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Appreciating the role of fear


and anxiety in aggressive
behavior by dogs
Daniel Mills, BVSc PhD
CBiol FIBiol FHEA CCAB
Dip ECVBM-CA MRCVS
European & RCVS Recognized
Specialist in Veterinary
Behavioural Medicine, Dept of
Biological Sciences, University
of Lincoln, UK
Professor Mills graduated from Bristol Veterinary School in
1990 and was the first individual to be recognized by the
RCVS as a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine; he
was awarded his Chair at the University of Lincoln in 2004.
His main area of research interest concerns animal cognition and emotional regulation. He is the program leader of
the University's MSc in Clinical Animal Behavior.

Introduction
Most people have no difficulty in identifying
overt aggression and fear, but the interaction
between these is less frequently recognized. Fear
is an emotional reaction associated with the
presence of potentially harmful stimuli (by
contrast, anxiety arises from the anticipation of
such events, although the terms will be used
interchangeably here) and is typically expressed in

KEY POINTS
Dogs can respond to a potentially harmful stimulus
by flight, freeze or fight strategies
It is essential to appreciate the factors that
contribute towards fear inducement
Dogs use a complex of body language that has to be
taken together to understand their preferences in
conflict situations
There is no direct evidence of dominance as a
motivating factor for aggression in dogs

44 / / Veterinary Focus / / Vol 20 No 1 / / 2010

Helen Zulch,
BVSc(Hons) MRCVS
Animal Behaviour, Cognition
and Welfare Group, Dept of
Biological Sciences, University
of Lincoln, UK

Dr. Zulch graduated from the veterinary faculty of the


University of Pretoria in 1992. The majority of her career
has been spent lecturing, first physiology and then Animal
Behavior. She joined Lincoln University at the beginning
of 2008 where she consults in the Behavior Referral Clinic
as well as lecturing on under-graduate and post graduate
programs.

one of three obvious ways. When an animal judges


that the most appropriate way to deal with such
threats is to avoid them (i.e. take flight) then the
commonly recognized fear response is elicited. If
however, it decides to keep still, ("freeze") then the
involvement of fear is perhaps less obvious, and
if it attempts to eliminate the stimulus from its
proximity (i.e. engage the "fight" response), the
dog's behavior may result in inappropriate and
potentially harmful interactions initiated by
people, who frequently misunderstand this as
some sort of dominance gesture. A dogs initial
choice of action may change in both the short term
(i.e. there may be a switch in behavior) or longer term
(i.e. the dog may use a different initial strategy
in future similar contexts) depending on what seems
to happen next from the dogs perspective (e.g. the
threat continues, intensifies or the dispute is resolved). Thus, far from being an instinctive impulse,
aggression is often a carefully (but quickly)
evaluated strategy aimed at resolving a dilemma
for the animal involving some perceived threat.

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This is not to say that all aggressive behavior is


motivated by fear. Indeed, aggression is not
consistently associated with any single emotional
state, but may be used to label any behavior that is
perceived to actually or potentially cause harm to
another. This means that behaviors in which harm
is incidental (e.g. if a dog should nip as part of
play) may be described as a form of aggression
(play aggression); as may behaviors associated
with the acquisition of food (predatory aggression).
However, these responses are motivationally quite
distinct and there is an increasing tendency to use
the terms play and predation to describe these
behaviors (1), avoiding the term aggression as this
may give rise to confused thinking about their
cause and management. This clarification may be
one of the first things to address when presented
with a case in which someone or something has
been harmed. It is suggested that the term
affective aggression be used to refer to behavior
associated with the presence of negative emotional arousal, such as a state of fear. However
note that, while it is important to recognize the
circumstances that might give rise to fear (Figure
1), it is unwise to consider that any emotion
underlying an aggressive episode is fixed or
necessarily consistent; for example if a dog is
denied access to a resource by an individual who
is perceived as a threatening competitor, (which
may be the owner), then the aggressive response
may include elements of both fear and frustration.
Veterinarians need a greater appreciation of the
risk factors for the involvement of fear in aggression, since greater provocation will further
compromise the animals welfare and potentially
increase the risk to others. To this end there are
two important points to consider in the recognition of fear-related aggression:
What circumstances give rise to a fear response?
Why is aggression chosen as part of the strategy
involving fear?

