Is My Dog Aggressive or is He Just Afraid?

I am asked this question fairly often.

Most people opt to thinking that their dog is afraid.

It is a lot easier for most people to think that their dog is afraid, or fearful, than to curse him with the connotations of being “aggressive”.

For most people, “aggressive” is a horrible four letter word (okay, so it isn’t a four letter word) 😉 ha ha.

Interestingly We Don’t Feel the Same About People

When people describe each other as “aggressive”, we often liken that to being a go-getter, or someone who takes no flak from anyone else.

It’s like we recognize that people can be aggressive, and yet, in control of themselves in most situations, but we can’t fathom using that word for dogs.

Aggression means that the dog wants to eat humans, dogs, and everything that moves and catch nails from a nail gun with its teeth.

Most dogs don’t suffer from that kind of extreme aggression.

Interestingly, as with humans, dog aggression only displays in certain situations.

I challenge us all to get over the myths and horrors of the word, and embrace it when it fits.

I suppose both of my dogs can be considered aggressive in certain situations, but it isn’t something that most people can see because I have such great control.

Let’s Understand

It is important to understand that fear leads to aggression in the large majority of dogs.

Fear is well known for leading to “fight or flight”.

And, when you take away “flight”, or running away, you force fight, or aggression.

Meaning, if your dog ever tries to get away from you, or someone else, allow him space and don’t force him!

The Rare Unicorn

In very few situations, I have seen completely terrified dogs entirely shut down emotionally.

Instead of trying to run away, or trying to rip your throat out, they become like statues.

I have always thought that perhaps mentally they shut down and try and find their happy place while the trauma goes on around aggression, dog fear, dog fear aggression

I think of it as the children we hear about who are abused and do the same; they completely shut down and even sometimes have no recollection of what happened.

Some invent multiple personalities to deal with fear and trauma.

One of my training clients has a dog like this, and when she would come into the veterinary hospital, she would just freeze.

She wouldn’t try and get away, or aggress, she would simply become like a statue.

It didn’t matter what we were doing, blood draw, anal glands, vaccinations, or prepping for her spay, she always stayed completely still with no emotion.

My heart hurt for her.

I was glad that she wasn’t aggressive, but her fear was almost palpable.

I am still her dog trainer, and I am still very aware that her fear may some day turn to aggression.

There Are Very Few Dogs Like This

There are very few like the aforementioned dog.

Most dogs in a state of fear, and when pushed, will aggress.

And, it is very difficult to tell when a fearful dog will break.

I would take a blatantly aggressive dog any day, over a fearful dog.

A fearful dog may not bite me, but I will have a fraction of a second of warning before the bite happens.

An aggressive dog is already telling me what his intentions are through vocalizations and body language.

Often They are Synonymous

Often fear and aggression are synonymous when we are talking about dogs (and many other animals), because the transition from one to another is so fast.

So even if you think he is just afraid, chances are he is very near his bite threshold.

All Dogs Have a “Bite Threshold”

Absolute Threshold

This is the lowest level at which the distraction, or trigger, is noticed. The dog may or may not even be stressed.

Recognition Threshold

This is the level where the distraction or trigger is not only detected, but it is recognized by the dog.

This is probably when you lose the dog’s attention.

This is also typically the beginning of the display of his fear.

Losing attention denotes stress; even if it looks like the dog is just excitable, his stress level has risen and this should be taken into account during his training.

Differential Threshold

dog aggression, dog fear, dog fear aggression

This is the level at which an increase in the detected stimulus blatantly shows.

This is when the dog begins to stare, freeze, pull, jump, bark ,or possibly growl, or denote other forms of aggression.

Fearful dogs may run backwards, yodel, scream, or dash back and forth; they may also show overt signs of aggression, like growling or lunging.

This is when the stress becomes overwhelming for the dog.

Terminal Threshold

This is the level beyond which the stimulus is tolerated.

This is when the bite has or is about to happen.

Your dog or “the dog” has given multiple forms of warning and stress that have been ignored (lip licking, head ducking, yawning, barking, growling, freezing, hard pupils).

Just because your dog is fearful, doesn’t mean he won’t bite.

Actually, he is likely to reach his bite threshold faster, and bite harder than the average dog, because fear is difficult for a dog to learn to control.

Don’t Fall Prey

Don’t fall prey to the old phrase “but he has never bitten”.

I can’t tell you how often I have heard this phrase, then the dog bites.

It is as if the owner is ignoring all the signs and simply WAITING for the worst case scenario: the bite!

Once a dog has bitten, animal control can force it to be euthanized.

It may never have another chance.

Take his behavior seriously prior to a bite.

It’s Easy

Once you can grasp that your dog has fear and perhaps aggression issues, it isn’t difficult to control the dog once you make a pact with yourself that you will make a change.

You will learn to control his environment and keep him, and others, safe.

And, you will spend mere minutes a day increasing his confidence and giving him coping mechanisms.

Eventually, you will have so much control over the dog that no one else will recognize his levels of stress and you will know just how to deal with them effectively.

Do You Want To Tackle Your Dog’s Fears

Head On?

