While some breeds are more aggressive than others, certain instincts exist in all canines. So even though most dogs are affectionate and loving to humans, fear aggression in dogs can cause even the nicest pup become hostile.

Dogs process information, situations and experiences differently to humans, which can make them unpredictable. Based on hormone levels, dogs can form different characters and personalities, which can make them more or less susceptible to show fear aggression.

What is Fear Aggression in Dogs?

For the past decade, scientists have actively studied aggression in dogs. It's one of the most well-researched areas of canine behavior, and has several subsets. Fear aggression in dogs is one of several types of aggression observed in canine population.

On the surface, aggression in dogs have a few primary displays: barking, growling, show of teeth and biting. There are different causes for either type of canine aggression, all of which have their own classification 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

These types of aggression can overlap where more than a single term would apply. For example, maternal aggression can be viewed as a type of fear aggression. In this article, we'll cover specifically what constitutes fear aggression in dogs.

15 Facts About Fear Aggression in Dogs

15 Facts About Dog Fear Aggression

Understanding Dog Fear Aggression

Due to different classifications of canine aggression, it can be confusing to distinguish between all of them. However, understanding differences is crucial to be able to fix this problematic behavior effectively.

“Fear Aggression” is a type of canine aggression that’s exhibited specifically when the dog feels threatened. It's easy to assume that to avoid this behavior, one should simply not threaten the dog; however, that's not exactly the case (or not always).

First, it's important to note the type of a dog. Some breeds are genetically predisposed to be more aggressive. The popular claim from pet lovers that “it's all about the owner” can be false in certain cases. Studies show that genetics play a big role in dog aggression and, more specifically, when the dog is more likely to be aggressive (people, other dogs).

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. Studies like the genetic mapping help us to better address this problem behavior.

Finally, a dog can feel afraid for different reasons, many of which can be unknown. Thus, it’s important for pet owners to get to know their dogs better to be able to effectively address aggressive behavior. The following facts on fear aggression in dogs are meant to help you understand your pet more intimately and ensure a safe relationship.

1. Examine the Past

Take a look and consider the dog’s past and where the animal comes from.

Fear aggression can be seen most often in dogs that have been victims of maltreatment. If you’ve adopted a rescue dog, find out about their history. Know where and how he grew up and how his previous owners treated him.

If you took the dog from the street, ask your vet to examine not only his physique but his behavior as well.

You should never hit the dog yourself. Punishment might seem like an easy way to make a dog obedient to new owners, but it’s been proven that it actually does the opposite. Moreover, studies show that positive interactions (as opposed to negative) are effective at reducing fear aggression.

2. Carefully Discourage Such Behavior

It’s all fun and games, but your dog might NOT view it as such.

Some dog owners encourage aggressive behavior in dogs. They view it as something fun, as a game. No matter the type of aggression, it should never be encouraged. Dogs do not 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. Ask yourself: “What is my dog feeling right now?” “Is my dog 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 dog.

3. Be Careful

Fear aggression in dogs is one of the most dangerous types of aggression.

According to above mentioned studies, fear aggression in dogs can lead to the most violent outbursts in a dog, and it’s often hardest to wean from. When working to deal with any type of aggressive dog, you should approach this carefully.

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. Understanding the Cause

Dogs are smart, but their perception is not the same as ours.

It doesn’t matter if the danger the dog senses is real or not – they often can’t make out the difference. Some 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 breeds will require more patient owner, and if that's not you, may try to pick another breed that's easier to train.

5. Domestication

Their time with us has changed what canines used to be and what they are now.

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. Use Distraction and Redirection

Be wary when calming a dog down and have a strategy to approach this.

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, it's recommended 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. Read Your Dog's Body Language

There are various visual cues for fear aggression in dogs that will help you.

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. Dogs are Not People

Always remember that fearful dogs react differently to human interaction.

Animals that are so afraid that they are close to the point of displaying fear aggression in dogs don’t like to be touched.

The paws can be an especially big no-no for a fearful dog. In fact, 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. It Can Be Hard to Tell

Depending on the dog, 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.

10. Keep Your Hands Away

A fearful dog is afraid of human hands and their sudden movements.

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.

11. No Punishment

Punishing your dog will usually lead to even more fear and more aggression.

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. Expect Surprises

Unpredictable behavior is a common 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.

The dog 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. Nursing Dogs

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.

14. Socialization

Socialize your dog more and more often 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. Use Counter-Reflexes

The only way to “cure” a dog's fear aggression is to re-educate them 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.

READ NEXT: 4 Most Scary Dogs According To Statistics

Want to share this?

15 Tips on Fear Aggression in Dogs

Patrick has been a long-time dog adopter and currently lives with his two dogs - Tarzan and Loki - in Brooklyn, NY. He is a certified dog trainer, writer on all things dogs, animal shelter volunteer, freelancer researcher of animal sciences and aspiring author.