Fear-based aggression

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

Fear-based aggression is triggered by the presence of something perceived as dangerous or threatening. Dogs will show aggression if they feel threatened, especially when other reactions, such as retreating, are not available. The threat may be realistic, anticipated or even unfounded.

Usually fear-based aggression takes the form of a display. The purpose of a display is to make the problem go away, rather than to do damage.  However, it helps to know the dog’s history. A dog might start by trying to avoid the threat, then when that doesn’t work, the dog will put on a display to make the problem go away, and of that doesn’t work, eventually attack becomes the best form of defence. It is then less obvious to the observer that the reaction is based on fear, because what you see is a pre-emptive strike.

Extract from Book by Stanley Coren

Myth: A Fearful Dog Won’t Bite

A dog cringing in fear is a sorry sight. The average person may feel drawn to the scene and eager to help, but few consider this frightened animal a threat. Approaching this dog, however, is a bad move. This dog fears for his life and will likely bite without warning or hesitation. When fear biters bite, they bite hard. Fearful animals are, in fact, more likely to bite than dominant animals. Panic drives fearful dogs to do anything to reduce the presence of a threat. Further, when you retreat from a dominant dog, he’ll stop any further threat of aggression: In essence, you did what he asked. When you retreat from a fearful dog, however, he may still rush and snap as your presence is still a potential threat. He’s afraid that you may still return to hurt him, so his emotions may well swamp any logical thinking about the situation.

You should view all frightened animals as potentially aggressive.

Extract from article by Joyce Kesling

What does the fearful aggressive dog look like?  What signals might he use?

Aggression is usually inhibited by fear and elicits either a freeze or a flight response, however in the case of a dog that is unable to respond appropriately due to restraint the animal may have no other choice but to bite.  These dogs may attempt to control the situation initially by using calming signals or appeasement behavior and if these strategies are not countered with appropriate responses, the fearfully aggressive dog may have no other choice but use aggression.

When the dog is successful in thwarting off a perceived threat the defensive behavior may be reinforced and any future behavior may be triggered by conditioned stimuli associated with the original context resulting in avoidance-motivated aggression.  The avoidance-motivated aggression may appear similar to control complex aggression but differs because it is always defensive rather than offensive.

According to Aloff (2002), “fear and stress often result in aggressive behavior as a symptom of the underlying anxiety” and a dog may in turn express aggression in conjunction with overt fearful behaviors” including avoidance, escape and physiological changes related to the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The behaviors one might observe related to the arousal of the ANS might include, dilated pupils, activation of the sweat glands, increased heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, change in gut motility, piloerection and loss of control over bowels and bladder.

According to Lindsay (2001), “fear aggression can be differentiated by defensive postures” and approach-avoidance conflict and the following are the general observable behaviors and characteristics.

  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Nervous snarling
  • Showing teeth
  • Barking – possible repetitive conflict behavior
  • Licking movements – agitation when exposed to eliciting stimuli, such as doorbell, approach of strangers, noisy children, skaters and other similar stimulation or approach of dogs
  • Most likely to threaten or bite when suddenly approached by a fear eliciting person or dog…and escape is prevented
  • Once fear aggression has generalized to avoidance behavior…fear behavior may be replaced…telltale signs of fear may be replaced with increased confidence and reduced latency and occur under minimal provocation
  • Fear related or defensive aggression stands opposite to dominance related or offensive aggression on the agonistic continuum
  • Dominance aggression occurs most often during competitive conflict between conspecifics, stimulated by coactive influences of frustration, irritability, and anger
  • Defensive aggression is most often directed toward another group member or species…under the influence of acute threat, fear or anxiety.
  • Tendency to bite is most often seen by shy or nervous dogs…who have learned to rely on biting as a means of self-defense
  • Fear aggression and dominance aggression may present together in the same dog – bipolar aggression may be a suitable term for this dog…and may depend on context when they alternatively appear

Dealing with Fear-Biters

From Dog Training for Dummies Jack and Wendy Volhard

The term aggression for fear-biters is actually a misnomer. These dogs don’t aggress — they only defend themselves. When they do bite, it’s out of fear; hence they’re called fear-biters. Anytime this type of dog feels that he’s cornered and unable to escape, he may bite. Biting to him is an act of last resort.

He’d much rather get away from the situation.

Avoid putting this type of dog in a position where he thinks he has to bite. Use a similar approach to the one described in Chapter 17 for submissive wetting.

Fear-biters are most comfortable when they know what’s expected of them, as in training. Timid behavior can resurface when they’re left to their own devices and not given clear instructions on how to behave.

Dogs high in flight drive can appear shy around strangers, other dogs, or new situations. They may hide behind their owners and need space. Keep them a good distance away from people and other dogs, and don’t corner them for any reason. Use your body to reassure these dogs; squat down to their level, bending your knees and not hovering over them, and coax them to you with some food. Be patient to gain their confidence, and never, ever grab for them. What this dog needs is confidence building. Training with quiet insistence and encouragement is one way to achieve a more comfortable dog. To get the dog used to people and other dogs, enroll him in an obedience class. You need to be patient with this dog and figure out how to go slowly. If you try to force an issue, you may wipe out whatever advances you’ve made.

