Fear Aggression

FEAR_AGGRESSION_FeaturedWhen a dog feels threatened by something, the first and safest option for the dog is to run away from the threat. This is called the 'flight response.' If the dog is unable to put sufficient distance between himself and the threat, the only other options left are to either submit in the hope the threat goes away, or fight – the 'fight response.'

Why do dogs become fear aggressive?
The root of most aggressive behavior is fear. Combine fear with a situation where a dog has not been raised and trained humanely and the result is often a disastrous cocktail of fear aggression. This is frequently made even worse by owners and trainers who employ punishment-based techniques on the fear aggressive dog. Another common root cause of fear aggression is a lack of appropriate socialization during the dog's development. If a dog has not received adequate socialization, she will find it hard to cope with new things she encounters in her environment such as other dogs, animals or people.

How do I know if my dog is fear aggressive?

  • Dogs that are fear aggressive will often adopt body postures that signal fear while retreating, such as cowering, lip licking and baring teeth.
  • If your dog is cornered or has nowhere to run, she might growl, lunge, snap or bite in an attempt to get the threat to move away.
  • Dogs with fear aggression might retreat if someone approaches them but can then turn and nip at the person as they walk away.
  • Fearful dogs often inflict shallow, rapid bites designed to remove the threat rather than doing serious physical harm.

Can I cure my fear aggressive dog?
It is important to note that while the prognosis is good for many fear aggressive dogs there is no 'cure' for aggression. Behavior can never be guaranteed in people or in animals because there are too many outside factors influencing behavior, mood and emotion. Just like people, dogs can simply have a bad day! While there is no 'cure' for fear aggression, there are many positive things you can do to help manage the problem and get your dog to a place where she can exist in harmony within an environment which she previously found scary.

  • Contact a qualified humane positive trainer to work with you and your dog using humane desensitization techniques. These will give your dog more confidence to cope with her fear.
  • Find what triggers a reaction from your dog.
  • When you have identified the trigger, put your dog in the position where she does not have to experience the trigger. Less rehearsal of aggressive behavior means there is more of a chance the behavior begins to decline.
  • Try and make your environment as predictable as possible. Fear aggressive dogs do not like surprises so keep your dog’s surroundings as calm as possible until she is more confident and able to deal with novelty.

Manage Fear Aggression With 'Rituals of Behavior'
Set up ‘rituals of behavior.’ These are a series of actions and behaviors your dog can practice any time she is in a situation that might make her uncomfortable. For example, if your dog fears guests coming into your home, have a ritual you can all follow any time someone new comes over. When the doorbell rings and a guest is at the door, do the following:

  • Get your dog’s leash and take her outside so she can see the guest standing there.
  • Have your guest stand with a plastic bag that you have previously placed by the front door. The bag should contain your dog’s favorite chew, toy or bone.
  • Go for a short walk down the road with your dog and the guest but at no time should the guest attempt to engage with your dog
  • Come back inside your home and take your dog through some action cues like sit or down as your guest comes in.
  • Have your guest take the chew, toy or treat out and place it on the floor a safe distance away from your dog who must still be on leash if there is any likelihood she will aggress.
  • Let your dog chew on the treat or toy.
  • Chat with your guest while your dog is chewing and when it is appropriate take your dog to a safe zone for some quiet time. The safe zone should be in a separate room behind a baby gate or in the dog’s crate with the door closed.
  • Practice this ritual with friends and neighbors that are willing to help and your dog will soon associate the bell ringing and a guest entering with good things.
  • Once your dog is no longer fearful you can start having guests come into the home without having to take your dog outside. A guest can still enter with the bag in her hand but this will make the greeting ritual less time consuming.
  • Tell your guests to give your dog space and limited attention.

You can make up any ritual as long as it is something your dog enjoys. The secret to success with this one is to keep your dog thinking and working, which will keep her below her stress threshold, and give her space, while also keeping guests safe.

Bottom Line
Though fear aggression is a serious issue which can take a considerable amount of time and effort to address, it is possible to manage the behavior. Be sure to avoid punishment-based training techniques, and instead help your dog become more confident and secure using the power of positive training and techniques such as effective 'rituals of behavior.'

Related Reading: 

tweet it post it Share It Plus It Print It

29 thoughts on “Fear Aggression

  1. Betty DeGore

    Having a issue with Kimba my Lab/mix, she has started to bark and growl when people enter the house and while they are here. This issue started after my Male Lab/mix passed away. I was thinking about getting another male lab. Any help would please???

  2. cobird2

    I have the same problem with my small dog. He aggressive toward some other dogs we meet on a walk. It started during obedience class when one dog worked in the center of the ring and the others did sit-stay.

