dog is more likely to try to corner the perceived threat if it’s human, or to attack it if it’s canine.

Can You Cure Fear Aggression?

You could cure fear aggression if you could guarantee that your pet never came into contact with anything that was causing him anxiety. That’s highly unlikely, though. There are just too many variable factors – your dog could encounter a human that he finds scary and react in a way that seems reasonable to him. He could encounter another dog that’s displaying aggressive behavior.

It could also just be that he’s having a bad day. It’s happened to you, hasn’t it? You’re at work having slept badly the night before, burned your eggs while making breakfast, encountered idiots in traffic… well, you get the idea. Then a co-worker comes along and takes a paper clip off your desk, and you go ballistic. It happens.

Okay, I know that’s not fear aggression, unless you’re terrified that you’ll be short of paper clips. What I’m driving at here is that aggression of any kind can be triggered by circumstances that can’t be predicted. Aggression can’t be cured – it can only be managed.

Behavior Modification

Dealing with fear aggression in dogs is done using behavior modification techniques. Essentially, you want to replace the undesirable, aggressive behavior with something more acceptable.

Let’s say that your dog wants a piece of anyone who comes to the door. What you can do is place a weather-proof box or bag containing dog treats outside the door, and recruit an acquaintance to help – preferably an acquaintance that your dog does not know. When the acquaintance rings the bell and you open the door, the acquaintance gives your dog a treat. You may need to repeat this a number of times, but eventually your dog will perceive the arrival of a stranger as having a good outcome in the form of a treat.

Having achieved that, you might want to take your dog and the acquaintance for a walk together. They don’t have to interact – they just have to occupy the same space. Then you can come back to your home and have the guest come in and give your dog another treat. Again, good outcome.

Try this with other acquaintances. Make sure that they’re people who will be reasonably at ease with a dog that has anxiety issues. If you do it often enough and with enough different people, your dog will eventually get the idea that strange humans are not usually to be feared.

It Can Be Done

Aggressive behavior in dogs that is due to fear can take a lot of time and effort to correct, but it is possible. It can be more difficult, though, when it comes to rescue dogs.

A rescue dog will hardly ever come to you without issues. Rescue organizations will typically do everything in their power to ensure that you get a “safe” dog, but as I’ve previously stated, there is no “cure” for fear aggression. It can surface at any time.

One of the most horrendous rescue scenarios imaginable involved the dogs taken from Michael Vick, the football player who did prison time for his role in dog fighting. But if you need an example of how horribly abused dogs can be rehabilitated through the power of love, the Vicktory Dogsthat were rescued are a prime example. Many of these dogs, who knew nothing but horror, violence, fear, and unspeakable abuse became beloved family pets.

It doesn’t always work out that way. It’s wonderful if you want to rescue a dog. But if you’re not ready to deal with trauma, injuries, and yes, aggressive behavior due to fear, it is not for you. Find a nice dog from a good breeder and donate to a rescue group.

Your Aggressive Rescue Dog

Okay, so you’re not a dog trainer but you know what to expect in the way of aggressive behavior, and you’re still going to do it. You’re going to invite a potentially dangerous animal into your home and make him your pet. If you are a singleton, or part of an adult couple, then all I can say is that you are a hero. If you have children or other pets, please don’t do it. Rescue dogs are typically terrified, and they will growl, bark, and possibly even bite.

Still going to do it? Okay. Here’s what you need to know. There is no “one size fits all” approach to rehabilitating a rescue dog with aggressive behavior. But to start with, you should try to minimize any situations that are going to provoke a defensive reaction. Stay calm and persevere. Here are some steps to follow.

1. Start Obedience Training Immediately

You want to help your dog to learn the behaviors that are acceptable, and you want to develop an understanding between you and the dog. The best type of training for a traumatized dog is reward-based. In other words, when the dog does something you want, give him a reward – a treat, a tummy rub, or even just some kind words. Generally speaking, dogs are going to do what leads to pleasant results, and repeat that behavior. You don’t have to be a dog trainer to figure this out.