This dog needs a structured and predictable environment. Walk, feed, and play at certain times of the day so the dog knows what’s coming. Dogs have a phenomenal biological clock, and deviations from the time of walking and feeding can make undesirable behaviors resurface.

Rescued dogs — in particular, those who have gone through several homes — often have large numbers of flight behaviors. A tightly controlled schedule.

Stanley Coren Understanding Your Dog for Dummies

 Controlling Aggression

When dealing with aggression, the first step is to change the way your dog thinks about you — he must learn to respect you as a leader, not a follower or a playmate. Imagine meeting the president; though you may not like his political program, you still speak to him respectfully and, of course, you don’t try to bite him. It is important that family members, including children, should be treated with respect. Your dog must learn that in his pack (family), all two-footed dogs are higher in status than all four-footed dogs.

To restructure your dog’s thinking about his place in the family pack, he needs to learn to follow your lead, and to do so, you must act like a leader. There are behaviors that characterize the leader of the pack and distinguish him from his followers. The leader gets first choice of any food, can sleep anywhere he likes, goes first through any opening or into any new territory, and can demand attention any time he wants it. If your dog respects you (and your family), he is less likely to challenge you. However, you must reinforce your leadership.

Use a nonconfrontational approach when dealing with an aggressive dog. Attempts to confront a dog by using force will only cause the dog to respond in kind, which will ratchet up the level of aggression in the relationship. If the problem is based on fearfulness, confrontation, or dominance, your dog will view your retaliation as active aggression, causing him concerns about your authority and/or his own safety. Not only will a confrontational approach make the dog more reactive, but the dog’s insecurity will be greatest when you — the person threatening him or hurting him — are near.

If your dog is showing signs of aggression, here are two actions you may take in reshaping his worldview. If the aggression persists, please seek professional help.

Stanley Coren Chapter 15: Understanding and Resolving Aggressive Behavior 

Hand-feeding: One approach that encourages your dog’s focus on your direction and presence is to hand-feed him. For the next month, and at every possible opportunity, hand-feed him his meals only after he has responded to a command, such as “Come,” “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Down,” mixing up the commands to strengthen his attention. The whole process should take a total of around 5 to 10 minutes.

If you’re feeding your dog soft food, you can spoon out portions. Should your dog refuse to take part in your program by responding to your commands, postpone the activity a couple of hours until his hunger has taken hold.

Each time your dog responds to a command, give him his food as you praise him softly and touch his collar. (Remember, the leader gets to touch anyone that he wants.) If you’re living with a spouse, partner, or kids, encourage them to take part in this activity.

After the dog has settled down and the aggressiveness and fearfulness have toned down, you can phase out the handfeeding routine for his breakfast and dinner. He still has to come and sit, but now he gets the bowl put down as his reward. At first, the bowl will contain just a part of his meal so that he’ll have to obey two or three commands before the meal is complete. Later on, it can contain a single serving.

Touching: A simple method to strengthen your dominant position over your dog involves touching. Beyond daily strokes, this method involves systematic, full-body strokes that mimic the licking pattern a mother dog applies to her puppies. This “touch” not only helps to establish an emotional bond, but is also an expression of her dominance and control of the litter.

Make it a practice to touch your dog systematically on an almost-daily basis. Everyone in the family, especially the children, should be taught the following ritual because their position in the pack hierarchy is the most vulnerable.

(Discontinue this procedure immediately if your dog shows aggression or rigidity. Get professional help immediately.) The procedure to follow is quite straightforward. While talking in a soothing manner, saying the dog’s name frequently, have your dog sit or stand in front of you. Take her head in both of your hands. Stroke or fondle her ears, neck, and muzzle in this two-handed manner, looking into the dog’s eyes as you do. Next slide both hands down the dog’s neck, back, and sides. Lightly slide your hands over the dog’s chest and then all the way down each of the dog’s front legs. If the dog is sitting, raise it gently to a standing position, lightly rub its belly and back, and then run your hands down the hind legs all the way to the tip of the paws. Finally, run your fingers quickly and lightly over the dog’s tail (or tail region, if the dog momentarily and saying the dog’s name in a happy voice.

The entire touching routine takes only about 30 seconds to a minute, and your dog will probably enjoy all the attention, but most importantly, she’ll recognize that she’s being subjected to being touched, which means that she’s lower in social rank than the ones doing the touching.

If your dog is sensitive in a certain area, don’t avoid touching your dog there unless she’s showing aggression. (Seek professional help immediately.) Condition your dog’s acceptance by offering her food or a lickable treat, such as peanut butter daubed on your finger, as you gradually increase your handling in this sensitive area.