Circumstances giving rise


to fear in dogs
It is worth highlighting that, due to interactions
between genetic and experiential factors, some
individuals are more sensitive to fear than others,
regardless of their experience. Both breeding and
early experience may therefore have important

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Figure 1.
The looming of this owner over their dog is a typical trigger for
a fear aggressive response, even though the owner thinks they
are being friendly trying to pat it.

roles to play in the risk of a fear response being


expressed (all other factors being equal) by a given
individual in certain circumstances, but this
section will focus upon the specific factors which
predispose an animal to show a fear response in a
given situation.
Many specific fears are learned as a result of an
aversive experience, for example the fear of a
veterinarian who has handled the animal roughly,
especially if it was in pain, and the relevance of
this in any given case can often be identified by a
careful history. However there is also a range of
factors that (unless there is specific training to
the contrary) can have an intrinsic threatening
quality. These can help a dog to avoid harm by
providing general rules that aid the judgement
of potential risk and how to respond. These are
particularly important when the animal lacks
clear signals about its safety and they can serve
as triggers for a fear response and possible
aggression as a consequence. These factors can be
broadly divided into stimulus characteristics and
environmental features, whose significance in a
given case can be evaluated and used to help
inform treatment priorities (Table 1).

Stimulus characteristics
Trajectory. The direction of movement of an
individual towards a dog can have a marked effect
on how that individual is perceived. Direct appr-

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oaches are generally perceived as more threatening than indirect approaches and so are more
likely to evoke a fear response.
Velocity. All other things being equal, rapid
movement is more likely to be perceived as
threatening than slow movement
Acceleration. A sudden increase in the speed of
movement is often a sign of impending danger,
and so abrupt movements around a dog may be
perceived as potentially threatening.
Size. Bigger objects are generally associated with
a greater capacity to cause harm and so are more
likely to evoke a fear response than smaller ones.
Direction. In many species vertical movement
across the retinal field is generally seen as more
intimidating than horizontal movement. Why this
should be so is unclear, but this is not limited to the
perception of whole body movements; moving a
hand vertically in front of a dog is often more likely
to elicit a fear response than moving the hand
horizontally at the same speed.
Looming. Many species find the act of being
leaned over by another as intimidating (2). Thus
standing half a meter away from a dog is not the

same as doing this with your hand outstretched


over it at a similar distance.

Environmental cues (adapted from Archer (3))


Novelty. An unfamiliar environment or unexpected event is more likely to elicit a fear response
as the animal does not have the necessary information about its security (4).
Allocentric spatial thresholds. Allocentric space
(i.e. the location of objects relative to one another
or some arbitrary point) may be used to define the
location of important geographical boundaries
to an individual, such as the limits of a territory.
Crossing of these boundaries by an unfamiliar
individual may be perceived as potentially threatening (5). This area contains important resources
for an individual and so its invasion could signal
their potential loss, and so many territorial defense
behaviors are associated with self-protection and
can involve a fear component. The crossing of the
territorial boundary associated with the home is
perhaps the most obvious allocentric threshold
which can elicit a defensive response. However,
in some cases, dogs may define more arbitrary

Table 1.
Examples of aggressive behavior problems involving stimuli which may elicit fear
Scenario

Possible threat elements


perceived by the dog

Advice to client

The dog is on its bed in the living


room with a toy next to the bed. A
toddler approaches the dog, lifts the
toy and reaches towards the dog to
return the toy to the dog. The dog
snaps at the child (6).