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  1. Sharon says:

    I have two youkies 12 months old, while one is very placid when going for walks the other (who is the underdog) is very aggressive. He won’t stop barking. He barks as soon as we open the door, barks at people dogs birds trees leaves almost everything. It’s very embarrassing I’ve tried a anti bark collar a squeaky toy a whistle and even tried a water pistol. Nothing seems to phase him. It’s gett to the point that I don’t want to take him out. Need help please 👍


  2. James says:

    What a great post explaining the difference between an afraid dog and an aggressive one. Very useful information!


  3. Jean Cannon says:

    I am a trauma specialist working with humans. You have stated exactly what I work with every day. Apart from language, dogs and humans are not very different. I work with FFF… fight, flight or freeze people. That statue dog has PTSD and goes into freeeze mode.


  4. Felicia says:

    Dear Mr. Dogtrainingsecret,
    My dog Myles, you can see boxer and shepard but he is only 48 lbs at nearly 2yrs old
    Resued 8/2016 from pound @ 6 or 8 months old, not house broke, incessantly chased my cats, barked at everyone (a non-aggressive bark). I brought him to a basic training class because I wanted to socialize him right away. I worked very hard for this dog to be obedient, many walks and hours of working with him to now have him think that he is my protector…..ugh! In class #5 of 6 he began to step on the top of my foot, then he lunged at a dog aggressively as it walked past us. (I had a good hold on his leash so no contact was made) I was mortified by his behavior!!!
    Myles’ comands are: sit, stay(mostly, he’s trying and improving), lay down, paw/other paw and, most important for me, come when called. Enough is used for behavior.
    Situation is now with anyone he feels is in need of me. For instance, a barfing teenager, looking for a lost item with my grandchildren, me gasping at a video I’m watching on Facebook. He will rush to be there first and jump and snarl with an open mouth and fur up.
    …….long story short, my grandchild was not hurt because the dog was wearing a muzzle. Vet recommended for safety, while on leash when my grandchildren are visiting, to get him out of his crate and used to being around them.
    He no longer will be home when my grandchildren are here and someone recently confessed to me that she was afraid of a bite from his behavior when she was visiting me.
    Myles barks at EVERYTHING and EVERYONE but he is so obedient when comanded and he loves hugs. There is no food aggression and he no longer chases the cats, only to play.
    I don’t know what to do anymore.


    Minette Reply:

    Find a boarded veterinary behaviorist to help you specifically


  5. Beth Albone says:

    I have a 1&1/2 year old Scottish Terrier. I got him when he was 3 months old. I saved him from a pet store. Since day one he is terrified of vacuums, leaf blowers, lawn mowers. I groom him and he doesn’t like the clippers either! He came from a big industrial farm full of loud machines. Could this be the problem? I’m sure he was abused and scared by something there. He’s a beautiful boy and loves everyone. He’s very happy. I just want to help him.


  6. Judy says:

    My little 7lb. silky hair terrier….doesn’t seem to like other doggies…and he displays aggression with barking, and pulling forward like to nip….so naturally i stay clear of other doggies…but i want him to be a ‘friendly’ dog, not one that people have the cross the street when they see me and Max coming….what shall i do???????????perplexed!!!!! ..


  7. Linda Treece says:

    Will this course help GS to become friendlier with strangers and family members
    not sure if his case is fear or not.


  8. Rae markley says:

    I have a rescue dog she was abandoned tied outside a store . I gave her 6 yrs now she is a wonderful dog . When we go for a walk snd meets up with other dogs mostly she stops and smells but there is two particular dogs she barks and growls at
    And the others dogs pay no mind to her . The one woman
    Changed her walk .i don’t know what to do


  9. Anne says:


    I have two questions about the fear training; my dog has developed a fear in the car once we are about 10 minutes on the highway not regular driving, can your program help with that? Also at the same time she developed the fear of the car on the highway she then became aggressive with introduction to new dogs, can it help with this?




    Minette Reply:



  10. I have a 3 year old well behaved German shepherd. He is great with other dogs off leash, however acts very aggressive on leash, barking, leaping and hard for me to control (I am small and weigh 104 pounds!) Any advice????


    Minette Reply:

    i would look into our aggression course


  11. Kathy walzer says:

    I took a course on aggression from Minette a few years ago after I had brought Ziggy the rat terrier into my home & he had slipped his collar & kept 5 ft into the air to bite a utility worker in the arm. Fortunately he did not break the skin and the man was very kind about it. The course did help me understand a lot abt fear & aggression. It was not until I broke my ankle & worked from home for 5 months that I really understood just how fearful Ziggy is. One of the best pieces of advice from Minette’s postings here was not to be reluctant to use medication if it is so indicated. After discussing with my vet, I use a pheremone diffuser in the bedroom & give him a half tablet of Solaquin every morning. It has taken the edge off of his fear & helps him to cope without aggression. It has made him a new dog & enhanced our relationship. He still needs to be sedated for the vet, but day to day he is doing fine. Do not give up on your fearful dog.


    Minette Reply:

    I am so glad to have been able to help 🙂


  12. Phyllis Smith says:

    I have two Jack Russells – male and female. When we or anyone reaches down to pick up the female, the male quickly (without warning) attacks and bites the person. We now have a grand baby and our concern is that this will happen to him. Help! How do we stop this behavior?


    Minette Reply:

    You need a boarded veterinary behaviorist.


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