Fear of dog's aggression is one of the reasons some people refuse to adopt dogs. Many still dogs as uncontrollable animals, as time bombs with teeth that are bound to explode at some point and lunge at our or others' throats. And even though a large majority of dogs are affectionate and loving to humans, fear aggression in dogs can cause even the nicest pooch to become hostile.
It's true that some dogs are more aggressive than others, and come with certain risks. No matter how good they behave, how well they're trained, or how loving and peaceful they are, just like us, dogs have a psyche as well. The key phrase here is “just like us.”
We tend to anthropomorphize our pets, but dogs just like other animals have their own way of thinking. They process information, situations and experiences different from humans, which makes them unpredictable. Dogs too can form different characters and have different personalities, and fear aggression in dogs is a part of that equation.
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What is dog's fear aggression?
Scientists have extensively studied aggression in dogs for the last five decades. It's one of the most well-researched areas of canine behavior, and it has several subsets. Fear aggression in dogs is just one of the many types of aggression displayed by your pet.
On the surface, aggression in dogs have a few primary displays – barking, growling, displaying teeth and biting. There are different reasons for what can cause either type of aggression in dogs, all of which have their own term attached to the behavior.
Aggressive behavior in dogs can be summarized with these main types:
- Dominance aggression
- Fear aggression
- Food aggression (resource guarding)
- Territorial/protective aggression
- Predatory aggression
- Possessive aggression
- Play aggression
- Maternal aggression
The above types of dog aggression are most common, and they're classified by dog trainers as subtypes and reasons for dog's aggressive behavior. But a lot of them can also overlap and it would be difficult to use the exact term of aggression in dogs. For example, maternal aggression can be viewed as a type of fear aggression in dogs.
One article on general aggression in dogs can’t possibly be enough to go through all of them in detail, so today I'm going to walk you through one of the most popular forms of canine aggression – fear aggression.
15 Facts about Fear Aggression in Dogs
The Meaning of Fear Aggression in Dogs
Because of the different classifications of aggressive behavior in dogs it becomes confusing distinguishing between all of them. However, it's important to understand their differences. So what do scientists and dog trainers mean when they use a term like “fear aggression in dogs,” what causes it, and how to prevent or avoid it?
It’s a type of canine aggression that’s exhibited when the dog feels threatened. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Just don’t threaten the dog and he won’t be aggressive.
Well, not quite.
First, it's important to note the type of a dog; some breeds are genetically predisposed to be more aggressive. While many dog lovers will be against the idea that a breed can be more aggressive, claiming that it's “all about the owner,” that's simply isn't factually true. Studies have showed that genetics play a big role in dog aggression and particularly what that dog will be aggressive towards, like people or other animals (Zapata et al. 2016).
Second, understanding some aspects of fear aggression in dogs will be crucial to deal with it no matter what breed. However, as researcher Diane Frank notes in this article, dog aggression has been studied for a long time but we still have only certain facts right, and much remains a mystery to us. And studies like this 2016 genetic mapping help us to make lists like this one for pet owners to have a better handle on canine aggression.
A dog can feel afraid for a lot of different reasons, many of which can be completely unknown to us. As comedian Bill Burr jokes, “Maybe my dog’s previous owner used to get up in the middle of the night and beat it – guess how the dog will react when I get up in the middle of the night myself and go to get some ice cream from the fridge?”
It might be a comedian’s joke, but it’s also true – he makes a good point.
It’s important to get to know your dog as well as possible if you want to be sure and know exactly how your pet will react under many different circumstances (Young MS, 1986). The following facts and tips on fear aggression in dogs are meant to help you understand your pet more intimately and ensure you two have a great, rewarding and safe relationship.
1 Take a look at the dog’s past
If you’ve adopted a rescue dog, make sure to find out as much as possible about his history. You need to know where and how he grew up, how were his previous owners treating him and his siblings, and everything else related.
If you took him from the street, ask your veterinarian to examine not only his physique but his behavior as well. It should also go without saying that you shouldn’t hit your dog yourself, and most dog owners are already aware of cons of negative punishment.
