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Dog anxiety and aggression are two closely linked factors that are sadly overlooked in most cases of aggressive behavior. However, most of us have probably encountered some kind of fear aggression or anxiety aggression in dogs already.
Whether it is a Border Collie resource guarding their food or a Chihuahua attacking the postman, a dog may seem fierce or even vicious, but often they are simply anxious and fearful.
Can dog anxiety lead to aggression?
Yes, anxiety in dogs can lead to aggression and it is perhaps the leading cause of aggression in dogs. Fear-based anxiety aggression in dogs can be triggered by numerous circumstances, such as a loud noise, a stranger, another dog, or even having their food taken away.
To understand why, we need to look at the biological makeup of dogs and understand which stimuli lead to a growl, nip, or even attack, long before it happens.
Like any mammal, a dog has five senses and a limbic system. The limbic system is the oldest, emotional part of the brain responsible for keeping us alive. When information goes into a dog’s brain (and ours), it must first go past the limbic system.
For healthy humans though, information will then continue on to our more developed prefrontal cortex.
So if most of us see a Rottweiler down the street that looks scary and intimidating, our prefrontal cortex will then also see that the dog is walking calmly on a leash and that the owner seems friendly. We rationally deduce that there is no real threat to worry about, and we don’t panic.
But dogs don’t have a developed prefrontal cortex to rationally assess a situation. Instead, their limbic system does most of the immediate thinking.
This is especially true if they are genetically wired a certain way or had previous bad experiences.
Here is an image showing the thinking differences that may occur in a situation between a dog versus a person.
So, a dog’s limbic system can take in information like, “there is a scary dog over there” and immediately send the signal to dump a ton of stress hormones into their bloodstream. This is meant to protect them because it provokes a fight, flight, or freeze survival response.
Which survival reaction your dog will have to a trigger will differ. And remember, triggers are different for different dogs.
It could be loud noises like thunder, strangers, and other dogs if they are not well socialized. Or they could feel anxious and fearful that something very important to their survival will be taken away from them, as in food aggression.
If you think your dog is scared of you, then be sure to read our post on that subject here.
Role of genetics in dog anxiety aggression
Some breeds have been handpicked for generations to have a “fight” response to a specific trigger. This is the case with dogs who have been bred for hundreds of years to be perimeter guardians and won’t tolerate strangers on the property, like the Caucasian Ovchartka.
Or dogs that come from “gamebred” dogfighting backgrounds usually have an extreme reaction when they see other dogs.
Other breeds have usually flight or avoidance responses. This is particularly common in dogs that have been bred for looks rather than temperament. It also occurs in dogs that have had abusive backgrounds and learned to run.
So anxiety in dogs can be both the result of experience or genetics.
The “worst” or hardest reaction to overcome is the freeze response. The freeze response typically happens when a dog feels they are trapped, and there is no way out against something they cannot defeat.
Such dogs usually shut down and accept their fate. This mental state is challenging to undo, as it creates learned helplessness.
But how does a flight or anxious response turn into fear aggression?
Why does your dog have anxiety aggression?
One of the first causes of fear aggression or anxiety-driven aggression in dogs is that their flight mechanism is blocked, causing them to feel trapped.
If flight doesn’t feel like an option for an anxious dog, they can either freeze or fight. Freezing is usually a last resort.
It’s also worth noting that a spayed or neutered puppy may have increased anxiety, which you can read more about here.
The anxious aggressive cycle
Often, people unwittingly force their dogs into aggressive behavior to protect themselves and what they see as theirs.
For instance, a dog who has anxiety over their food being taken away may have an owner who tries to fix the problem by sticking their hand in the bowl and messing with their food.
This confirms the dog’s anxiety about losing their food, and they might then nip at their owner to protect it. This can lead to the owner punishing the dog, which increases the anxiety…
Can you see the ugly circle this perpetuates and how it gets worse?
Another example is a newly adopted rescue dog afraid of other dogs due to a lack of social skills or a previous bad experience. Yes, just like humans, dogs can be anxious about other dogs because they lack simple canine social skills.
Typically, many dogs might run away or avoid strange dogs, but they now have nowhere to go when they are out on a leash. They are trapped if another dog approaches.
Plus, they may also feel like they need to protect their beloved new owner. Suddenly, you have a leash-aggressive dog, and the aggression is borne out of anxiety.
