Helping Your Dog Overcome Fear Aggression

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Fear aggression typically involves defensive behavior based in fear. For example, the dog growls, barks, and/or displays teeth to make the scary object (person, other dog, noise) go away. The defensive behavior continues because it usually works for the dog! Dog parents should understand the problem from the dog’s perspective rather than assume the dog is being irrational, because dogs are always true to themselves.

There is no one “recipe” for solving fear aggression, as each dog is unique. However, helping a dog with fear aggression generally involves dealing with the underlying issue of fear, using conditioning techniques to help change the association of the fear. The list below defines these conditioning techniques, and describes related suggestions for a total approach to looking at dog behavior:

1.      Prevent situations that provoke the defensive behavior as much as possible. The more a dog engages in a particular behavior, the better he gets at it.  Since the behavior is repeatedly rehearsed, it becomes more ingrained, and is completed (and thereby self-reinforcing).
2.      Begin regular obedience training. Training increases the communication and understanding between a dog and handler. It also helps the dog learn and perform acceptable behaviors. Use reward-based training, which is giving your dog things she wants for doing what you want, to foster trust and to motivate your dog. Include relaxation exercises, come when called, and loose leash walking in your training regime. In addition, simply pay close attention to positively reinforce any desirable behaviors during the day. Dogs do what works for them, and they will also repeat what works for them. So, catch your dog in the act of doing something appropriate (chewing a bone, being quiet, watching you); aim for at least 25 times per day that you positively reinforce your dog. Some good books for novice dog trainers are Dog-Friendly Dog Training by Andrea Arden and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller. For more in depth information, read The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson, which explains many aspects of dog aggression.
3.      Utilize classical conditioning with systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitizing is gradual exposure to a fear provoking experience, starting at a point that does not provoke the fear--and only increasing the intensity of exposure if the dog is relaxed. Counter-conditioning is the process of associating a previously feared thing with something highly pleasant, like food. Take, for example, the dog who is fear aggressive toward other dogs. The handler would take the dog on a walk, and as soon as the dog sees another dog, the handler begins feeding high-value treats (like roast beef, chicken, cheese). The feeding continues as long as the other dog is in sight; as soon as the other dog leaves, the feeding stops. With repetition, the fearful dog learns that other dogs predict great treats. A good resource for these conditioning techniques is the booklet The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell. Or enlist the help of an experienced dog trainer or behaviorist to make sure the timing of the rewards and duration of sessions are accurate. You can search for certified trainers in your area at If the aggression is directed toward humans, a professional dog trainer should definitely be consulted. Changing a dog’s underlying emotional response takes lots of time and patience, but these methods work well on fear aggression. 
4.      Learn to watch your dog for signs of distress. These signs may include a subtle tensing of her muscles, lip licking, excessive panting, head turning away from a fearful situation, yawning, freezing, biting the leash, whining, or growling. (Growling, by the way, should never be punished, since that is an appropriate communication warning from the dog that she is uncomfortable and/or scared.) When you see any sign of fear or stress, protect your dog from the distressing situation. For example, increase the distance from the scary situation, step in between your dog and the object of your dog’s fear, or use a squirt bottle on an approaching dog to ward off further advances.
5.      Make sure you are relaxed yourself, because your dog will mirror your emotional state. Diffuse a potentially tense situation by invoking Bill Campbell’s “Jolly Routine,” in which the handler becomes jolly (singing a happy song, talking happily to your dog, dancing, etc.) It really works!
6.      To further increase the responsiveness of your dog to you, try having him earn everything in life (e.g. sitting for petting, getting treats, going outside, getting whatever he wants), and appropriately taking away the reward for any inappropriate behavior (e.g. giving time-outs, withholding treats or attention). This program is also known as “nothing in life is free.” Have your dog sit or down or any other known behavior before he gets his food bowl, go outside, get belly rubs, etc. Dogs seem to thrive when they have jobs. Having a dog earn what he wants also helps to reduce tensions and anxieties that may arise in some situations because of a dog's uncertainties of who is in charge.
7.      Teach tricks and agility to your dog. As a dog learns new skills, his confidence grows, so he is not as fearful overall. In other words, the dog learns how to make good things happen.
8.      Do not use punishment for a fear aggression issue. Punishment makes a fearful situation even more unpleasant for a dog, could create mistrust toward you and an increased dislike of the scary object, and increases stress. Focus instead on setting up training so that your dog has successes and positive experiences.

9.      Don’t try to force your dog to experience the object or situation that is causing him to be afraid. For example, if he is afraid of bicycles and you force him to stand in place while bicycles whiz by, he’ll probably become more fearful, rather than less fearful of bicycles.
10. Make sure your dog gets lots of exercise. Exercise does not directly solve a fear issue, but meeting a dog’s exercise needs may prevent other behavior problems. A tired dog is a good dog!
11. It never hurts to rule out a medical problem when behavior changes. A dog may benefit from a vet exam to make sure she feels well, and many vets now have behavioral training to help you further.
12. Diet is related to many behavior problems, and can affect your dog’s mood, so experiment (with vet assistance if desired) with various high-quality dog foods. Read the ingredients on the label; premium and super-premium dog foods have whole meat sources in the top 3 ingredients, as well as whole grains. Make sure the food contains no corn, no by-products, and no preservatives, as these ingredients could negatively affect behavior. The periodical “Whole Dog Journal” ( tests and publishes an annual list of excellent dog foods.
13. Since fearful dogs can improve with less anxiety, consider using Bach’s Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic calming aid. It is made from flower essences. The theory is that each flower embodies a certain quality, and if an individual is resisting some quality, he/she is out of touch with that aspect of his/her nature. Rescue Remedy is specifically for dealing with stress. It certainly is harmless to try; you only use 4 drops in the dog’s daily water intake. You can purchase Rescue Remedy at health food stores or natural foods stores.

As a safeguard against the development of fear aggression, dogs should be thoroughly and properly socialized. This means gradually exposing your puppy to different people, places, things, surfaces, noises, and situations. The key is to introduce these novel things as your dog can handle it, rather than overwhelming your dog. During socialization, don’t coddle your dog for acting shy. Let your dog approach a new thing at his own pace, and leave if he wants.

Additional information about canine aggression can be found on the Best Friends website, at this link:

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