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Fear aggression in dogs is a tricky topic. This is because it’s difficult to identify with 100% certainty. Why? Because aggression is very commonly confused with reactivity.
Some of the behaviors of reactivity and aggression may look the same: a dog displaying aggression may bark, growl, lunge, or snap, and a reactive dog may do these things as well.
According to the American Kennel Club, “aggression can be due to guarding territory or protecting a family member, resource guarding, fear, frustration, prey drive, and/or pain.” (Fear aggression is what we will specifically cover in this article, but as you can see, there are many other reasons or situations that may cause a dog to act “aggressive.”)
Reactive dogs, on the other hand, are reactive (meaning they overreact) to certain things or situations. To be considered reactive, a dog must have a trigger, such as people wearing hats, men with beards, feeling trapped while leashed, and so forth.
To complicate matters further, your dog may be showing one of the above behaviors, but that does not mean the dog is necessarily aggressive or reactive. The situation that elicits the behavior determines this. A dog may bark or growl in a certain situation, but that does not mean the dog is aggressive or reactive.
For example: If your dog barks excessively in reaction to a trigger (or triggers), like seeing a person with a hat, that is reactive behavior. If they bark in a loud and constant way because they feel cornered by a person, that is fear aggressive behavior. If they bark because they see a squirrel in a tree, that’s just barking because they see a squirrel in a tree—probably normal behavior based on their prey drive. (If the barking becomes excessive or compulsive, or if seeing the squirrel causes the dog to behave in ways that could be dangerous to the dog, it could veer into “reactive” territory.)
As you can see, identifying the behavior can be tough, and might take some practice. But don’t worry, you’re not alone and we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll cover how to identify fear aggression and how to manage and modify fear aggression.
How to identify fear-based behavior
A dog with fear aggression will display body postures that signal fear. These may include:
- Lip licking
- Baring teeth
- Growling, lunging, snapping or biting if cornered
- Nipping at the “scary” person as they walk away
- Inflicting shallow, rapid bites on the person
Much of fear aggression occurs when the dog feels cornered. According to the ASPCA, dogs, like most animals, would prefer to get away from the perceived threat. They become aggressive when they feel it is their only recourse. A dog exhibiting fear aggression is trying to protect themselves from the thing that is scaring them.
What this means is that we can (in some cases) prevent fear from turning into fear aggression by becoming more familiar with body language cues from our dogs.
Here are some body language cues that indicate your dog is stressed or worried:
- Body freezing
- Lip licking or tongue flicking
- “Whale eye”: when a dog turns their head but keeps their eyes on you (or on the perceived threat), showing a large amount of the whites of their eyes
- Lip licking
- Yawning (depending on the situation—the dog may also simply be tired)
- Facial tension/ tensed jaw
- Hair on neck and back standing up
- A lowered body
Being able to recognize these signs of stress can help you remove your dog from the situation (when possible) and prevent fear aggression altogether. If, for example, your friend is approaching your dog and you notice the dog licking their lips or freezing, intervene and direct your friend away from the dog, and give the dog a safe space to retreat to. This cuts the situation off before it reaches the point where the dog feels they have no choice but to act aggressive.
If displaying fear aggression is a last resort, we can take steps to keep the dog from feeling the need to resort to it.
How to manage and modify fear aggression
- Intervention: As mentioned above, intervening in a situation that might lead to fear aggression is a key way to manage it. Practice reading your dog’s body language, and use that knowledge to intervene in situations that you notice are stressing your dog out. You can also do this preemptively: for example, if your dog is stressed out by your child, always place yourself between the dog and the child when you are in a room together. Alternatively, put the dog’s bed in an area the child does not have access to (if possible). Set your dog up for success in any way you can given the situation. The key here is to cut off fearful situations at the root whenever possible.
- Rituals of behavior: Dog trainer Victoria Stillwell also recommends creating “rituals of behavior”, which she describes as “actions and behaviors your dog can practice any time she is in a situation that might make her uncomfortable.” These are tasks that keep your dog working and thinking, which will help the dog stay below their stress threshold. The rituals of behavior will be different depending on the situation, and you can make up any ritual that you want. (On the aforementioned page, Stillwell gives an example of a ritual for when someone new to the dog comes over.)
- Priming: Priming simply means doing something to put your dog in a happy mood before they encounter a stressor (or multiple stressors). If you know your dog is going to encounter a stressor later, do something they like first, such as playing fetch or another game they like. The principle here is that the dog is better able to deal with a stressful situation if they’re in a good mood going into it—just like humans!
As the ASPCA states, it’s very important to work with both your veterinarian and a professional dog behavior expert when dealing with any issue of aggression. The veterinarian can help you make sure your dog isn’t acting aggressive out of pain or illness. (It’s important to eliminate this possibility first.) The behavior expert should be experienced in working with dogs with fear aggression. They can help you figure out a plan for behavior modification based on your dog’s history and risk factors. The plan will most likely involve counterconditioning and desensitization.
It’s important to bring in a professional behavior expert because any dog that acts aggressive comes with certain risks (which are outlined in the ASPCA article in the above paragraph). For instance, a dog with a history of biting people is an insurance liability and can be at risk for euthanization (in some places). You do not want your dog to hurt you, other people, or other animals. Our article When And How To Think About Medication For Anxious Dogs contains a breakdown of the difference between vets, veterinary behaviorists, and certified applied animal behaviorists. The American Kennel Club also has a handy guide to choosing a dog trainer.
Dealing with fear aggression in dogs can be scary, but with some professional help, the ability to read your dog’s body language, and a lot of patience, you can help your dog be less afraid, and improve the quality of life for both of you.
Trainer that reviewed this article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Founder – K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer – Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies