Overcoming Behavior Challenges: Strategies for Dealing with Aggression, Anxiety, and Fear in Dogs

Posted by Jackie Ly on

dog after mischief biting toilet paper lying on couch at home


Table of Contents

What is Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Symptoms of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Preventing Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Dealing with Your Dog’s Fears and Anxiety 

What is Aggression in Dogs

Symptoms of Aggression in Dogs

Addressing your Dog’s Aggression

Treating Anxiety to Prevent Canine Aggression


Fear and anxiety are normal, adaptive responses for dogs. There will be things they’ll get afraid of, or things they’re already scared of, and during their formative years, you’ll be the one helping your dog navigate through moments of fear and anxiety. That is to prevent any bad behaviour from escalating, leading to aggression.

But sometimes, there are instances when your dog's anxiety or fear goes unnoticed, like when they’re in a new environment, or when they encounter a phobia you didn’t know they had. 

Because of these missed opportunities, they continue to encounter their stressors repeatedly, without you knowing. That's how they’ll start to develop defence mechanisms which later on become a nuisance or worse, harmful to others.

To help you understand how to prevent and/or treat anxiety, fear, and aggression in your dog, it’s important to understand their nuances, symptoms, and signs first.

What is Fear and Anxiety in Dogs


Fear is the natural feeling of apprehension triggered by an event, person, or object that poses an external threat, whether real or perceived.

The autonomic nervous system responds and prepares the body for the freeze, fight, or flight response, a natural reaction to perceived threats.

The context of the event influences whether the fearful response is natural, abnormal, or inappropriate. Most inappropriate responses are learned and can be unlearned through gradual exposure (counter-conditioning).


In contrast, anxiety is an anticipation of unknown or perceived future risks. This causes bodily responses (called physiologic reactions) that are typically linked with fear.

The most common behaviours are elimination (urination and/or bowel motions), destruction, and excessive vocalisation (barking and crying). You may notice excessive panting and/or pacing.

What causes fear and anxiety in dogs

Fear or anxiety in dogs can be caused by a variety of factors, including puppy socialisation issues and age-related health concerns such as dementia, traumatic experiences, and genetics.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the roots of these issues, but here are some of the most common causes of anxiety or fear in dogs:

  • Being forced into a new and frightening experience.
  • Lack of social and environmental experience until 14 weeks of age.
  • Phobias and panic: history of not being able to escape or get away from the stimuli that causes the phobia and panic, such as being confined in a crate.

Symptoms of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

There are several important symptoms to watch for:

  • Aggression
  • Urinating or defecating within the house
  • Drooling
  • Panting
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Depression
  • Excessive barking
  • Pacing
  • Restlessness
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviours

Some of these symptoms may be caused by occasional anxiety-inducing events, but any of them might become recurrent and lead to more significant problems. 

However, aggression is the most dangerous symptom of dog anxiety. This aggression can be addressed directly or indirectly, depending on the circumstances.

Preventing Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

As a puppy

The most effective way to prevent anxiety is to ensure that your dog is properly socialised and exposed (in a non-stressful manner) to a variety of new situations during their formative stage (3-14 weeks old). Two helpful books on this topic are Puppies First Steps by Kenneth and Debbie Martin, and Perfect Puppy in 7 days by Dr. Sophia Yin.

As puppy owners, you must continue to provide socialisation opportunities for your dog for the next few months while they strengthen their learning.

As an adult

To prevent anxiety and chronic stress in adult dogs, consider the following:

  • Be consistent with your dog's daily routine
  • Give them plenty of exercise and mental stimulation (suitable for their age, breed, interests, and health)
  • Positive reinforcement and negative punishment (force-free) training
  • Respect their need to be petted or not, to rest, to eat quietly, to spend time alone. and be with humans
  • Give them regular medical care 

Dealing with Your Dog’s Fears and Anxiety 

Know how to calm them when stressed

Calming an anxious dog depends on the situation. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, they will need to go through a behaviour modification programme and may need anti-anxiety medications.

If your dog is afraid of storms, create a safe space for them (e.g. in the basement with white noise, calming music, etc.) and check with their vet about storm-related medication. Working on relaxation and behaviour modification exercises can also help. 

Almost all anxious dogs benefit from positive reinforcement training, which improves predictability and consistency in their routine and relationships. 

Desensitisation and counterconditioning

Desensitisation and counter-conditioning are most effective when the fear, phobia, or anxiety is addressed early on. The idea is to decrease the response to certain stimuli (such as being left alone).

Desensitisation is the repeated, controlled exposure to a stimulus that often triggers a scared or anxious response. It is done at such a low level that your dog shows no fear or anxiety.

Counter-conditioning involves teaching your dog to do positive behaviour in place of fear or anxiety. It aims to substitute the anxious or aggressive behaviour with a more desirable behaviour, such as sitting or focusing on you or the person they're with.