The same thing can happen if a dog is poorly socialized and encounters new people, loud noises, strange dogs, or screaming children. All of these things can signal a threat and can cause a dog to react to protect itself.
The role owners play
Finally, an often overlooked component in this is the owners themselves. Owners of anxious and aggressive dogs often try to calm their dogs down with stroking and soothing voices.
A dog doesn’t understand words like a child, so trying to soothe them when they are in a survival state is just praise or positive reinforcement for their fear aggression.
Similarly, punishment will only increase the fear and exacerbate problem behavior.
Finally, dogs are often anxious aggressive because of their owners. Dogs – even tough-looking dogs like Pit Bulls – are emotional sponges. They know if you are nervous or uncertain. But they can’t do the math on why you might be anxious, so they just assume there is something to be nervous about.
This can put them on high alert and makes them far more reactive to potential triggers. So there is often an unconscious feedback loop between owners and their dogs that can make anxiety aggression worse.
If you’re concerned your dog might kill your cat, be sure to read our post on that subject here.
Anxiety aggression in puppies
We have a complete post on this subject which you can read here.
Anxiety aggression in puppies is rare, however, it does occur. In this video, Alex explains aggression in puppies and the dangers it possesses.
How to stop my dog’s anxiety fear aggression: steps to take
If your dog is showing signs of anxiety aggression or fear aggression, the first thing to do is have a complete evaluation by a veterinarian.
Several underlying health issues can cause anxiety and aggression in dogs, including hidden pain or hypothyroidism. It’s vital to first rule these out.
You need to understand what causes your dog’s anxiety. If they are anxious about losing a valuable resource, such as your attention, they may want to “guard” you. Likewise, loud noises and busy body language, such as when children are playing or excited, can cause anxiety.
Identify your dog’s triggers and manage their environment to limit exposure until they have been desensitized and their anxiety is channeled into a new set of behaviors. Do not flood your dog by forcing them into a situation with a trigger that they cannot retreat from.
If needed, seek the help of a professional who is comfortable and experienced with aggression.
Begin the process of desensitizing your dog to the trigger. This could be simply throwing down treats as you pass a dog that is resource guarding and walking away. Or by playing with your dog while another dog is allowed closer but keeps a safe distance. The idea is that your dog has a positive experience while the trigger is there, but not so close or intrusive that it sparks their anxiety.
Gradually bring the trigger closer over time as your dog is distracted by something positive. Improve the communication between you and your dog so that you can read signs such as stiffening body language.
Stiffening body language is an indication that the trigger needs to be calmly, but immediately, removed, and your dog’s attention needs to be redirected to something positive.
If the trigger is noise, you can use calming pheromones to reduce your dog’s stress. Music can also be beneficial. As can massages.
Use a massage after the trigger has passed to help release oxytocin and serotonin and wash out the cortisol and adrenaline.
Use obedience and sport training to give your dog alternative behaviors to engage in when they are near their trigger.
Exercise will replace the stress hormones with feel-good ones, and a reward-based activity can channel their energy away from a fight/flight response. You can also teach them a new behavior to rely on when faced with what makes them anxious.
Be prepared. If your dog’s anxiety aggression is very advanced, they may never be 100% safe in every given situation.
Plan ahead to ensure you are not putting your dog in an environment that could cause them to default on aggressive behaviors.
This looks different for every dog, but if you have a dog that is extremely aggressive toward other dogs, avoid dog parks and only take them out with a muzzle to avoid accidents.
Keep the muzzle on with strange dogs, even after your dog’s behavior has been reshaped and even if your dog now seems dog-friendly.
Remember, if a dog is suddenly under stress that you may not have been able to control, they can still default to their old anxious/aggressive behavior to cope.
Anxiety and fear aggression towards other dogs
Dogs typically have four main reasons for being anxious and aggressive with other dogs:
They see another dog as a threat to their resources, such as food or their favorite person.
They have not been properly socialized, so they lack the social skills to deal with other dogs confidently and calmly.
They have had an experience where they have been attacked or threatened by another dog.
They have a genetic disposition toward dog aggression.
If you have multiple dogs, you may also have some struggling with their position in the pack. Each of these types of dog aggression needs to be assessed and addressed according to the individual situation.
Socialization is critical to avoid anxiety aggression in dogs. However, more professional and specialist guidance is needed for highly reactive and powerful dogs in certain cases.
