The Defendant Stands Accused of Fear Aggression


In my line of work, many people use the term “fear aggression” as a descriptor for behavior of an animal who displays aggressive-looking responses to a frightening stimulus — to a real or perceived threat.


In dogs, barking, growling, lunging, snapping, and similar “aggressive” appearing behaviors are almost always strategies that help the threatened animal to ward off a dangerous altercation with an aggressor. What people call “fear aggression” is really the scared animal’s attempt to avoid a physical altercation— by scaring away the threat.


To say a dog is fear aggressive would seem to imply that the dog is at once fearful and aggressive. But such inference would be inaccurate, since dogs’ fear-based behaviors are attempts to avoid aggression, not seek it out. In this way, aggression is an opposite of fearfulness and of fear-basedbehaviors.


Fear inspires avoidance, not confrontation; aggression involves confrontation, not avoidance.



Example of how labels can be little more than individual human assumptions, not facts. Feral dog who was extremely fearful/human-avoidant had been accused of being a “fear biter” upon being trapped by a private rescuer, though he’d never bitten anyone. Because the trapper could not approach the dog due to growling, he was surrendered to us for b mod. He looked scary at times back then, as shown in this photo. But he was not actually a threat.


Something that scares a dog can be considered aversive—unpleasant, in layperson terms—to that dog, just as spiders are aversive to someone afraid of spiders. It’s not that a spider-phobic person would never kill a spider; it’s that a spider-phobic person would prefer not to get anywhere near a spider. Only if there is no way to avoid it, might the spiderphobe kill it. That a spider-fearing person has at some time in their life killed a spider doesn’t mean the person is aggressive.


There are those who retort that fear underlies aggression as well as avoidance, that “it’s all fear.” While I understand the intention of the retort, its reductive nature is problematic.


“Fear Aggression” is not a description of behavior; it’s a label. Labels are hypothetical constructs (Dr. Susan G. Friedman), which essentially means that they don’t provide objective data and therefore are not meaningful, not helpful. Labels do not promote understanding or resolution. To analyze behavior objectively, one must operationalize, not hypothesize.


To describe an animal’s behavior objectively, we concretely describe the behavior observed and the conditions in which it occurred.


Here’s a simple way to test for objectivity. Try to draw your description, on paper. Can I draw a shadow? Yes—but most convincingly if I include what cast the shadow — say, a human wearing a hat — and the conditions in which they appeared — say, the side of a building at night, where a streetlight shines nearby. Here’s an example of something that can (mostly) be drawn.


It was midnight. Holding a baseball bat in one hand, a man wearing a cowboy hat leaned against the side of

the convenience store building. There was a bright light a few feet away, so the shadow he cast on the ground had alerted me to his presence.


If I relied instead on a subjective assessment of the situation, like:


A man with a bat was lying in wait to take his frustrations out on someone.


I’d be saying more about my preconceived fears and assumptions than about the actual, observed situation.


When we sacrifice careful observation and concrete description for imagination and assumption, there’s a great risk of unfairly labeling a situation or a being. I can’t know that the man is frustrated because I cannot read minds, and I cannot fairly interpret standing still while holding a bat as “lying in wait.” Maybe he just found the bat and decided to give it to his kids, who went inside to get a snack. That’s also a hypothesis, so I wouldn’t assume that either. The point is there is more than one possibility.


When we assume the worst possibility, we risk unfair labels. This happens all the time to people, and it happens all the time to dogs as well.


I cannot draw “fear,” though I can draw a picture of what I think suggests fear, like someone

standing on a table while rats circle the table legs. I cannot draw “aggression,” though I can draw a picture of something that I think implies aggression, keeping in mind that my construct isn’t necessarily fact.


The same (formerly) feral dog, cuddling with me, six weeks after being surrendered to us and interventions begun. He had never growled at me though he did growl at my husband early on a few times. Over time, he stopped growling all together, not because we told him to or trained him to stop, but because we helped him feel safe.




Another indicator that we might have wandered into the realm of hypothetical constructs is that we don’t have a general agreement on what the label means. Our drawings would not all be the same.


If someone says a dog is fearful, what would their drawing look like? It might depict a dog hiding or cowering. These are two behaviors that we might see in “fearful” dogs, but we also see these behaviors in “normal” dogs put in threatening situations. Thus, the label isn’t particularly helpful.


If someone says a dog is aggressive, what would their drawing look like? For some, it might depict a dog biting, while for others it might depict a dog lunging or just barking. All of these behaviors, too, may be seen in “normal” dogs put in threatening situations.


When we humans hide, it’s typically because there’s some good reason—some sort of threat we’re trying to avoid. When humans take physical measures against a threat, such as hitting or kicking an attacker they couldn’t escape, we call the behavior “self-defense.” Although punishment does sometimes happen to a human in such a case, generally we would consider punishment unjust, because we tend to view such self-defense behavior as reasonable if not necessary.


For dogs, the opposite seems to be true: we humans often deem dogs who try to defend themselves as “aggressive”; sometimes this leads to them being treated like canine criminals. The problem seems speciesist.


We don’t recognize in dogs, or don’t allow in them, the same rights and needs to self-defend that we assume for ourselves.


It’s a serious problem that requires serious change on our parts. By refusing to recognize self-defense in dogs, we allow illogical labels like “fear aggression” to put dogs at risk—of loss of love, comfort, safety, freedom, home, or even life.


Fear-based behaviors in dogs are almost always attempts to self-defend— not to fight, but to survive. They need our protection and help, not our hypotheticals.


The same dog about six weeks after arrival, cooperating with me for close-up videography.


