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Fear-aggression is common in more sensitive and nervous breeds of dogs. It occurs frequently at boundaries and threshold situations e.g. in cars, next to the owner, if restricted, if the dog is cornered and cannot retreat. This type of aggression is unpredictable and associated usually with a low level of aggression which is rarely triggered. Identity of the class of stressors to which the dog reacts is important it may also occur during periods of stress or disease. It can however be predictable whenever known stimuli are present.


What are the signs of fear-aggression?


Opportunities that reinforce fear-aggression can make the aggression seem overt as little or no signs of fear are seen. The majority of dogs express some or all of the following signs:-

  1. Growling, snapping, ears down, tail down and low posture.

  2. Bites rear of a stranger, e.g., ankles, back of legs or arms, often as they leave.

  3. Bites the hand(s) of strangers, especially when they attempt to touch the animal.

  4. Bites owner (usually the hands) whom it fears.

  5. Tries to avoid and only aggressive if a flight is not possible.

Is their age or breed predisposition to fear aggression?


Age predisposition:

  1. During puppyhood, or later with experience.

  2. Old age due to senses giving less warning of the person approaching.

Breed/Species predisposition:

  1. German Shepherd dog

  2. Collies, particularly Border Collie

  3. Terriers, particularly Jack Russell Terrier.

  4. Guarding breeds, eg Dobermann, Rottweiler.

Are there other factors that cause fear-aggression?


Fear-aggression can be an inherited predisposition for fear, but not generally aggression. However, the following can cause this fear to develop:-

  1. Lack of early exposure, lack of socialization or inadequate socialization, especially during the critical periods between 3-18 weeks of age.

  2. Frightening experiences, e.g., violent owner, mishandling by a groomer, difficult incident.

Rottweiler puppies
Rottweiler puppies

Aggression usually begins as the dog matures, around 6-8 months old. It is a successful way in alleviating stress and the dog develops experience and skill in using aggression. Aggression becomes more severe if the owner attempts to use punishment as a control method. The dog gradually learns to improve the use of aggression and becomes more neurochemically pathological as 'forced' to comply.


  1. Owners should be aware of their responsibilities for keeping others safe.

  2. Owners are advised to prevent further aggression, e.g., physical restriction using collar/lead/head collar which may make the dog worse.

  3. For mild cases and shyness or snapping in puppies, the following advice is appropriate:

    1. Protect the dog from any experience likely to cause further aggression, panic or fear.

    2. Allow controlled exposure to strangers using a technique known as systematic desensitization. Allow the dog to approach the stranger, rather than the stranger approaching the dog (IMPORTANT: The stranger MUST be protected from aggression).

    3. Use activities enjoyed by the dog to accelerate this process, e.g., eating, playing, and walking.

  4. Remove any reinforcers of fear, e.g., punishment of behaviour by the owner.

  5. Antidepressants.

  6. Euthanasia on the owner's request after an aggressive incident, usually involving a child, or authorities, e.g., the police, or the owner's attitude and tolerance, the severity of the problem, and how long they have lived with the dog's problem.

7. Manipulating the physical environment is often overlooked, yet environmental change can often be the first and the easiest step in decreasing the patient’s arousal levels.

How is Fear Aggression Prevented & Control?

  1. Shy or nervous dogs should not be bred.

  2. Rough handling and play as a puppy should be avoided.

Prognosis & Outcomes

  1. Good prognosis in mild cases.

  2. Little chance of success in severe cases.

  3. Friendly greeting behaviour to strangers.



Galac, S., & Knol, B. W. (1997). Fear-motivated aggression in dogs: patient characteristics, diagnosis and therapy. Animal Welfare, 6(1), 9-15.

Beaver B (1983) Clinical classification of canine aggression. Applied Animal Ethology 10 (1/2), 35-43 VetMedResource.

Voith V (1979) Treatment of fear reactions - canine aggression. Mod Vet Prac, 60 (11) 903-905 PubMed.

Landsberg G, Hunthausen W & Ackerman L (1997)Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat. pp 34, 541, 54, 119, 120-125, 127-128 and 137-139.

Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2011). Behavior problems of the dog and cat. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Overall K L (1997)Clincal Behavioral Medicine for small animals.pp 97, 104, 106-109, 135, 206-207, 242-243, 245-246, 317 and 341.

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats-E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Askew H (1996)Treatment of Behavior Problems in dogs and cats.pp 132-137, 313 and 317.

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