  3. Kirsty Macfarlane

    Great article as I have 2 reactive gsds and I'm working with John McGuigan Glasgow dog trainer. We're doing well 10 days into training and I've only had 1 incident where my female displayed aggression but love the exercise for when guests come. We don't have a lot of visitors but my brother and neighbours would be willing to help. Positive training is the way to go the sooner people start practising the better. I've learned so much from Victoria and Ian Dunbar who just makes it so simple and I used to be a cesar millan fan!

  4. Crystal Johnson

    I have a 16 month old blue heeler ausi kelpy mix that is very people scared aggressive. I have tried to help him see people as a good thing but am failing. He is on medication from the vet to help with his anxiety. Can any one give tips on how I should proceed?

  5. Rita Casey

    I have a dog who was abused and abandoned, a former hunting dog. According to a dog communicator he never have a good puppyhood either and I got him around 4 or 5 yrs old so had nothing good in his background to draw from: these are the things I have done for him and he is a docile loving affectionate dog with me , will go up and sniff folks out walking (folks who are calm and still,he avoids loud noisy ones), and allow them to pet him. at home he still hides when someone comes to house but if they sit quietly and ignore him he will creep up to sniff and say hello. the things I have done are to gradually increase his walking time, first in quiet neighborhoods then in more congested places, taught him to sit next to me when scared (he added pawing at me to let me know he is scared on his own: when he sits and presses against me and paws at me that is his cue to me that he is overwhelmed and I remove him from whatever situation we are in. this has greatly increased his trust in me and gradually with other people. The thundershirt is a lifesaver, I wrap him in this before our walks and it has made him much less nervous and more confident. I also take my other outgoing confident dog with us who goes right up to everyone expecting to be admired and petted: my scared dog watches and now joins her in the attention. Anyone coming towards us that runs to us,asks to pet him,etc, I tell them he is a very shy dog and if they can sit quietly he will come over to say hello. he also gets plenty of off leash playtime in a fenced yard which I think greatly reduces stress. if he gets stressed on our walks he gets a relaxing doggy massage when we get home. hope some of this helps.

  6. Anna

    My dog was scared of people too. What I did: Whenever he barked, I told him to stop. Then I made him sit, let him look at the person, and gave him a treat. In the beginning, the other person was not allowed to pet him. Now we are that far that I taught him a "say hi", which means he can go to the other person, sniff their hands, and get a treat. But I always select the people carefully, because some people are very clumsy or try too hard to help and mess it up instead. Also always give your dog the feeling that you protect him, so if there are people rushing towards yours dog to pet him, tell them to stop and put your dog behind you. when you see he gets insecure, you can also make him "sit", so he gets something else to do than focusing on his fear.

  7. Anna

    oh and: always make sure that you start out in quiet and peaceful areas, e.g. let him get to know ONE person in the street where you live (compared to putting him in a situation with 100s of people in an area he deosnt know). and always give him a reliable daily schedule and a job (eg teach him something, maybe agility, or let him sniff for things, and then reward reward reward. that will strengthen his self esteem). All people around you should be reliable, shouldnt bother him and whenever possible should give him a treat.


    My Border Terrier was a perfectly well behaved dog until the age of 18 months when she was attacked by another Border who grabbed her face (the owner just laughed) after this she will NOT tolerate any dog whom she doesn't know, Off lead dogs are a nightmare for us, the owner's are just as bad, they always say as the dog is hurtling towards us (my Ruby ALWAYS on lead at this point) oh he/she is ok ! But my dog isn't, and still they don't call them off, I have resorted to chosing my route's and times carefully, she is 6 now, loves people (and the dog's she know's) sadly we are limited to where we can go, but my dog comes first, and refuse to put her into stressful situations. She makes such a noise when threatened, people look at me like I have two heads ! Help !!!!!

  9. Helen mcguirl

    Not sure if my 9 month old jug and 5 month old lhaso mix is aggressive? When on walks they have started to bark at other dogs and only some people! They pull as they are doing this but no matter what I try they are determined to continue!

  10. sshipe2012

    My Bullmastidor, Lucky is fear aggressive do to his time on the streets, in the shelter and abusive past. When he came to us he belly crawled everywhere. We saw a lost soul and of course adopted him. Lucky's adoption led to us wanting to do more and very shortly after we became large/ bully dog fosters and have been for 2 years. We have saved 20 dogs in our short time as fosters and would like to continue to do so, but Lucky is not doing well with the foster dogs. He was ok for awhile, but recently we had two male dogs that were in need of re-homing and were not from the shelter Lucky has not been getting along with either of them at all. We live in Houston were the stray population is out of control and shelters are killing healthy dogs left and right. No longer fostering is not an option. How do help Lucky feel secure and safe in his home so he can try and
    move passed his fear aggression but still continue to foster dogs? We are in a damned if we do and damned if we don't situation.