The Testimony


Ethologist Roger Abrantes points out the error of viewing fear-based responses to a perceived threat as aggression:


Fear does not elicit aggressive behavior. It would have been a lethal strategy that natural selection would have eradicated swiftly and once and for all. A cornered animal does not show aggressive behavior because it is fearful. It does so because its natural responses to a fear-eliciting stimulus (pacifying, submission, flight) don’t

work [to avoid the threatening other].


In other words, when passive responses to a threat don’t get rid of it, the stuck animal has no choice but to try to ward off the threat in more active ways.


While we might prefer variations on Abrantes’ terms or split syntactical hairs, ultimately the point remains: What we have habitually viewed as aggressive behavior from a scared animal is not the fault of the animal’s tendency to feel afraid — as all animals sometimes do, naturally, including humans — it is the result of giving an animal no choice but to self-defend.


Fear is not a “sign,” as an internet someone once claimed, of aggression, and fear does not cause aggression. The cause of aggressive-looking displays from a threatened animal is not an animal’s fearfulness, but the continued advances of a threatener.


Barking, growling, lunging, air snapping, and yes, sometimes even biting, are the few options pet dogs have for self-defense.


Self-defense is not aggression.


Borrowing from Abrantes’ definition of aggression, I refine it here to elaborate what makes aggression different from self-defense.


Aggression: Behavior directed toward eliminating competition from an opponent by injuring or killing the opponent.


The key to defining aggression is not found in desperate behavior born of being forced to self-defend, to protect one’s life. It is found in actions designed to eliminate competition by delivering physical harm or death. In true aggression, which is relatively rare in dogs, no imminent physical threat perceived or actual precedes the aggressive act.


Considering the differences in human behavior can offer more clarity.


A fight to take a prize, such as a huge amount of wealth, may be actively pursued in order to enrich oneself at the sacrifice of another. The fight may be sought, planned, and implemented in order to gain more money — to gain it by putting a business competitor out of business, for example.


One competitor having more wealth is not a threat to life and limb of the other, however. One can live well without being more wealthy than a billionaire.


If I attack and harm a competing behavior consultant in order to get him to close business or move away, for

example, just to increase my client base, that fits the aforementioned aggression definition—in such

an example, I am the aggressor. It’s true even if my attack was not physical, if it caused such serious



On the other hand, if I am just going about my business, and one day the other behavior consultant shows up to corner and physically attack me, the physical action I am forced to take to stop him is self-defense, not aggression, even if my attacker is harmed by my response. In such an example, the other is the aggressor.


The latter is analogous to what often happens to our pet dogs before they growl, lunge, snap, or bite. There is an antecedent: something causes the dog to feel threatened with harm, or something did hurt the dog. That threatening antecedent is, quite naturally, responded to with self-defense behavior. All animals, including humans, carry a basic survival instinct.


The Sentencing


When deciding the fate of the accused, context is crucial.


Here, we humans don’t generally treat self-defense acts that result in harm or death the same way we treat pre-meditated or otherwise intentional killing. In our human world, Person A is not typically sentenced to death for an unplanned, unintended killing of a Person B who had been in that moment trying to kill person A. We tend to see it as self-defense, not aggression.


Behavior to save life and limb from immediate and inescapable threat, then, is not aggression, even if the behavior’s result is physical harm.


In a pet culture like ours, dogs are essentially captives — confined to our properties and our precepts — and we might not realize that some of our own behavior can make us appear as threat or aggressor to them. Given their situations, some may even begin to feel they are living in a constant state of danger. What might you do if you were forced to live with a much more powerful creature, under confusing, impossible to follow rules and unpleasant consequences, with no way to leave?


A dog found guilty of “fear aggression” too often faces a death sentence. The irony of course is that a dog who harmed in the attempt to escape harm to himself was trying to avoid an altercation that risked harm or death.


Sometimes, even dogs whose only “aggressive” displays are things like growling, lunging, or other scare-the-scary-thing-away behaviors are killed for their passive self-defense efforts.


How unfair it would be to take the life of a dog for having been terrified enough to fake aggression as the last hope of keeping the actual aggressor from hurting or taking his life.


How sad it is to take the life of a dog for having been so terrified that his only option, aside from lying doormat to whatever the aggressor brings, was a doomed-to-fail attempt to protect himself.


While there may be exceptions, for most animals in most contexts it is normal, adaptive behavior to self-defend against an inescapable threat. Yes, there are instances in which this response seems to us inappropriate. Sharing little language fluency with them, it may in fact be impossible for us to completely understand our dogs’ predicament in our world — just as it may be impossible for them to completely understand ours.


Unlike us, they have no choice but to live with that predicament.


Punishment or Rehabilitation


In the vast majority of cases labeled “fear aggression,” rehabilitation of dog and human, with a reputable anti-aversives behavior professional in a supportive environment, is the appropriate intervention. Just as we understand that painful, distressing, frightening corrections, punishments, and other aversive experiences are harmful, not helpful, we can understand that the Ultimate Punishment is a cruel non-solution. While “behavioral euthanasia” may relieve us of an individual whom we have deemed a threat to us, our lifestyle, or our comfort, it does not keep the cycle from repeating. To do that, we must recognize and take responsibility for our own part in the cycle, then implement behavior interventions for humans as well.


*Note: I do not argue that euthanasia should never be chosen, but that it is chosen far too often, and when other options would be more appropriate and humane.


Our begin-again starts by replacing misleading, imprecise labels like “fear aggression” – and by ensuring that human behavior doesn’t risk seeming like threat to our dogs.


My fear is that we remain unwilling to change.






Rain Jordan runs Expert Canine LLC and Canine Fear Solutions


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