Anxiety aggression towards strangers and people
Dog aggression toward people can happen in any breed and is often extremely misunderstood. A Chihuahua, for instance, is far more likely to be aggressive with people than a Pit Bull is.
Genetically, a Pit Bull is far more likely to be aggressive toward other dogs than they are to people.
As with dog aggression, aggression toward strangers and people can occur for a variety of reasons, and understanding those reasons is vital for rehabilitation. Every cause of stranger aggression will need to be treated differently.
For example, a dog that has been previously abused will need to be gradually desensitized to new people over some time, as fear can lead to nipping or biting. For these dogs, it is a very gradual process of regaining their trust.
On the other hand, a dog that is genetically disposed toward people aggression will need experienced professional intervention to shift to their reactions. Still, they may always need to be carefully managed to avoid accidents.
In general, a dog that has become reactive about strangers coming to the door or onto the property, will need to be removed from the situation.
They will gradually need to be taught new behaviors such as going to their crate when somebody arrives or training.
Giving your dog a new blueprint for what to do when under stress is key to creating a new reaction paradigm for your dog.
In addition, you may need to set boundaries with anybody that visits and make sure they do not try to pet the dog or make eye contact. If your dog is dangerous, do not allow them near any strangers.
However, while extreme people aggression will need intensive work and a commitment to managing your dog at all times, do not allow fear aggression to make your dog’s world smaller and smaller.
Too often, owners can feel overwhelmed by a dog that acts out of control because of anxiety and seems dangerous. This can sometimes cause a dog to be rehomed or sent to a shelter.
More often, it causes the owner to shut the dog away in the house or in the yard, stop taking the dog for walks, and otherwise avoid the issue.
A dog who is neglected or shut away because of their behavior has no way to improve or “win.”
The extra lack of contact, exercise, and stimulation also exacerbates the situation.
How to calm an anxious and fearful dog
Stay calm. An anxious or angry owner can only create a hostile and reactive feedback loop with their dog.
Your dog needs you to signal that everything’s fine and you have the situation under control. No matter what, your dog needs you to be calm.
Remember anxiety aggression is an instinctive behavior. Your dog does not have insight into their own responses, and they do not understand why their behavior may be “bad.”
They are just doing what they think they need to do to survive. As an owner, you can develop insight into your dog’s behavior, and you can reshape it, even if there is some trial and error.
As far as possible, never force a dog into a situation with no escape route. If they sense danger and do not yet have the behavioral skills to cope, remove yourself and the dog from the situation quietly and calmly.
Try to do this before your dog’s full fight or flight mode sets in since the reactivity is self-reinforcing behavior and will only make it harder to calm your dog down next time.
Do not try to calm a dog down that is already anxious or aggressive with treats.
Treats can be used as a distraction before your dog is triggered, while the trigger is a safe distance away.
Treats, while your dog is spazzed out, will at best be ignored and, at worst, reinforce the behavior.
Resist the urge to soothe by patting or stroking, as cuddling and baby talk can positively reinforce an unstable frame of mind.
At the same time, punishing only increases the anxiety and causes the dog to lose trust in you.
When you have found a safe space, simply sit quietly with your dog and wait for them to regulate themselves.
You can use music or pheromone products if there is a storm or upsetting noises to help your dog settle down.
When your dog has regained calmness, begin a positive activity that they enjoy. Choose one that involves physical exercise to drive the cortisol out of their body with endorphins. You can also use massage.
It’s important to use these positive activities to counter the stress hormones and reward your dog for being calm and regaining composure. The aim is to consistently reward calm behavior and channel your dog away from anxiety.
Use routine and stability for an anxious dog. A dog in a chaotic environment with very little routine will find it harder to regulate their own reactivity. A straightforward daily routine in a calm environment will minimize most anxiety-related issues over time.
Anxiety aggression is the most common form of aggression in our dogs. Whether it’s nipping because they are afraid of being hurt, or because another dog makes them feel threatened, or even just because they are anxious about losing their spot on the couch, anxiety and fear is the root cause of most reactivity.
Treatment options can involve the help of professionals such as veterinarians, who need to rule out health problems such as thyroid issues, and experienced behaviorists.
Most importantly, owners need to understand the source of their dog’s anxiety, learn to manage their environment, and engage in a gradual and calm desensitization program to help their pup adapt their behavior.
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Marie started HoundGames with her husband, Geoff. She is a life long dog lover and always wanted to start a business around dogs, and she's finally living out her dream. They hope to launch more products in the future!