2. Watch for Signs of Stress

If your dog tenses up, pants excessively, or turns his head away, those are signs of stress that could lead to aggressive behavior. So is growling. Now, with growling, many people react with fear. Try not to. Your dog is not likely gearing up to bite – he is just telling you that he is uncomfortable. Never, ever shout or scold. Try to figure out what is troubling your dog, and remove the source of stress. For instance, if another person is causing your dog to growl, step between them – you are protecting your dog and telling him that he has nothing to fear as long as you are there.

3. Relax

You have to be very relaxed when dealing with a fearful dog. If you exhibit signs of stress, your dog will pick up on them, and that is only going to make matters worse. Speak in a low, gentle tone. Smile. Get down on his level and stroke his ears. Sing him a lullaby (I’m serious!). He will love to hear your voice, speaking or singing to him gently, and it will soothe him.

4. Build Self-Esteem

Teach your dog some new tricks. Every time he learns something new, his confidence is going to improve, and he will be less fearful.

5. Make Sure He Gets Lots of Exercise

This one is simple. A tired dog is usually a relaxed dog, and not a dog that is likely to display aggressive behavior.

Now, the Final Biggie

If you are contemplating bringing a rescue dog into your life, or have already done so, then I know that you are a kind, caring person, and I probably don’t need to tell you this. But just in case – please, please, never punish your rescue dog. He has undoubtedly already seen more than enough in the way of punishment, and he will not react favorably. I’m not saying that he will bite you – that’s not what I mean. I mean that shouting, time-outs or any other type of correction will only further damage a heart that is broken and needs a great deal of love and care to heal. So if he does something wrong, overlook it. Then, try to catch him doing something right, and praise him for it.

Preventing a Disaster

Until your rescue dog has been fully rehabilitated, there may still be situations that require special care. Often, rescue dogs are very apprehensive when taken to the vet, and for the safety of the vet, the technicians, and the other animals at the veterinary clinic, you may need to muzzle your rescue dog.

Your dog isn’t going to like this. He may struggle and try to paw the muzzle off, and he may succeed. If he does manage it at the animal hospital, he may attempt to bite the veterinarian or a veterinary assistant. Practice at home with the muzzle. Teach him with treats, love, and kind words that the muzzle is not something to be feared. The best kind of muzzle is the type that is open in the front so thatyour dog can breathe and pant properly and not overheat, but not so open that biting is possible. If he is still able to open his mouth somewhat, your rescue dog will be considerably less stressed when he has that all-important vet appointment.

Related Content:

Top 3 Reasons for Aggressive Dog Behavior, and What to Do About It
Why Would a Loving Dog Suddenly Become Aggressive?
What To Do When Your Dog Hates Your Significant Other?

And Finally…

With love and training, aggressive behavior in dogs can be controlled, even if not ever completely suppressed. Even the most horribly abused dog can respond with affection and gratitude, and become a loyal friend that you will treasure for the rest of your life. If you have a dog with issues, consider using a dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist. If you are dealing with a rescue dog, hold his broken soul gently in your heart until it is repaired, and you will be rewarded many times over. The Vicktory Dogs are proof.

People Also Ask

  • How do you train an aggressive rescue dog?

See above. You do it with lots of love and patience.

  • Why is my rescue dog aggressive?

It’s probably because he’s afraid.

  • Should I surrender my aggressive dog?

Probably not. If your dog is aggressive due to mental illness or a physical illness, the kindest thing to do is not to surrender, but to euthanize. If he’s aggressive because of his living situation (for instance he doesn’t like living in a neighborhood where there are other dogs or too many humans) then re-homing is the better solution. If you want to keep your aggressive dog, work on behavior modification, or find a dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist who can help.

  • What do you do when an aggressive dog runs at you?

Stand your ground, but turn your body away from the dog. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t try to run, because you will never be able to outrun him. Hold your arms up to protect your throat, and whatever you do, don’t fall.