The Savvy Trainer | Treating your pooches ‘fear aggression’ |

The Savvy Trainer | Treating your pooches ‘fear aggression’

Don't mistake your dog's aggression for acts of dominence — it could be triggered by fear.
Courtesy THinkstock / Fox Photos | Valueline

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Fear and dominance. These two words imply opposite meanings, but are often misunderstood by well-meaning dog owners.

A fearful animal hides and shivers in the corner while a dominant one confidently approaches danger. It seems simple enough, but in reality most dogs labeled as dominant are actually extremely fearful.

A fearful dog can growl, lunge and bite just like a confident one. Their body language will be dramatically different, but the result is aggression in both cases.

Fear is a result of genetics and environment. Young pups must be taught that the world is a safe place or they will be less trusting, however even well socialized pups can be fearful. This is where genetics come into play. I tend to worry more than my husband, not because I’ve had terrible things happen in my life, but because it’s just who I am. Fear is an emotion necessary for survival and bad experiences can certainly lead to more fear. In dogs, fear often presents itself as aggressive displays.

The antiquated concept, “you must show dominance over your dog or they won’t respect you,” has been scientifically disproven. Unfortunately, the concept has experienced a resurgence because of popular media trainers. You can get a dog (or a human) to obey you with the use of force and intimidation, but they aren’t complying because they are well trained. They are scared of what will happen if they don’t!


I am happy to report that each year more people have at least heard of positive reinforcement training. In basic manners classes, we teach students dogs are likely to repeat behaviors for which they are rewarded.

Rewards can be treats, attention, a walk or getting to play a favorite game.

This is an easy concept to understand when teaching a dog basic cues like Sit, Down, Come, and Stay, but what about an emotional response like fear?

If the sound of thunder causes your dog to shake uncontrollably, will petting in an attempt to sooth them make the behavior worse because you are rewarding it? Research and logic tell us no.

The simple rules of reward and response don’t apply to emotional responses such as fear. To take this one step further, punishing fear will likely make the sense of panic the dog is experiencing escalate. Fear is a survival mechanism. Punishment increases fear, thus increasing the fight or flight response.

The following real scenarios illustrate how the “dominance” label can lead to misdiagnosis of fear and inappropriate corrective actions.


Lassie is a 6-month-old Sheltie pup. She is a little wary of new places and people, but has never shown any signs of aggression. Her owner takes her to the vet because she’s been limping a little. When the vet places her on her side for the examination, she begins to struggle. The vet holds her in place and tells her owner that Lassie has to stop struggling before he will let her loose or she will be rewarded and won’t learn to submit. She growls and snaps at the vet.

What really happened here? Lassie is terrified. Her natural response is to flee or fight. Holding her down has removed one option, so her only choice is to fight. Her initial fears have been validated and the experience has likely escalated that fear.


Oscar is a 3-year-old mixed breed dog. His owners rescued him from a local shelter a little over a year ago. He has always been a little shy when meeting new people outside the home, however when visitors come to the house he barks aggressively at the door and follows people around growling after they’ve come in.

His owners think he is protecting the house and trying to tell the visitors that he is in charge. They verbally reprimand him and spray him with a water bottle.

In this scenario, Oscar’s behavior when meeting people outside the home tells us quite a bit about him. He is shy and nervous, but not aggressive. In some cases his behavior at home could be territorial aggression, but it’s more likely that he’s nervous about new people coming into his house.

Unlike the people on the street who keep walking, these people stick around, reach for him or react fearfully because he’s barking and growling. When his owners punish him, it causes his fear and negative association with visitors to become worse.

Before you label a troubling behavior as dominance, stop and really think about who your dog is.

Dominance may seem like an easy explanation, but if you are wrong your actions will likely make the problem behaviors worse. If you are unsure what to do, seek the help of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer or behavior specialist. Fear aggression can be treated if handled properly.

Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at

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