Extract from Barbara Handelman Canine Behavior A Photo Illustrated Handbook

Proximity Sensitivity (Also Called Fear Aggressive Behavior):

Donaldson describes proximity sensitivity as “social shyness that presents in a few different ways”.

1. Obvious fear and avoidance of other dogs – this is the most easy to spot variation.

2. Pro-active lunging, barking and snapping displays that cease once the other dog is far enough away

3. Asocial dogs seemingly disinterested in other dogs until the other dog gets too close or makes social overtures – at this point, threat signals such as growling, snarling, snapping or outright fighting ensue (‘she’s fine as long as other dogs don’t get in her face’) (Donaldson, 2004, p. 16).

(Kaye says: Note: substitute people for dogs …)

Submissive-Aggressive Behavior (Also Called Fear Aggressive Behavior, and Submission):

As mentioned above, canids are capable of experiencing multiple feelings simultaneously. In particular, canids can be both submissive and aggressive at the same time.

Some canids initially react to threats by behaving submissively. They display appropriate signs of active submission by offering appeasement signals or otherwise acquiescing to the threatening postures of the other canid or human.

Some canids might offer signs of passive submission, by rolling onto their backs and exposing their vulnerable belly or inguinal area.

Sometimes, the threatening canid or human ignores or does not accept the offered signs of submission. The aggressor may escalate his threats instead. The submissive canid’s options become limited to flight, immobility (freeze) or fight. If flight is not possible, the canid is likely to resort to the survival mode – bite the human or fight the other canid. The submissive canid resorts to aggression, aptly called submissive-aggressive behavior.




2 comments on “Fear-based aggression

  1. Yes I think dogs can switch very quickly. I have experienced dogs switching from Prey drive (coming towards a person to get food) to Defence drive (oh, no, now I’m too close!) in an instant, then biting. Also from Pack Drive (I want to come up and get a pat and have contact with you) to Defence (Oh, no I don’t, I can’t cope). This is described as “approach/avoidance conflict” which means the dog has mixed feelings. This can be dangerous because the dog is giving you contradictory signals, and also because the dog switches very quickly and the resulting fear bite can be severe.

    I think a common progression in dogs is:

    1. to try avoidance, appeasement, calming signals etc. to defuse the situation

    2. if that doesn’t work and they get bullied or jumped on by other dogs, they might escalate to “distance-increasing behaviours” such as aggressive posturing, saying “get out of my face”. This usually works and becomes stronger.

    3. the final stage is that the dog will run across the room or across the park, launching a pre-emptive strike against another dog who hasn’t even done anything. Attack is the best form of defence. The behaviour at this point does not look in the least bit fear-based, but it is, in origin.

    When I have worked with a dog like this, stage one is to interrupt the pre-emptive strike, and get the dog to mind his own business, tolerating the presence of another dog in the distance. Try to introduce happy associations to replace the hostile ones.

    What happens then is that the dog stops launching himself on dogs at a distance, and his critical distance changes. He will be OK unless the other dog crosses the line and “invades” at the critical distance (and this distance is of course changing all the time as you work with the dog). Coming too close will still trigger defensive aggression, but the dog changes his mind about how close is too close.

    Then, stage three, the dog will move from his active defence repertoire to his passive defence or avoidance repertoire. This means he still becomes defensive if another dog comes too close, but he will go and hide behind his handler’s legs, or try to move away. This is a great improvement.

    The best result of course is that as the dog gets used to being approached with nothing bad happening, he will no longer need to resort to avoidance. The Holy Grail in training is that the dog eventually likes the contact with the other dog.

    Of course it doesn’t always go smoothly in these stages. There can be times when the dog is in conflict, gives mixed messages, feels ambivalent, and can be influenced by subtle changes in the environment to move from being accepting to being defensive or aggressive. If, for some reason, the dog is more aroused, then an aggressive behaviour is more likely.

    I have seen, in a dog I have been working with recently (a fearful young male Rottweiler), a change from initially choosing total avoidance behaviour (hiding at the bottom of the garden) to coming inside, approaching people for food, but ducking away to avoid being touched. Gradually, as the dog became more confident about approaching people for food, but still not happy about being touched, he (paradoxically) became more dangerous. He was confident enough to resort to “air snaps” (a precursor to biting) and definitely a distance-increasing behaviour. He seemed to be more confident to approach and more assertive about wanting food, but in a state of slight agitation if he found that he had approached me and I had run out of food. He butted my hands with his face and snapped his incisors.

    Chiquitor, if your dog shows possessive aggression (e.g. food or resource guarding) avoid confrontation. The slogan is “approach to give, not to take”. If you approach his food bowl or his toys, don’t try to take them away. Just throw some extra food towards him on the ground. This teaches him that you are not a threat.

  2. My trouble dog learned some nonfear aggression after fear aggression was overly successful. I am having a tough time working on these behaviors because the “bipolar agression” seems to switch extremely quickly. Add possessive agg and extra confidence by making me his handler and it’s a mess. I have not given up, by any means, but I haven’t really figured it out either. =-)

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