Solid research says fearful dogs are more likely to be aggressive. Then that Humane Society ad comes on TV showing scared, shivering dogs that look so sad we ache to give these poor mites a warm home. At our house. Tonight.
Families and first-time dog owners often end up with aggressive dogs when they follow their hearts. Then it’s decision time. Can you save or help the dog, or will things get worse?
Usually, with some work and knowledge, things can get better. What you do next depends on how safe you can make everyone while you work out the problem, how good your are at training and correction, the dog’s ability to learn and change, and whether you find and use the help of experts when you need them.
What Counts As Aggressive?
First up, understand that you if you have a dog that growls, air snaps or barks threateningly, you haven’t made a mistake millions of others have avoided. Defensive aggression like that is common—especially in fearful dogs. A recent Finnish study of more than 9,271 pet dogs found that 20% of them frequently showed aggression. The American SPCA estimates that 60% to 70% of all dogs show signs of aggression at times.
That SPCA estimate probably stuns you, but an experienced pet handler or dog owner would not be surprised. In truth, people often don’t recognize low-level aggression easily, and that blind spot can allow a mild situation turn into a dire one.
The Finnish study found a lower incidence because the researchers only rated clear signs of frequent growling, snapping and trying to bite people as aggressive.[i]But the SPCA takes a broader view. The Chihuahua who growls when someone takes its teddy bear is being aggressive. Ditto the dog that barks at other dogs walking past the house. The dog with raised hackles may be doing nothing at the moment, but that’s a sign of aggression also. And who would blame a mother dog for snapping at a loud stranger who threatens to pick up her puppies? That’s aggression, too.
This is why general advice “do not adopt a dog that has shown signs of aggressiveness” is largely useless. It is better to assume that any dog can be aggressive when the circumstances call for it.
Aggression arises from different causes, including dominance, which is a whole different topic. Dogs may also become more aggressive with age. In addition, the Finnish study found that dogs were more aggressive with first-time owners, a sure sign that the dog was ruling the roost like a despot when the human wasn’t properly trained!
But fearfulness leads the list of traits associated with aggression. In the Finnish study, it was the most reliable predictor of aggressive behavior.
The Truth About “It’s Not Aggressive, It’s Just Scared”
Humane societies and rescue groups have done a good job convincing people they should adopt an abandoned dog instead of buying a pet. That automatically means more fearful dogs entering our homes. Responsible breeders work with pups to overcome fears and help socialize young dogs before they end up in your living room. Rescues don’t get that kind of head start.
About 44% of new dogs are rescues… some 1.6 million dogs entering US homes every year. The life of a rescue dog is usually lonely, scary, and harsh. Even when they are “safe” in a shelter, it is apt to be a place with cement floors, little or no exercise area, and lots of noise. The best-adjusted pup in the world can turn fearful in those conditions.
The fearful-aggressive dog may not seem threatening at first. Many of them only bark, or lunge at strangers and other dogs to keep them away while they are gentle and docile around you.
But the behavior is still aggression. And it still needs to be recognized and addressed because it often gets worse.
Truthfully, facing up to calling your beloved pet aggressive is an act of heroism. We don’t like to give that adorable mutt that loves us and sleeps at our feet such an off-putting label. But you are doing your pal a favor. Not only can you help him feel safer you can guide his behavior so mild, fearful aggression won’t advance to become a serious problem.
You Can--and Should--Try These At Home
There’s a lot you can do to help your fearful dog grow confident. Start with these:
- Make strangers pay respect. Other people mean well, but if your dog is fearful, don’t allow them to pet your dog on their terms. Ask them to stand still and see if your dog will want to go up and sniff them first. If the dog doesn’t want to, don’t force it.
- Work on training together. The time spent together on training and the rewards are positives for dogs that need to feel their sense of place and purpose. It also puts you in the leadership role, which makes the world more comfortable for your scared pooch.
- Follow the leader. If your dog does not get along with other dogs out of fear, it can be helpful to ask a sympathetic dog owner you meet on walks if you can follow their dog or walk beside them (where there’s enough room, say on the other sidewalk). If you explain your reason, most dog owners are happy to help. It’s a gentle way to get your dog used to being around another dog where nothing bad is going to happen.
- Invite the family’s other dogs over. Once your dog has bonded with you, he will probably recognize other family members, including grown children, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that you feel close to. If these people have a dog, ask them to come for a visit. Carefully introduce the two dogs. If it doesn’t work, call a fast halt to the play date. But surprisingly often, a dog that does not like other dogs will take to another family dog.
- Give your pup a safe spot. Many vets and trainers suggest a crate, and you can use one if it goes easily. But crates may have bad associations for dogs that were kept too long in one at a shelter or in foster care. Find a safe spot for your dog and make it her place. Put her own blanket there, a special toy, even a pillow. Give her treats, like a Greenie to chew on. Many fearful dogs like a spot under a table or desk because they feel protected. Think creatively and watch your dog. If there’s a space she goes to, make it “her” spot.
- Go easy on punishment. People who gush about “positive” dog training often don’t get their terms right. They use negative punishment themselves without being aware of it. If you take a shoe that the dog really, really wants to chew away from it, that’s “punishment” in training terms. If you don’t give a dog a treat when it fails to sit, that’s punishment. You cannot use treats for “positive reinforcement” training without having punishment—withholding treats when the dog doesn’t do what’s asked. For an oversensitive dog, it becomes even more confusing. If you call your dog to come in and she doesn’t come quickly, so you raise your voice and she knows she’s in trouble for not minding, the dog that thrives on pleasing you will feel that as punishment, too. Once your dog has bonded with you, any time you make her feel she has displeased you, you are punishing her. So go carefully and fill the days with lots of things with high chances of success.
- Learn to speak dog. Dogs communicate with their bodies. Pay attention to yours in different situations so you can spot signs of discomfort before the lunging, barking, growling and air snapping starts. Get to know early signs of your dog’s discomfort like yawning or licking lips. That’s your signal to go slow and help your dog relax. Also learn to see when he tenses up, stands tall and stiff legged, pricks ears forward, squints, or puckers his mouth… that could mean there’s trouble incoming. Good short books on this include “On Talking Terms With Dogs” by Turid Rugaas; Doggie Language by Lili Chin; and Understanding Dog’s Body Language to Improve Bonding with Your Dog by Alan Philips.
Your fearful dog probably will be aggressive in some circumstances. That’s a natural survival defense. But she doesn’t need to turn into a dangerous dog in most cases. If you need more help, call a trainer who is used to working with rescues.
[i]Mikkola, S., Salonen, M., Puurunen, J. et al.Aggressive behaviour is affected by demographic, environmental and behavioural factors in purebred dogs. Sci Rep11, 9433 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88793-5