For new dog owners, punishment might seem like an easy way to make him obedient, but it’s been proven and stated by various organizations that it will ruin your relationship with the dog forever and it will cause future fear aggression in your pet.
2 It’s all fun and games, but your dog might NOT view it as such
A lot of dog owners encourage their pet’s aggressive behavior. They view it as something fun, as a game. No matter the type of aggression, however, it should never be encouraged. A dog doesn’t think like us – what seems like a game to you, feels very real for the dog.
Try to look at different situations from the dog’s point of view. After all, a dog is not just an interactive plush toy. Ask yourself, “what is he feeling right now? Is he barking out of joy, because we’re playing, or does he feel genuinely afraid and I’m unintentionally teaching him to be aggressive when he's scared?”
Do not entertain yourself at the expense of fostering fear aggression in your pet.
3 Fear aggression in dogs is one of the most dangerous types of aggression
According to above noted studies, fear aggression in dogs can lead to the most violent outbursts in a dog, and it’s often hardest to wean from.
Many dogs need to be put down because they’ve been instilled with too much fear. That shouldn’t come as a surprise either – fear is one of the most basic emotions in all living creatures.
When the “fight or flight” instinct is triggered and there’s nowhere for the dog to run or hide, aggression is inevitable. Plus, dogs are natural predators. It’s very easy for them to go straight to “fight” instead of “flight”, depending on how they’ve been brought up.
4 Dogs are smart, but their perception is not the same as ours
Some of of the best advice that veterinarians give is to learn to think like your pet, because he won’t learn to think like you. What might seem trivial to you, might feel like the Apocalypse to your dog.
Dogs don’t bark at the mailman because they are mean and want to scare him as a prank. They bark, jump and display aggression because they don’t always fully comprehend the situation.
Understanding your dog and what makes him react the way he does is imperative for your relationship with him. That's why it's also important to do proper research before adopting a dog – some stubborn dog breeds will require more patient owner, and if that's not you, may try to pick another breed that's easier to train.
5 Their time with us has changed them
Dogs – as a species, through time – have learned to recognize certain behaviors as dangerous. Even if a dog has never seen a knife in his life, if he sees someone approaching him slowly with a knife in hand, it could evoke a very strong reaction of fear.
Dogs and cats are very different from other animals in that regard.
Many people attest that their dogs are afraid of their firearm. Some veterinarians speculate the small of a gun is as ingrained into dogs’ collective psyche as the sight of a knife.
Others say that it’s the clicking sound of the gun – the touch of metal on metal. Regardless, dogs have been with us for around 33,000 years and they’ve formed a lot of ingrained fear in that time.
6 Be wary when calming a dog down
Trying to calm your dog when he’s afraid can sometimes have the opposite effect. It enforces the idea that the dog should be afraid. If, for example, your dog is afraid of a thunderstorm, don’t try to cuddle him or he will be afraid of thunderstorms for the rest of his life.
Instead, as The Nest expert suggests, try to distract Fido by playing with him, or giving him a treat. In the meantime, keep petting him and talking to him calmly. Show your dog that everything is okay by ignoring the object of the dog’s fear, not by acknowledging it.
The same goes for a dog’s fear of people – if you hold your pooch back or if you hide him in a room when you have guests, you’ll only reinforce the idea that “unknown people are bad”.
Instead, try to socialize your dog, and allow your guests to give him treats. Enforce the idea that there’s nothing to be afraid of. There are also some scientifically proven methods to calm down a dog which you can use as alternatives to the above.
7 There are various visual cues for fear aggression in dogs
Fear aggression in dogs comes with quite different hints compared to the other types of aggression. The entire body language of the dog is different.
With dominance aggression, for instances, the posture of the canine is straight and proud. With fear aggression, your dog will be tense, his tail will often be between his legs, and his ears will be back and low.
If you see that your dog’s posture looks like this, it means that he's afraid. If the dog seems to be in this position often, even when he is home with you, this hints towards a chronic fear. You need to figure out what is triggering the fear response as soon as possible.
8 Fearful dogs react differently to human interaction
The paws can be an especially big no-no for a fearful dog. In fact, as the experts from Vet Street tell us, many dogs don’t like to be touched on the paws in general.
