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Fear Aggression in Dogs

Fear Aggression in Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost

What is Fear Aggression?

Fear related aggression can be a difficult and dangerous problem and typically takes time and patience to reverse. Some dogs, such as toy breeds and shepherding breeds, are more likely to develop fear responses, and sometimes aggression.

Although many fear related problems may be eased through the application of proper exercise, diet, and training, some dogs may need additional help such as antianxiety or antidepressant medications to control their actions and reach their full potential. 

Aggression related to fear can be a difficult behavioral trait to change and should be handled carefully. This is an easier disorder to prevent than to treat.

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Symptoms of Fear Aggression in Dogs

Dogs that are experiencing fear around people may express it in several ways. Behaviors that may be exhibited when a dog is afraid may include:

  • Aggressive chewing
  • Biting
  • Cowering
  • Ears held back
  • Escape behaviors
  • Exaggerated yawning
  • Excessive vocalizations
  • Holding head lower than back
  • Licking nose or face (with no food present)
  • Lip tension
  • Nipping
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • “Punching” with the muzzle
  • Showing the whites of the eye
  • Tail tucked under
  • Timidity
  • Trembling
  • Whites of the eye turning pink or red


In some cases, aggression issues due to fear can become unmanageable with behavior modification and training methods alone. Chronic fear and aggression may require psychiatric medications to assist in treatment. Most psychiatric medications require six to eight weeks before substantial improvement is seen, although a few are relatively fast acting. The most commonly used psychiatric medications for canines include: 

Benzodiazepine Derivatives

This category of drugs includes medications such as Valium and Xanax, which are frequently effective for the temporary relief of anxiety and fear as these medications have a relatively quick action. Unfortunately, dogs often build up an immunity to the  compounds used for these treatments making them less suitable for long term usage.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors

Often used in canines for generalized fears and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, this category of medication includes Fluoxetine, Prozac, and Zoloft. SSRIs are one of the most frequently prescribed medication for anxiety disorders, and Fluoxetine is one of the more successful treatment methods for aggression issues. 

Tricyclic Anti-anxiety Medications

Medications such as Clomicalm and Elavil fall into this category, and are commonly used to treat both anxious and obsessive behavior in canines but may cause troubling side-effects, particularly when weaning the patient off of the drug.

Causes of Fear Aggression in Dogs

Triggers that may cause fear and aggression in dogs are typically a combination of nature and nurture. Possible components to developing aggression due to fear could include: 

  • Developmental Factors - Circumstances such as abuse, traumatic events, or loss of a caretaker may have more of an effect when they occur during a puppy’s developmental phase and improper socialization early in life can cause a dog to be more fearful
  • Environmental Factors - Being in an environment of restriction and overcrowding such as a shelter or puppy mill may induce chronic fear in dogs that may lead to aggression; violent environments or incidents may trigger fear in canines, and in some situations may lead to the development of anxiety disorders or PTSD 
  • Genetic Predisposition - Certain dogs or breeds of dog may have a slight predisposition to develop aggression due to fear; some shepherding and toy breeds may have an inherited predisposition for fear 
  • Physical Disorders - Some physical disorders, particularly those that cause chronic pain, can elicit aggressive behavior in canines due to fear; other disorders with a physical basis that may lead to fear-based aggression may include bacterial or viral infections or the loss of senses such as hearing or sight

Diagnosis of Fear Aggression in Dogs

Your veterinarian will collect information for a behavioral history when you visit the clinic for a behavioral problem such as aggression. Data that is requested to complete a complete behavioral history would typically include the patient’s sex and age as well as anything else that may be known about the breed of the canine. Information about the circumstances prior to any episodes of aggression as well as how your dog’s behavior changed after the incident can also prove helpful in diagnosing any underlying disorders. 

Facts regarding any changes to diet or any new medications that have been introduced recently will also be needed as well as which corrective methods have already been tried and the result. If your veterinarian suspects a medical component to the behavior at all they will typically perform a complete physical examination as well, which will include standard diagnostic tests such as a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis.