Personal space invaded. Possession


threatened. Looming action of child.
Movement of child and its body parts
may be erratic and so include bouts of
acceleration.

Control access by children to dog when he


is resting. Discourage child from picking
up dog toys. Desensitise dog to approaches
to bed. Desensitise dog to looming actions
and accelerations in its proximity. Institute
exchange programs for all those items which
the dog may perceive to be of value so that
human possession of the items becomes
positive.

Older dog suffering from arthritis has


previously traveled with a young boisterous dog in the back of a car. Older
dog has now started growling at the
younger dog when he tries to climb
into the car.

Pain associated with the youngsters


previous actions in the car. Invasion of
personal space.

Control pain. Restrain young dog when in


the back of the car. Counter condition the
older dog to the presence of the young dog
in the car.

Young toy breed dog has begun lunging and barking at approaching dogs
when out walking. Has previously been
exposed to puppy classes allowing
uncontrolled free play sessions with
multiple dogs.

Pain or fear associated with previous


interaction with other dogs at puppy
class. Owner may have attempted to
correct what they perceive as misbehavior, i.e. owners behavior is also
threatening to the dog.

Stop punishment and threatening actions


of owner towards their dog. Prevent the
young dog from practicing the behavior.
Desensitise and counter condition the dog
to other dogs in all situations where they
may be encountered.

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APPRECIATING THE ROLE OF FEAR AND ANXIETY IN AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR BY DOGS

Table 2.
Interpreting the dogs body language. These interpretations are putative as few have been
rigorously examined in a scientific manner. Postures demonstrated in any given context vary
according to the individual and its previous experience
Putative motivation for the action

Body Language exhibited

Avoidance of conflict through yielding /


withdrawal

Avert gaze or turn head away Curve body away and/or move away Slow down
and/or curved approach Stop Tail tuck / arch back
Lower body / lower neck Stiffen body Weight over hindquarters
Piloerection Molars exposed with wide open mouth Retract lips to elongate
commisure Retract lips to expose incisors in smile Narrow eyes / blink Fold
ears back Lie down in lateral recumbence Raise hind leg whilst in lateral
recumbence Raise head with gaze averted

Appeasement (aiming to re-establish


non-confrontational social contact)

Slow down and/or curved approach Stop Wagging tail Tail tuck / arch back
Lower body Piloerection Avert gaze Lie down lateral or dorsal recumbence
Raise hind leg whilst in lateral recumbence Paw lift Yawning / retract lips / lip
lick Narrow eyes / blink Fold ears back Lower neck Reach up towards
mouth area of other individual possibly with licking motions

Encourage another to withdraw


(which may still be motivated by fear)

Direct rapid approach Direct steady tense deliberate approach Weight over
forequarters Tail raised above normal relaxed carriage for individual Wagging
tail / still, stiff tail Ears pricked / lateral / flattened against skull Lip commisure
pulled forwards Incisors / canines exposed with wrinkled muzzle skin Mydriasis
Direct stare / widened eyes with tension of surrounding musculature Neck arched
and head raised / muscle tension Stillness Lunge / snap / bite

Approach / avoidance or other form of


emotional conflict. This may not signal
a desire for immediate action but
demonstrates a level of discomfort with
the current situation which may indicate
an increased risk for fear motivated
aggression.

Lip licking / yawning Piloerection Shaking (as if to rid coat of water) Other
displacement activities such as sniffing the ground

territories, such as the space around the car that


they are within when it is parked, and respond to
the potential invasion of this space in a similar
way.
Egocentric spatial thresholds. Not all of the space
in which an individual exists is defined by its
physical location; egocentric space is defined by
reference to its location relative to the individual
(2). As humans we are familiar with the idea of
our personal space, a certain distance that we
wish to keep from others to maintain our comfort
in normal circumstances. If this space is invaded
then we will often respond (if possible) in some
way, such as backing off. For dogs there are at least
two important egocentric spatial thresholds
that are associated with activation of the fear
neurocircuitry: the invasion of the dogs personal
space and invasion of its body surface e.g. touch.

