Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 4: Fear and Anxiety

Fear (Anxiety, Insecurity, Uncertainty, Panic)


Fear is an underlying factor in a lot of aggression cases. It is so common, in fact, that many trainers go so far as to say that all aggression is based in fear. I personally think it’s a stretch of the truth to say all but I totally agree that a lot of aggression, maybe even most, involves at least some underlying element of fear. This is especially true if we define fear broadly enough to include even the subtlest forms of anxiety, nervousness, insecurity or lack of confidence.


The dog’s fear is commonly missed due to being overshadowed by more obvious and scary behaviors such as barking, lunging, growling, snarling and biting. People are usually too frightened themselves to imagine that the dog may be the one who is scared. Even professionals can miss this, so it is wise to always keep the possibility of underlying fear in mind as you analyze and develop a rehabilitation plan for aggressive dogs. Below are a few bullets regarding fear and aggression in dogs: 


  • A majority of dog aggression stems from fear, anxiety, uncertainty or lack of confidence. 
  • Fear can be subtle. It doesn’t always reveal itself in the form of panic or obvious signs such as cowering or running away.  
  • Lack of confidence can lead to defensive behavior (fight or flight response) 
  • When fearful dogs can’t retreat, they may use aggression to attempt to make the person or dog move away. (see: Tight Leash)
  • Fear can lead to overexaggerated, aggressive outbursts being triggered by what would be nothing to a relaxed, confident dog.
  • Fearful dogs can be the victim of aggression. Fearful behavior can cause other dogs to attack the fearful dog. For example: A dog running or squealing due to pain or panic can become the target of an attack by other dogs. This behavior can be seen at puppy socials, which is why they need to be well supervised. Another common sighting of this is a dog that is running at the dog park to get all the dogs chasing. This is super fun, for a minute, and then suddenly the dog becomes overwhelmed and starts to panic. (See Overly Intense Play, Hyperactivity, Dominance and Pain)
  • Fear often comes from a lack of proper socialization as well as bad experiences. (see: History) 
  • Ongoing or unresolved fears and phobias can lead to chronic anxiety which is highly stressful and unhealthy. This puts the dog almost constantly on edge which leads to hypersensitivity to triggers. (see: Hyperactivity, Stress, Pain) 
  • A holistic or truly “Balanced” training program is helpful for building confidence and resilience.  
  • Agility training can also be a great confidence builder.  

It takes a keen eye to see it but even dogs that put on a very confident and menacing looking display of outward aggression are often dealing with some degree of fear, anxiety, insecurity or uncertainty on the inside. In other words, you are far less likely to see a secure, confident, relaxed, mentally stable dog behaving aggressively…at least not without good reason. Aggression from a confident dog will also be more likely to come with fair warning, bite inhibition and the appropriate level of intensity for the given situation. 


I often ask clients what character traits they look for when choosing a dog or want to foster in the dog they have chosen. Confidence is almost never their first answer, in fact it’s rarely even in their top 5 and often not on their radar at all. In fact, a lot of people choose a fearful dog because they “feel sorry” for them and think that “all they need is love” but, unfortunately, life is not a Beatles song. In reality, confidence is a super important character trait and it takes more than cuddles and cookies to develop confidence in a dog that doesn’t already have it. (see: Genetics, History) 


Moral of the story: Some dogs are naturally wired to be more fearful or insecure than others. Sometimes there are limits to how much fear can be eliminated. That said, we would all do well to foster confidence and resilience in our puppies and dogs as a standard practice rather than waiting for aggression to motivate us into action.


Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

Please use the links below to follow the whole series for a more complete understanding of the triggers and underlying factors of dog aggression.

Related Topics:

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 1: Tight Leashes

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 2: Hyperactivity and Anxiety 

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 3: Overly Intense Play

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 4: Fear and Anxiety

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 5: Frustration and Agitation

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 6: Obnoxious Submission

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 7: Dominance

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 8: Misreading Social Cue


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