Is Your Dog Aggressive? Or Just Scared?

People often confuse fearful behaviors with aggressive ones—to the detriment of the dog.

How can you tell if your dog is lashing out because he’s afraid or because he’s aggressive? Oftentimes all types of aggressive behaviors look similar—snarling, growling, lunging, barking—but most are rooted in fear. In order to solve the behavior issue, it’s critical to identify the source of the behavior.

Is my dog playing defense or offense?

It’s important to realize that dogs don’t act aggressively “out of the blue.” Our human eyes may not see or understand the cause, but your dog definitely does. If your dog is behaving aggressively, your first priority is to observe every detail possible to start assembling a picture. Does your dog lunge and snap when, say, strangers wearing baseball caps walk past the house? Or when small dogs rush up on their flexible leads? Perhaps your dog bares his teeth when a bike whizzes past or the doorbell rings. Start documenting everything you can about each aggressive incident until you have a body of notes that reveals a pattern. Most dogs who display aggressive behaviors are reacting in fear. Simplified, the thought process goes something like, “If I put up a huge fuss and lunge and snarl, that scary dog/stroller/balloon/leaf/man-in-sunglasses/bike will leave! Here I go!”

Can I fix my dog’s aggression?

If you’ve identified the root cause, you and your dog can work together to overcome much of her fearful reactivity. However, be realistic. Even with long-term, careful desensitization to your dog’s fears, she may not ever be able to overcome it entirely. Management plans are important for the long-term. For instance, my dog Lucas used to be dog reactive; every dog set him off into a snarling, lunging terror. Over the years, I worked with positive reinforcement trainers to help desensitize him to his fear of other dogs. Now, he’s able to walk past an unfamiliar dog or sit near one in the lobby at the vet’s office without a big reaction. That doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with those dogs, though, so even after all this work, I never allow him to greet an unfamiliar dog, even if he’s walked past the dog calmly.

So, what do I do?

First, see your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical causes. Sometimes a dog in pain can behave aggressively, and treating that may help mitigate the problem. Once medical explanations are ruled out, find a science-based positive reinforcement trainer to work out a treatment plan. Implement a management strategy while you’re working on the treatment; for example, if you’ve identified that your dog behaves aggressively around children, don’t allow him around children until a plan is in place.

Few dogs are aggressive simply to be aggressive. Most dogs behave aggressively out of fear. Once you’ve identified the cause, you can begin to put both treatment and management plans in place to work toward a calmer, happier existence (for both of you).

Meet the Author: Maggie Marton

Maggie is a writer and author, whose first book, Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup was published by Open Air Publishing. When she's not writing (or reading books about grammar), she teaches writing courses to college students and professionals who want to nail down the basics of communication. Outside of work, she hikes, throws dinner parties, plays with her three dogs and cat, and travels as much as possible.

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