Fear and aggression in dogs

Understanding aggressive behaviour in dogs


Barking and snarling, even biting, is part of a dog’s language. It’s how dogs tell us they’re not happy with a situation.

The causes of dog aggression that we come across most often are:


The dog wants to go to a person or another dog to say ‘hello’, but the lead or fence gets in the way. They get frustrated and angry (think about how many humans behave when they’re stuck in a traffic jam!) This leads to barking and snarling behind a fence, in the car or lunging on the leash.

Jack Russel Terrier pulling on lead
Fear and aggression in dogs



The fearful dog wants to get the person, other animal or even object to go away and barking and snarling is the way they do it. If this doesn’t succeed, they’ll opt for flight or fight. To us, the threat may seem no threat at all, but size and apparent demeanour don’t matter. Fear in dogs can also be anxiety about losing ‘resources’: things that are important to the dog and can lead to guarding of food, bowls, toys or furniture.

Frustration and fear can look similar, but we deal with them in different ways. In either case, the prospects for a solution, if you stick to the right training plan, are good.

Then there are some other more specific and less common problems.

Dogs with play



A lot of perfectly normal dog play mimics fighting. Dogs will happily chase, wrestle and mouth their playmates. In healthy dog play, the dogs know how to introduce a game and when to hold back, pause and check their playmate is enjoying it, too. If you watch dogs playing, you’ll often see roles being reversed: 

Two dogs playing in a field

the dog who’s chasing becomes the one who’s being chased.  Super fun. And everyone knows the rules because they learned playing with others as puppies. But, occasionally, perhaps because of early illness, they missed out on those early lessons from other pups. These dogs often go in too hard or too fast and fights break out. The good news is that with patience and good timing, you can do some remedial lessons on good dog play behaviour and stop the spats.

A group of dogs running in a field

Dog Bullying

As you’d expect, this is about a dog targeting another. It might involve overly rough play, pinning the other dog down or might tip over into dog fighting. We can work to show that this behaviour doesn’t pay.


Female housemate aggression

In many homes, female dogs live quite happily together, but sometimes an escalating cycle of fights develops. The fights can be intense and cause serious injury. Each of the dogs individually won’t be aggressive towards other dogs they meet and could live harmoniously with a male dog. But with their female house-mate, it is all out war. Training may help to some extent, but never eliminates the problem entirely, which makes it very distressing for owners. Sadly, the only options are extremely diligent management to keep the dogs apart or re-homing one of the dogs.



This is where a dog is quite simply up for the fight. These cases are tough to solve because the ‘rush’ the dog gets from the fight trumps almost everything else. You can make progress, but it will always be important to be cautious and vigilant in encounters with other dogs and deny a game dog the opportunity to engage in fights to keep others safe. Gameness is relatively uncommon. Even if you’ve been told your dog is irredeemably mean or aggressive, please call us for a second opinion.

A dog with a piggy bank

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Rhodesian Ridgeback dog with a tennis ball

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