Animals have two methods of protecting themselves when they feel threatened. This is known as the "Flight or Fight" response. Most animals choose to escape from threats (flight response) but if unable to escape and there is no hope of the threat going away — such as a cornered or a tethered dog — it may defend itself by biting (fight response). Frightened dogs bite out of fear and may be mistakenly labeled as being vicious but can become "fear aggressive."

According to veterinary behavior specialists Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB and Stephanie Schwartz, MS, DVM, DACVB, contributing authors of the book "Decoding Your Dog," fear-related aggression is used as self-defense and may be the last resort for dogs who can't escape or used when they anticipate a threat. If they can't escape some dogs may display appeasing body language signals to diffuse threats like lip licking, not making eye contact, turning the head, rolling over onto the back and even urinating on themselves. If the threat is still present a dog's body stiffens, growling occurs, teeth are bared or biting may take place. When people routinely use their hands to hit dogs, they may cause them to become "hand shy." These dogs may eventually generalize that whenever any human hand reaches out to touch them, they may try to avoid it or resort to self-protection by biting. Human hands should be associated with pleasant dog-human interaction like petting, cuddling and dispensing treats.


The root for most aggressive behavior is fear according to Victoria Stillwell, trainer, author and star of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog." She feels that a fearful dog that was not raised and trained humanely can result in fear aggression. This worsens when owners and trainers use punishment-based training methods (like harsh collar corrections, shock collars, yelling, pinning the dog on its back and constant use of the word "no"). Stillwell adds that another cause for fear aggression is the lack of socialization during a dog's development which affects how a dog copes when encountering different things in the environment such as other dogs and people. Harsh punishment also increases anxiety and aggression. To further complicate this situation many of these dogs are also frightened by loud noises and sudden movements made by humans. A dog with this edgy behavior would not be a suitable match for a noisy active family.

Some dogs can be genetically fearful according to trainer/author Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. Shyness observed in puppies can occur if one or both parents of a litter exhibit this trait. That is why potential dog owners must do their homework to research specific breeds, actually meet and observe the behaviors of a litter's relatives (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) or find out if excessive shyness has been an issue. McConnell feels that getting this information can be a problem if the parents have lived in kennels their entire lives (such as in puppy mills supplying puppies for the pet shop trade or for internet sales).

Fear-aggressive/fear biting dogs can be managed but not cured because this problem is viewed as a chronic condition. According to Reisner and Schwartz an evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended if behavior changes are observed such as unusual aggression, change in activity level and appetite, nervousness, or social behavior. Biting dogs can have joint pain, ear infections or other health problems such as infection, cancer and trauma that can affect the brain and change an animal's behavior. If the dog's health is satisfactory then the dog's behavioral issues can be addressed.

The vet may recommend a referral to a certified animal behaviorist to get a diagnosis, safety assessment and treatment plan. Sometimes medication might be recommended in conjunction with behavior modification if the dog has underlying anxiety issues, if the dog's aggressive behavior is explosive, or if the behavior is due to a physical problem. Treatment may involve modifying the owner-dog interactions by establishing a routine and using a predictable vocabulary. Dogs become stressed when they don't know what is expected from them. Owners must avoid using harsh punishment which will increase anxiety and aggression. The goal is to change the dog's "mindset" that the aggression triggers such as the presence of people or other dogs approaching will mean earning yummy treats and praise instead of receiving a leash correction or being forced into the down position. Over time the dog may become more relaxed and less anxious. Dogs learn best when they are calm.

Reisner and Schwartz recommend that owners:

• Need to become "fluent" in canine body language by paying attention the dog's face, ears tail, vocalizations, and overall body posture to understand what the dog is signaling and how aggressive the dog could become. Aggressive signals include eyes in a fixed stare, ears that are pricked or pointing forward, mouth with lips curled and teeth showing, tense body carriage with hackles raised on the dog's neck and spine to make himself look bigger.

• Need to be proactive by not taking their dogs to dog parks, leaving their dogs unattended in fenced yards and especially yards surrounded by electronic fencing which does not prevent people or other animals from entering the property

• Are advised not to hold large gatherings in their homes if they can't manage the dog's behavior unless the dog is confined elsewhere.

• Need to confine the dog if young active children visit the home.

• Should confine the dog when workers and repairman are in the home.

Please read Janet A. Smith's online article: "Fear Aggression Towards People (or other animals)," which presents a behavior modification program utilizing positive training strategies.

Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.