  11. pat strickland

    I have a 10 month doxie pup.who got scared when a person came into my yard at the front gate one nite. He now acts aggressive when someone comes into yard, barking and running up to them... He act like he will nip them... once they come in to my home He will act like thier best friend.... I don't know what to do. I have never had this happen before with any dog I have owned.

  12. Jayne

    Please can someone help me I've a cross pit mastiff... so I've been told .. I had him from a abusive owner who used to hit him .. when he was drinking.. however .. when he was told off for being naughty he started growling .. I can't understand why .. he has been shown nothink but love .. and we love him dearly .. so why would he not trust us ..

  13. Jayne

    Hi can you please give me some advice I've a cross breed dog .. I think it's a pitbull mastiff.. I had him off someone I knew who use to hit him when he had a drink .. we have never raised a hand to him just shown him love however he had been naughty an I told him off and he growled at me can anyone offer any advice we love him ..and I don't know why his does not trust us .. thanks jayne ..

  14. Lynsey Bastian

    I'm wondering if anyone has any tips for dealing with fear aggression in our lurcher Dobby. We've had him since he was a pup but he was found straying very young with mange and had clearly lost his mum FAR too young. He's always been funny about having his paws touched or having anything done to him and it took a lot of positive encouragement and treats to get him used to even having his muddy paws dried but we got there (he now lifts each one for me to dry but still has the occasional off day - don't we all). Dobby (being part greyhound) is incredibly accident prone and has needed a lot of vet treatment for various injuries and as a result he is terrified of a trip to the vet. He's fine in the waiting room, wanting cuddled but as soon as the vet tries to examine him he bares his teeth and snaps. We muzzle him for vet trips but he wriggles, snaps, and even backflips and gets very distressed. He was so bad last time his anal glands emptied (sorry if that's tmi). We really want to work on this but don't know where to go from here. A trip to the vets is a nightmare. He's a bit of a diva anyway and always has been (he'll do the greyhound scream of death for the smallest thing). He's very well socialised, goes to doggy daycare every day and can be a little territorial at times but just posturing, he's all talk. He's also not a fan of intact males but I think that's due to a run in with a giant Russian terrier as a pup. We've had a behaviourist in the past to help with SA issues which at 2 years old we've finally overcome. We love him to bits and he's a lovely affectionate dog but I'd love to be able to improve on this issue. I hate that he's afraid of being hurt by us or the vet. Is there anything we can do?

  15. Del Sutton

    Often dogs associate a harsh angry voice with aggression from us. In a good pack society a leader does not lead through any harsh methods and should not even need to growl at members. They lead through being calm, confident and gentle.
    Ignore bad behavior that is anxiety related and praise good behaviour. If he was naughty due to am anxiety or fear that is underlying. Then yelling at a dog will ingrain that fear further. Best thing to do is distract dog with an alternative behaviour that is more desirable.

  16. eseilenna76

    We just adopted a sweet dog who was a stray. She only shows aggression toward other dogs when they surprise her or get too in her face even playfully (which so many do, nobody seems to be able to control their dogs). She snarls and snaps (has not bitten.) Not aggressive at all with people thank God. Can she be socialized out of this or are we stuck with keeping her away from all other dogs? 🙁 Any suggestions?

  17. (meatball)

    Hey,i need help with my year old chihuahua. When he was 3 months old the previous owners would treat him badly so now hes afraid of EVERYONE except the people he knows like my parents and brothers but sometimes he gets aggressive with them any tips?

  18. Hayley Lovatt

    Hi I have a 10 month old springer boy , he is getting confused with his emotions , you can stroke him , he likes it , then next minute he will growl , he is guarding his crate terribly at moment . Any suggestions would be if a great help because we don't want it coming to that he bites one of us. Hayley

  19. Sammi Gavich

    My dog is a rescue whose first owners left their 9-year old alone with him with a shock collar who thought it was great fun to make him jump -- so, of course, he started biting. The rescue people took him out of there and put him with this guy John Gagnon in CT. who has a training, boarding, etc. facility and worked with him for a long time. I adopted him 7 years ago and there were some original issues -- especially putting a collar on him or if he felt trapped he would be very aggressive. For the most part we have worked it out together as I now know his triggers. He is the sweetest, friendliest dog I've every had. He runs with a pack of friends in the woods and he loves his pack; he adores people and is always seeking out people on the block to pet him. BUT when taken to the vet/groomer he has to be put out as he is very, very aggressive there. I take him to a groomer that is part of the vet and get everything done at the same time while he's out. I don't think it's anything that can be trained out of him as it only happens there. The other day the vet recommended Prozac but I don't want to go there as I don't like the side effects, etc. Can you recommend any natural supplement that might keep him calm on a regular basis? Thank you. His name is Bob and I love him to death and will never get rid of him. LOL

  20. Kimberly Wade Johnson

    I rescued a dog(spitz mix) who was abused with a shock collar. He has lasting issues because of this and is fearful aggressive. I haven't had friends aver in 2 years since we rescued him. I only use a harness on him since the collar upsets him. The vet said he was out of control and is the kind of dog they put down. To my husband and son he is so sweet and loving. I tried a prescription anxiety med with him but it didn't seem to work. There is a homeopathic one called rescue remedy for dogs. Maybe try a thunder shirt? Good luck to you. I had to comment since I feel like I'm going through that same thing!

