Understanding Fear Aggression In Dogs

What Is Fear-Based Aggression?

Most dog owners are poorly trained when it comes to dealing with aggressive behaviors from their pets. Aggression in dogs expresses itself in many ways and there are actually 21 different types of dog aggression. 

In this blog, we will be discussing fear-based aggression, what it is, how to recognize it in your dog, and what to do about it.

Fear-based aggression is one of the most misdiagnosed forms of aggressive pet behavior and is often mistaken for dominance aggression. 

What this means, is that in many cases where a dog is expressing aggression, they are actually afraid and acting out in order to protect themselves from a real or perceived threat. 

In this case, a threat can be anything from an unfamiliar person such as a mail carrier, a new environment such as a vet’s office, or new behavior from their owners like vacuuming. 

While we know in reality, these stimuli are not true “threats” but they can trigger your dog’s threat response because they don’t have another way to react to or process what they are experiencing. 

This is what triggers your dog’s fight or flight mechanism, particularly the fight portion of it. 

Dogs will use escape as an option to avoid a threatening situation, but when that is not possible they will try to defend themselves with aggressive displays.

Understanding Your Dog’s Behavioral Signals

When dogs are put under stress their behavior changes, and if the stress they are experiencing reaches a certain threshold they will likely lash out and try to bite the threatening person, animal, or object. This is known as the “bite threshold.” 

Every dog has a different bite threshold so don’t assume there is a uniform amount of stress that is “OK” for a dog to experience. 

Not all dogs will bite, and instead, many will snarl, growl, bark sharply, show teeth, or lunge forward. These are all considered aggressive behaviors and you will want to prevent them from escalating.

As owners, we want to de-escalate the stress our dogs might be experiencing by removing environmental stressors and make them comfortable when in our home or with us in the outside world. 

But even before a dog’s behavior gets to the point of taking an aggression-based action like biting, they will typically warn you that they’re afraid and uncomfortable.

Owners often miss these warning signs their pet has been giving off. These signs are called displacement behaviors or calming signals.

When dogs are uncomfortable, stressed, anxious, or afraid they may do some of the following:

Freezing, yawning, sniffing the air, licking their nose or lips, squinting, head-turning, moving in a circular pattern, walking slowly, or lifting up one paw. 

These are just a handful of the small (and sometimes quick) behaviors you might see from your dog that they use to tip you off that they’re afraid. 

It’s important to also understand how to recognize fear-based aggression versus dominance-based aggression. 

With fear-based aggression, dogs will usually hold their heads low, wrinkle their noses, curl their lips, pin ears back against the head, tuck tails, lower their body, and start panting. 

Note: A dog may or may not display all of these signs. 

When a dog displays dominance aggression, they will exhibit different body language. They will hold their heads higher, show just the front teeth, tails will be held upright and erect, and they will maintain a firm stance.

If placed side by side you would see that these are two extremely different dogs!

It’s imperative that you recognize which of the two forms of aggression your dog is displaying as they are completely different behavioral issues. 

Where Does Fear Aggression Come From?

Fear aggression and its associated behaviors can come from several sources, but the most common among them is a lack of socialization or improper socialization when a dog is a puppy.

When dogs are puppies (up to 14 weeks) it’s the best time to socialize them to as many people, places, sights, sounds, and smells as possible.

This helps your dog to be more acclimated to the world as they grow into a mature dog. 

As dogs age, their true personalities emerge and they become increasingly bold. Don’t mistake more docile puppy behavior as a dog’s true disposition. 

Sometimes a puppy will deal with fear and anxiety by shutting down and allowing the unwanted behavior to occur, all the while the owner is misinterpreting the dog’s action as compliance.

Then when the dog gets older and begins to act out they are surprised at their complete change in personality. Please don’t fall into this trap when raising a dog from a young puppy.

Of course, not all owners have access to their pets when they are pups and they may not know their dog’s history. 

Also, don’t fall for the myth that only shelter dogs and rescue dogs can have fear-based aggression; dogs that come from disreputable breeders may also experience this as well. 

Whatever your dog’s circumstances, this may explain why some pets age into fear-based aggression after one or two years. 

These dogs were unfortunately not socialized properly and now that they are older they are getting triggered by circumstances they find unfamiliar. 

Dog’s use aggression as a form of self-defense, and as a way to get rid of the offending person or experience. 

Techniques like growling or snapping are often effective at this task, but unfortunately, they reinforce this negative behavior in your pet. Over time these behaviors can become more pronounced and increasingly complex to handle with retraining alone. 