The personal space of a dog appears to be typically


between 1.5 and 2 meters in an open situation, but
it may vary depending on the characteristics of the
environment. Just as we may tolerate people closer
to us in a crowded train carriage, so too may a dog
reduce its personal space in an equivalent situation.
However, in both there is still a minimum acceptable distance, defined according to the region of
the body concerned. We may tolerate greater
proximity of the body trunk than the face, for
example. In situations such as this it may be particularly important for the individuals to communicate their non-threatening intent in order to
avoid inadvertent elicitation of a fear response.

The decision to express aggression


as part of a fear response
As mentioned above, an animal may evoke one
of three strategies to deal with a potential threat:

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flight, freezing or fighting. Many animals may


freeze to allow the threat to pass, but this can fail
as a strategy because the owner perceives this
behavior as stubbornness and responds in a
threatening way to the dog, and so escalates the
perceived threat. If freezing does not succeed,
then the animal has little choice other than to try
to withdraw itself or get the perceived threat to
withdraw. Withdrawal may not be possible (e.g. if
the dog is cornered or restrained in some way,
such as with a lead), and so the dog then has no
sensible choice other than to try to get the threat
to withdraw. This is done using a sequence of
conflict-related gestures, which may ultimately
involve overtly aggressive behavior if more subtle
gestures are ineffective at resolving the situation.
In other situations it may be theoretically possible
for the animal to flee, but it is strongly motivated
not to do so. This might be because:
It wants to protect a resource that it values
highly and/or which it cannot easily take with
it, for example a bitch protecting her puppies
It anticipates that the other individual will give
way, for example because it is smaller, weaker
and/or has yielded in the past
It has learned that other strategies do not work, e.g.
when it freezes, the owner continues to tell it off
It would be painful to do so e.g. concurrent hip
dysplasia
Once again, the response of the individual who
has provoked the response in the dog is critical in
determining what happens next. Do they escalate
the confrontation or not? Escalation may occur
because one or more of the innate triggers of
aggression is presented (such as approaching and
leaning over the dog) or because a direct threat is
made (e.g. the owner gets angry). Ultimately this
may lead to an aggressive display by the dog (7),
but it is important to appreciate that this will be
underpinned by an element of fear, because the
animal feels threatened.

Signaling to avoid overt aggression


An aggressive display should be viewed as a failure
to understand the animals needs at a given time,
since dogs have a well-developed communication
system designed to minimize the risk of escalation
and avoid physical conflict in the face of a
potential threat (Table 2). This is because overt

48 / / Veterinary Focus / / Vol 20 No 1 / / 2010

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physical attack is a potentially risky strategy,


which, even if successful, may lead to injury or
disruption of the social group to such an extent
that the long term biological fitness of antagonists
will be compromised. Nature does not favor the
tendency to fight unless the situation is perceived
as serious. When there is a potential conflict of
interests, dogs will typically communicate at
least two distinct messages to avoid unnecessary
escalation:
Their preferred level of engagement in the
conflict (i.e. their desire to yield versus oppose
the other)
Their level of hostility (intention to inflict harm
or not) to resolve the dispute
Yielding is generally shown through body postures
consistent with withdrawal or inconsistent with
engagement, such as a low, crouched posture with
ears back and tail tucked or the exposure of the
belly and aversion of eye gaze, while opposition is
exhibited by a more forward posture and action.
These are frequently described as submissive or
fearful versus dominant or confident postures, but
note that they relate to preference for engagement in a given situation rather than an exhibition
of general social status, i.e. they are context specific
although they may be shaped by previous experience.
Hostility is evident from an increase in arousal
together with more specific warning signs such as
the fixing of gaze, baring of the teeth, vocalization
and snapping. By contrast, appeasement, which
signals a non-hostile intent and aims to reduce
hostility in others, can be expressed through a
range of gestures such as yawning, increased
blinking, slow movement, reduced ocular aperture, and nose licking.
The expression of yielding and hostility is perhaps
most readily interpreted as a fear-biting scenario,
but it is important to recognize that even an animal
who is willing to actively oppose another may be
fearful of the consequences (8). For example it may
be willing to protect a valued resource but may still
be concerned about the outcome. Therefore the
tendency to interpret the posture of engagement as
a sign of confidence is erroneous. This may explain
the finding by Guy (9) that supposedly dominantly
aggressive dogs are generally anxious and not

