Most types of aggression are really located somewhere along the continuum of fear. Sometimes it’s very obvious, and other times it is far more subtle. The most important thing to know is fear of something can be a powerful motivator for aggression.
If a dog is afraid, why is he aggressive?
In our human mind, we think why would the dog go after or aggress towards something that is frightening it. It doesn’t make sense to us. For the dog it does. When a dog is encountered with something that frightens it, the most common reactions are:
-Freeze in place (freeze response)
-Attempt to run away (flight response)
-Pretend the threat isn’t there; try to appear invisible
-Become aggressive with barking, charging, or growling (fight response)
These reactions are actually very similar to how we process fear as well. When put in a situation that frightens us, our body undergoes actual changes that we have no control over. It is also possible for people and dogs to react in more than one way when confronted with fear. For example, when the scary item is first noted at a distance, it is common for a dog (and people) to slow down and stop moving to watch it. One might even try to pretend it’s not there, and only as it comes closer and closer does one try to run away. Aggression normally comes when all other options are pretty much exhausted.
Most fear aggressive dogs use aggression as a last resort, unless they have learned that aggression works best!
Aggression is learned
There are many types of aggression where learning takes place, but in cases of fear aggression, the degree of learning that takes place can really make the aggression worse.
For example, let’s say you have a dog that is frightened of children. Perhaps on accident (or thinking it won’t harm the dog), there is one or two children that take to teasing the dog. They might poke at him, move their hands quickly around him, chase him around the house or yard, jump around, and generally attempt to annoy the dog. Many children like this game. Unfortunately, if the dog isn’t really comfortable with children in the first place and merely tolerates them, these games can be a real problem. Why?
The simple answer is this dog has likely attempted to avoid contact with the teasing child by trying to avoid him. If he is unable to ignore the child or get away from him, he is likely to snap. That will stop the child! And it does. That’s how learning takes place, and it is powerful. In the future the dog may no longer attempt to go away or ignore a child as it didn’t work before but snapping did. Now you’ve got a real problem.
Many of the worst cases of aggression are fear based, and they are also some of the hardest to work with because the dog’s fears aren’t always rationally based. The more unpredictable the dog and the quicker he is to react, the more dangerous he is.
What could be frightening?
Just about anything, but the cases of aggression that most people worry about are when the dog is afraid of other dogs or people. Sometimes fear based issues are genetic in nature, which can be quite problematic when combined with a breed that is more protective in nature. The majority of the times it is related to lack of socialization and exposure at young ages, but if there is a genetic component, it will be more pronounced.
These dogs often will try to avoid contact. The best thing to do is to leave these dogs alone if they are showing stress in a situation. Don’t force them into anything! If the dog is forced to make contact, it might cause an aggressive reaction. This is often seen when a fearful dog is at the veterinarian’s office and can’t get away.
Some fear aggressive dogs will bite someone on their own, but it is normally from the rear. They aren’t brave enough to do it while facing you, but will instead nip at your legs to try and run you out of the area. They will also normally bite and retreat.
When the fear is towards another dog, like on a walk, they often don’t try to retreat. Instead, many cases present with the dog lunging and pulling. Yes, this is often fear based too. It’s important to remember that aggressive displays like barking, growling, and biting are all meant to put distance in between the one dog and the other.
Final note about fear related aggression in dogs
Unfortunately there is no magical pill for aggression. There are other types of aggression and not every dog is fearful. If you believe that your dog has a problem, it would be best to consult a professional who can assess the situation, determine what type of aggressive behavior your dog may have and implement a behavior modification program.