What To Do When Your Dog Is Being Aggressive

Let’s say your dog is in the midst of acting aggressively, they are snarling and threatening to snap at you or a guest in your home. In this situation, it’s ok to respond to the aggressive behaviors by backing away or removing the offending stimuli.

This is done to de-escalate the situation. 

While responding to this behavior does reinforce the effectiveness of the response, it’s considered the lesser of two evils when it comes to getting bitten.

If you have found yourself in this situation, it’s too late to manage the aggression at the moment. It’s best to bring your dog back down to their normal energy level and behavior and begin addressing the issue from an environmental and behavioral standpoint.

Managing Fear Aggression In Your Pet

The good news is that fear aggression is a behavior that can be modified or reduced in many cases. 

Here are several behavior modification strategies that you can get started with on your own, but in some cases enlisting the assistance of a qualified trainer may be necessary and can help speed up the process.

While prong collars and e-collars can be effective tools for dealing with fear-based aggression, they require training to use properly. If used improperly, they can exacerbate the aggression problems exhibited by your dog.

Reducing Stressors

One method that can be combined with any of the others described below is simply to remove any environmental or physical stressors that may be affecting your dog. 

As described above, every dog has a breaking point where they will snap and lash out. Humans work similarly, but we sometimes have a hard time seeing how stress affects our canine companions since they can’t speak. (At least not in the way we do!)

Reducing stress means anything you can do in the course of your regular lives together to make your dog more comfortable. If they are experiencing any chronic medical issues, please get them the proper treatments and medications! 

If they get aggressive around other dogs and strangers, no more trips to the dog park and walks around the busy part of town. 

Maybe you can reintroduce these things after you’ve successfully completed your behavioral treatments.

Take the time to list out everything that may be a stressor for your dog and work to reduce their exposure to them. 

Doing this will make all the other methods described easier to manage.

Utilize Priming

Priming, like stress reduction, is meant to alter your dog’s overall state. Whereas removing stressors lessens a negative affect, priming increases a positive one. 

Priming means to put your dog in a happy state before they have to encounter an unavoidable stressor (like going outside for a bathroom walk). 

Before you enter the stressful situation, give your dog a treat, show them affection, or play a little fetch with them. This will get your dog’s mood up and allow you to start a behavior modification session on a high note.

Counter Conditioning & Desensitization

When using counter conditioning and desensitization training, you work to expose your dog to their stressors but at a reduced level in order to allow them to experience the stressor but without triggering a reaction. 

As you continue to counter condition your dog, you increase their exposure to the offending stimulus. 

While you are introducing your stimuli (it could be a person, place, object, or process) make sure you have treats at the ready to positively reward your dog for staying calm and not triggering their fear responses. 

As time goes on, continue to increase the presence of the stressor and/or reduce the frequency of treat rewards and replace them with rewards of affection or verbal praise. 

Keep your sessions to 20 – 30 minutes and do your best to end them when your dog is making some progress. This reinforces the behavioral strides they make during each session. 

Behavioral modification takes time; if you think things are taking too long, you are probably going too fast and need to move even slower with your pet. 

The Treat and Retreat Method

The treat and retreat method works to socialize your dog to a wider variety of humans. It can be done with your dog on a leash and will require a fair amount of delicious treats handy. 

How it works: have the new person stand from afar and toss a treat in front of your dog, but not close enough that your dog will experience fear or aggression. As your dog goes for the treat have the person toss another treat behind your dog, thus allowing them to retreat. 

This works to lessen any anxiety your dog experienced while moving closer to the unfamiliar person. 

Gradually, allow your dog to get closer and closer to their new friend, as long as they are calm and relaxed while doing so. 

Eventually, your dog will be ready to interact with the treat tosser and can do so without feeling afraid. 

In this method, you will have to practice with many different people in order for your dog to begin to see all people as potential treat tossers, and thus not be afraid of them. 

Behaviorist Supported Methods

There are several additional methods behaviorists employ when working with fear aggression dogs such as Construction Aggression Treatment (CAT) and Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). 

These methods are more complicated with CC&D and T&R and allow for the use of some negative reinforcement during the process.

It’s best not to undergo these behavior modification processes on your own and you should consult with a reputable expert on whether or not they can be applied to your particular situation.

Fear-based aggression is a problem that many dogs experience but it’s also one that can be managed by a caring and dedicated owner.

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