Treatment of Fear Aggression in Dogs

Treatment for behavior issues will depend on both the severity and the underlying trigger for the behavior. Chronic aggression due to fear can be a potentially dangerous situation and should be addressed by a veterinary professional. Treatment for dogs who have shown fear related aggression should be a cooperative effort between the animal’s owners and a professional trainer or behaviorist. It is important not to scold or punish the fearful dog for its fear response. Scolding your dog for fearful behavior may actually enforce their feelings and increase the chances that fearful behavior will turn into aggressive behavior. 

One of the training methods that is commonly utilized to treat fear disorders is known as desensitization, a method in which treats and praise are used in conjunction with the presence of the object of fear to cause the feared object to become more a more positive and familiar presence and thereby reduce the fear of it. Regular obedience training may also be effective in mitigating fear and anxiety, reducing the likelihood of an aggressive response, and may be utilized to distract the dog from negative stimuli in a technique known as a counter-conditioning treatment. In some cases, behavioral therapy and training are not enough to calm the patient and anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, such as diazepam or Prozac, may be employed to calm your companion.

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Recovery of Fear Aggression in Dogs

Medications given for psychological imbalances will take several weeks before their effectiveness is known, and it is essential that your veterinarian knows all of the other medications your dog is on. The way that canines metabolize this drug is very different from the way that a human metabolizes the drug and dosages will vary based on your dog’s specific response to the medication. 

Many anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications have contraindications with certain pain medications, antihistamines, and even herbal treatments such as St. John’s Wort or Kava Kava. Medications alone are rarely effective in eliminating challenging problem behaviors, and changes to both your pet’s exercise levels and diet are often helpful in reducing problems. Continuing behavioral training will help your pet to become a happier and healthier individual.

Fear Aggression Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals


British Bulldog




3 Years


18 found this helpful


18 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Hi, I have a nearly 3yr old British bulldog that I bought of someone 4months ago, she is not desexed (but will be getting desexed as soon as her health is ok), she is perfect in every way, housed trained, walks well on lead & perfect in car etc, she is very loving towards me my 10yr old but as soon as my 21yr old walks in she growls at him he goes to pat her & she will snap she also does this to my mother (78ys old), she is ok with some but not with others, she gets quite nervous & growls, it’s like she’s scared, not sure what to do, thanks carol.

Sept. 4, 2018

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Alaskan Malamute




7 Years


11 found this helpful


11 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Fear Aggression
Touch Sensitivity
Hi, I have been fostering a ~7 year old malamute/husky mix through a rescue center for about a year now. From day one at the shelter he was a difficult dog-- he was kept chained up in a backyard for the first ~6 years of his life with little socialization with people or dogs. He is very sensitive about being handled and will often react by snapping and growling, even when being pet (by basically anyone besides me). When I first took him home it took me about a month to be able to pet him without him snapping or growling. One strange thing is that he often invites being pet and has "happy" body language, but once he is touched he will snap. Now, we loves to be pet by me, cuddle, and wrestle. Originally we thought he might be in pain, but we took him to the vet and they did not find anything conclusive. He is also reactive to people, and dogs while out on walks (but that's a different problem). All of his issues seem to stem from fear, as he was probably never properly socialized and had negative experiences with not being touched/handled nicely. Malamutes in general are often stubborn, so I understand with his lack of socialization, genetics, and past bad experiences make up his behavioral issues. He has been working with one of the best positive-reinforcement dog trainers who we were able to find who actually specializes in fear aggression and has plenty of northern breed experience. She mapped out an 8-week training program for him, but his progress has been extremely slow. About 3 months of training has now passed and we are still only working on handling issues indoors (which was supposed to be 4 weeks). I wonder if you have any insight or advice to give to help this guy become more confident and fear-free! I wonder if medication like fluexotine may be helpful to help his behavior modification along with training-- although I have read that in some cases it makes aggression worse. I also know this might be a long shot, but I have read that hypothyroidism is very common in malamutes his age and can cause behavioral issues.

Aug. 2, 2018

11 Recommendations

The problem here is that Rocky was kept chained up for six years and therefore it is only a fraction of his life that he has been with you and old habits die hard; fear aggression can be difficult to control in any dog and care needs to be taken to address it properly. We have an article on fear biting (linked below) and there is a section where you can ask a question to our certified dog trainer for follow up questions. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM https://wagwalking.com/training/not-fear-bite https://wagwalking.com/training/not-attack-strangers https://wagwalking.com/training/not-attack-other-dogs

Aug. 3, 2018

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