  21. Terri Fitzgerald

    I'm glad he's found a loving home. Best thing you can do is desensitize him to the collar and at least the vet visits. Now that he's getting older, its not really healthy to putting him under unnecessarily. If he's not already, he should be wearing a collar all the time and practice putting it on and off daily or you could try only putting on the collar right before he goes on walks, eating, etc
    My dog had a bad experience at the vets after I had to drop him off there and became fearful and highly aggressive towards the staff on subsequent visits. We bought him a baskerville ultra muzzle first off. This one is great, don't be afraid of its looks. You can give treats with it on and it's much more comfortable than the soft nylon muzzles that vets and groomers use since it doesn't stop him from opening his mouth. Condition him with it on at home. At worse he'll find it annoying, but not uncomfortable. One he was good with the muzzle we started taking our dog to trips to the vets just to walk around the building. At first he was so upset he wouldn't even take treats while outside the building. We just keep walking until he calmed down. We repeated this until he was no longer anxious about walking around the vet building. It took many trips. Then we added going inside the building and leaving into the routine. Even if he was anxious we still walked out. You don't want to flood him. Once he was okay walking inside, we started giving treats while inside and staying a longer time. The staff is helping us, now they are the ones giving him the treats. When we started he would not take treats from the staff and would try to attack them. We had an appointment last week, while he still wore the muzzle and wasn't happy to be there, he did happily take treats and didn't even growl during the examination. It will take a lot of work, but there is always room for improvement even with an old dog.
    As for the grooming, does he let you groom him? If he doesn't let you groom him, he is unlikely to let anyone else. My dog is easy and all he ever requires is a bath and the occasional nail trim. We do it ourselves. He doesn't enjoy it, but he tolerates it.

  22. Amanda Thain

    Hi Hayley did you manage to find anything to help with your springer? I am having the same problem with my10 month old cocker.

  23. Positively

    Hi Joanna,
    I recommend a consultation with a qualified trainer to give you some tips on how to manage or change this behavior. It is impossible to give you good advice without seeing your pup's behavior, I'm afraid.

    For immediate help, I recommend that you visit our website and plug in your zip code or city to see if there is a VSPDT local to you. If there isn't, there is always the option of doing a phone consultation with one of them.

    Here is the link to search for a VSPDT:

    Here is the link to request a phone consultation:

    Either way, you should be able to get some very much-needed help.

    The Team at Positively

  24. Positively

    Hi Pedro,
    I recommend a consultation with a qualified trainer to give you some tips on how to manage or change this behavior. It is impossible to give you good advice without seeing your pup's behavior, I'm afraid.
    For immediate help, I recommend that you visit our website and plug in your zip code or city to see if there is a VSPDT local to you. If there isn't, there is always the option of doing a phone consultation with one of them.
    Here is the link to search for a VSPDT:
    Here is the link to request a phone consultation:
    Either way, you should be able to get some very much-needed help.
    The Team at Positively

  25. Positively

    Hi Rachel,
    We recommend a consultation with a qualified trainer to give you some tips on how to manage or change this behavior. It is impossible to give you good advice without seeing your pup's behavior, I'm afraid.
    For immediate help, I recommend that you visit our website and plug in your zip code or city to see if there is a VSPDT local to you. If there isn't, there is always the option of doing a phone consultation with one of them.
    Here is the link to search for a VSPDT:
    Here is the link to request a phone consultation:
    Either way, you should be able to get some very much-needed help.
    The Team at Positively

  26. Lisa

    My year and a half chi has started to show fear aggression when going into his cage at night. He has been caged since being a pup so I don’t know why he has started to do this and I don’t know what to do and how to handle this. It is now started to effect me mentally too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Instagram Instagram Instagram Instagram

Episode 838 - Nicky Campbell

What do the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Long Lost Family have to do with dogs? BAFTA winning radio and TV presenter, Nicky...

Episode 837 – Beyond the Operant

Obedience training has long been the accepted path to teaching dogs’ manners, but the concept of obedience might be doing dogs a...

Episode 836 – Free Work and Adolescent Dogs

What is Free Work and how do dogs benefit? Dog behaviour expert Sarah Fisher joins Holly and Victoria to discuss how Free Work is...

find a vspdt trainer
Schedule a consultation via skype or phone