Unlike cats, dogs are very mindful about their feet and can get easily irritated when you touch them. Even if a dog is generally okay with you playing with his paws, if he’s afraid of something he won’t react well. Brushing and grooming his hair can also be a problem for a fearful dog.
9 Signs of fear aggression in dogs can be less visible
There are other signs of continuous fear in your dog as well. Dogs that are constantly afraid often breathe heavily. If your pet breathes too heavily even when he’s standing still, this might mean that he’s really afraid.
Look for heavy breathing with a closed mouth – heavy breaths with an open mouth are not a sign of fear.
A rapid heartbeat can also signal high levels of stress. Of course, it can also be a sign of a health problem, but stress and fear are very likely as well. Frequent urination can be a sign as well. After all, humans are not the only ones with a shaky bladder control when we’re afraid.
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10 A fearful dog is afraid of human hands
A dog’s fear of human hands can be a surefire sign of maltreatment in the past. If a dog has seen too much violence from a human hand, he can become so afraid that he reacts aggressively even at simple, nonthreatening gestures.
Sometimes when a dog hasn’t been beaten by anyone, the sight of a human hand nearby can still cause a strong, aggressive reaction if the dog is afraid.
Dogs are around humans practically since birth, and they understand perfectly that we do everything with our “front paws”. So, if your dog is acting out of fear, beware of a reaction towards your hands.
11Punishing your dog can lead to even more fear
Putting your dog away in a closed, dark space is one of the worst things you can do. The dog views himself as a part of your pack. One of the worst things that can happen to a member of any pack is to be left behind, to be cast off.
Even though you’ll “accept him back into the pack” after a while, the damage will have already been done. Fido will now know that he’s been thrown out and will be afraid that the same can happen again.
The dog will feel abandoned by you and that fear will linger even when you’re together later on. It may lead to fear aggression in dogs, and your dog won’t trust you anymore.
12 Unpredictable behavior is a sign of fear in dogs
Dog owners usually get to know their pets pretty well after a while. We know how they like to play, how they react to food, to guests, to going out. At times, we feel like we know them completely.
However, every once in a while a dog can surprise you not only by doing something interesting and new, but by acting in a completely unpredictable and weird way.
He can react to food with indifference, sleep in a new, strange spot or not seem excited about his favorite things. Such behavior can be a sign of a recent fear of something, and you should try and figure out what’s causing it. If it’s making your dog act weirdly, then it can also lead to unexpected fear aggression in dogs.
13 Maternal aggression is one of the main types of fear aggression in dogs
If a female dog is pregnant or has recently given birth, expect her to be afraid of a lot of things she’s usually fine with. This one shouldn't come as a really big surprise either. It’s pure and simple instinct. After all, women behave differently when they are pregnant or have just given birth as well – it’s all hormones, and it’s quite all right.
It’s easy for people to get overly excited around the dog in the situation of a birth. After all, the puppies are so cute! Try to remember, however, that the mother is tired, anxious and very much afraid for her litter. Don’t do anything that might scare her around her pups. Kids, in particular, can trigger a female dog that’s just given birth very easily.
14Socialize your dog to avoid fear aggression problems
If you often have guests at your home or if your dog often plays with other people outside, this will quickly teach him that other people are not to be feared.
If a dog’s used to living with you alone, he will instinctively be dubious and afraid of everyone else. That’s especially true while the dog’s growing up.
Just several months with no guests at home can result in a lifetime of antisocial behavior from your pet.
15 The only way to “cure” fear aggression is to re-educate the dog through creating counter-reflexes
This is best left to the professionals. Seek help from a professional canine behavior expert. A good dog trainer can literally “fix” your dog’s aggression problem.
However, sometimes even an experienced dog trainer might not be able to help your dog if he’s too fearful already and the problem was fostered for a long time.
The younger the dog is and the sooner you recognize the problem, the better the chances for rehabilitation are. If you wait too long, fear aggression in dogs can very well become irreversible. Consult with a professional dog trainer as soon as possible if you notice any signs of aggression in your dog.
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