Inappropriate Aggression: Treating Fear-Based Aggression In Dogs

Fears cannot always be fixed, but they can be helped by letting the dog face the fear in a controlled situation.

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Does your dog hate strangers, other dogs, or try to bite the clippers (shifting to you if you try insisting on them)? Inappropriate aggression is a deeply troubling situation for the dog owner. If a dog is likely to lash out when stressed, ordinary life becomes extraordinarily challenging. There are many types of aggression, but here we’re going to look at fear-based or defensive aggression. There are ways to reduce the response to triggers and create a happier life for your dog.

The Connection Between Aggression and Fear

Fear is a very common cause of aggression – indeed, one might say that all aggression is triggered by some form of fear. Your dog is reacting to a perceived threat. Unlike predatory aggression, defensive aggression is all about protecting the dog’s self. Even if a dog rushes out or strains against the end of the leash, it is still based in fear.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, a noted dog behaviorist, once said, “A dog in fear is a dog in pain.” If your dog was suffering from a cut foot, you would clean and bandage it. If it was suffering from fleas, you would give it a bath and flea medication. Fear can be just as painful and debilitating as a physical injury and, like a physical injury, there are treatments that can help your dog heal from its fear. However, also like physical injury, healing doesn’t mean the fear has completely gone away or that your dog will become relaxed and accepting of things it previously feared.

Treating Fear In Dogs

Not all fear can be fixed, but it can be helped. Even reducing your dog’s fear of something can enrich its life. We have some suggestions that may help you help your dog. In order to truly help a dog with a deep-seated fear of something, an animal behaviorist or positive-based dog trainer is your best bet.

Learn Your Dog’s Signals

Before many dogs roar into full-blown reaction, they often give specific signals that something is bothering them. Some subtle signals that people can miss include:

  • Lip-licking when not hungry
  • Whites of the eyes showing
  • Yawning
  • Stiff posture
  • Hard stare
  • Turning partly or fully away from something

Every dog is different and has specific sets of behaviors that it engages in when it sees something it fears. A dog trainer or behaviorist can help you interpret what your dog is saying.

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Learn Your Dog’s Triggers

What is making your dog react? What specifically makes your dog react? Dogs are very linear in their thinking. Perhaps your dog is fine with everyone except men wearing baseball caps. Or loves most dogs, but hates Golden Retrievers. Or is just fine with brushing, but will do its level best to destroy vibrating clippers.

Ask yourself:

  • When does my dog get nervous?
  • What is close by?
  • What is my dog looking at or pointedly not looking at?
  • Is it a person, place, or thing that makes my dog fearful? Or is it a specific combination of these?

Make a list of things that your dog doesn’t like or seems nervous around. See if different times or places or people change your dog’s attitude towards what it fears.

Give Your Dog ‘Trigger Space’

When a dog is fearful of something, you must give it space where it is not afraid. Fear makes it difficult to learn for anyone, but doubly so for dogs, who can’t understand their fear enough to overcome it by themselves.

Give your dog a sense of safety to start from.  Then you can introduce the trigger gradually or from a distance. Go only as close as your dog can go and keep focus on you.


  • Watch your dog for signs that it is getting too overstimulated. Take the trigger away or back away from it.
  • Give your dog regular breaks in areas where they aren’t exposed to the trigger.
  • Play the “Look at that!” game (link below)


  • try to 'flood' your dog (Flooding is when you force the dog into close contact with the trigger in order to 'desensitize' it. What flooding does is teach the dog to shut down, which only suppresses the reaction; it does not treat or remove the reaction.)
  • punish your dog for reacting to the trigger. This only creates a negative association with the trigger, not with the behavior. Punishing a dog for growling at a child, for example, will just teach the dog not to growl and go straight for a bite instead.
  • At any point risk people or other animals in the name of training. If you think for a moment that your dog could seriously harm another animal or human if it gets loose, use a two-leash system and a muzzle that allows the dog freedom to pant, drink, and be fed treats.

Julie MacTire is a writer and educator devoted to the world of dogs. She also writes a blog ( about her adventures with her Shiba Inu, Tierce, and is a supporter of many pet welfare organizations.

References & Resources

Grooming, Stress-Free

Scaredy Cut is the gentle clipper designed for grooming sensitive pets.
Learn More

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