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APPRECIATING THE ROLE OF FEAR AND ANXIETY IN AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR BY DOGS

confident as might be predicted if dominance was


really underlying the behavior. Indeed, to the
authors knowledge, there is no direct evidence of
dominance as a motivating factor for aggression in
dogs, although it is often implied by observers.
Several other important implications follow from
this evaluation of the signaling of dogs. First, if a
dog exhibits signs of appeasement and these are
not acknowledged, then it may either show more
intense signs of appeasement or decide that
hostility is necessary since appeasement does
not seem to work. Appropriate acknowledgement
involves disengaging and eliminating any gestures which could be perceived as potentially
threatening. Unfortunately many owners mistake
appeasement gestures for a guilty dog who knows
he has done wrong (Figure 2), and this can result
in further threatening gestures from the owner,
leading the animal to reject attempts at reconciliation and so resort to hostility instead. Unfortunately, the dog may learn from such encounters
that appeasement is not a useful strategy and
therefore only offer hostility when afraid in the
future. A similar account could be described in
relation to failure to respond appropriately to
yielding (as opposed to active appeasement)
behavior. In either case the aggression that results
is both normal and a response to continued threat
and so rightly considered a form of fear-related
aggression. Of particular importance to the
effective and humane management of these cases
is recognition that fear may feature within a dog
opposing another in any competitive situation.
Treatments which might potentially escalate the

Figure 2.
An owner may interpret appeasement behavior as a guilty
look; note the dogs crouched body stance, tensed neck,
lowered head, narrowed eyes, folded ears and tucked tail.

problem (e.g. those based on punitive or potentially threatening assertive interaction, rather than
consistent sensitive recognition of the animals
needs) should be rejected.

Conclusion
Fear is involved in the expression of aggression
far more frequently than is perhaps generally recognized. It is essential that everyone who interacts
with dogs recognize both the stimuli which may
be perceived as threatening to dogs as well as the
means dogs use to signal their willingness to
engage in different strategies in social situations.
Only then can the risk of aggression and biting be
reduced effectively in the long term.

REFERENCES
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Behavioural Medicine (2nd edn). 2009; pp. 182-210.
2. Graziano MFA, Cooke DF. Parieto-frontal interactions, personal space,
and defensive behavior. Neuropsychologia 2006; 44: 845-859.
3. Archer J. The organization of aggression and fear in vertebrates.
In: Bateson PPG, Klopfer PH (eds) Perspectives in Ethology, Vol. 2,
Plenum Press, New York 1976; pp. 231-298.
4. Marler P. On animal aggression: the roles of strangeness and
familiarity. American Psychologist 1976; 31: 239-246.
5. Hediger H. (Sircom G, transl.) The psychology and behaviour of
animals in zoos and circuses. Butterworth, New York 1963.

6. Reisner IR, Shofer F, Nance M. Behavioral assessment of child-directed


canine aggression. Injury Prevention 2007; 13: 348-351.
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Science 2009; 117: 47-54.
8. Fatj J, Feddersen-Petersen D, Lus J, et al. Ambivalent signals during
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2007; 105: 274-283.
9. Guy NC, Luescher UA, Dohoo SE, et al. A case series of biting dogs:
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