If your dog develops a severe anxiety issue, your veterinarian may suggest medication or natural treatments. Dogs with anxiety are occasionally prescribed SSRIs and antidepressants, such as fluoxetine and clomipramine. 

For predictable anxiety-inducing situations such as thunderstorms, fireworks, or vehicle journeys, your veterinarian may prescribe benzodiazepine in conjunction with an antidepressant to help your dog cope with stress.

Monitor progress and consult your vet

If your dog is on medications, your veterinarian is going to require blood tests on a regular basis to make sure that the meds have been absorbed and discharged properly.

If behaviour modification does not work long-term, your veterinarian might want to change the technique. Without proper treatment, these problems are likely to worsen over time.

You will need to help your dog with behaviour modification activities and train them to relax in a range of environmental circumstances. When your dog appears upset, encourage them to remain calm. Distract them and divert their attention according to the method your vet has planned for you.

What is Aggression in Dogs

Aggression may be a typical way of communication for dogs, however displaying aggression towards a person or animal can be considered undesirable or troublesome.

The majority of canine aggressiveness is affective or emotionally motivated (fear and/or anxiety in the brain), whereas predatory aggression is motivated by the brain's hunger centre. Predatory aggression occurs when an animal is not afraid or worried, and it is expressed with the goal of reducing distance and capturing, killing, and consuming prey.

Why do dogs behave aggressively

There are many types of aggressions, and each is triggered by different reasons.

Dogs can have inherited the urge to fight or flee when confronted with a threat. Dog aggression can be genetic (acquired from the dog's parents) or breed-specific. Certain canine breeds have been selected and used to protect cattle or alert people against territorial threats. 

Different dog breeds have been selected to exhibit predatory behaviour. Aggression may be taught from earlier experiences because it was effective in avoiding or preventing an unpleasant outcome. 

Aggression does not necessarily have to be directed at a specific person. Some dogs become hostile towards other animals, specific animals (cats but not other dogs), or inanimate objects, such as car wheels or yard equipment.

Symptoms of Aggression in Dogs

Aggression frequently starts by fear or conflict-resolving signals, sometimes known as calming signals. These signals are used to communicate and resolve social conflicts. 

There are different symptoms for different types of aggression, but here are the most common and general signs: 

  • Avoiding eye contact by squinting and shifting the head or body away from the perceived threat
  • Yawning or licking the lips
  • Pinning or flattening the ears securely to the head
  • Crouching, lowering the body, or tucking the tail beneath the body
  • Stiffness or freezing
  • Growling 
  • Biting

Symptoms of Anxiety-related Aggression

Fear or anxiety-related aggression is perhaps the most common type of aggression in dogs. In reality, most of the types of aggression, except for predatory and disease-related aggression, are likely to involve fear or anxiety. Fear- or anxiety-related aggressiveness can be confusing since your dog can be defensive or hostile body language.

Initial signs of fear-related aggression are usually defensive, used to increase the distance between the perceived threat or to communicate “stay away”. But, aggression can become more offensive through learning. 

Aggression is offensive when your dog attempts to close the distance to the perceived threat. Despite the fact that offensive and defensive aggressiveness manifest differently, fear and the desire to remove the stimulus remain the key motivators for the behaviour.

Aggression motivated by fear or anxiety is common in veterinary hospitals or during social approach and handling.

It's important to remember that dogs exhibiting aggression are not inherently bad or mean, they are just reacting out of fear or anxiety.

Addressing your Dog’s Aggression

Know what causes the aggression

Understanding the root cause of your dog's aggression is the first step towards correcting it.

Some dogs growl when approached while eating or chewing a bone. Some are unfriendly towards children or strangers.

Your dog may become aggressive in the presence of other animals, or only certain animals (cats but not other dogs, or only larger dogs but not other animals and same-sized dogs), or against inanimate objects such as car wheels or yard equipment.

Monitor when your dog becomes aggressive as well as the conditions surrounding the behaviour. This will help you decide what to do next. It is important to determine the root cause of the aggression. The behaviour could be indicative of a larger problem.

See your vet

Aggressive behaviour in dogs can stem from various medical conditions such as orthopaedic problems, thyroid abnormalities, adrenal dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, seizure disorders, and sensory deficits. Additionally, geriatric dogs may experience confusion and insecurity, leading to aggressive tendencies. 

Medications and diet can also influence a dog's mood and susceptibility to aggression. It's essential to consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be contributing to or exacerbating the behaviour. 

If a medical problem is identified, close collaboration with the veterinarian is necessary to address it effectively and improve the dog's behaviour.

Consult a qualified professional

Dealing with a dog's aggression is tough and can be risky. If not handled carefully, trying to change the behaviour can make things worse. Even experts sometimes get bitten. 

Find a professional who can create a plan just for your dog and family. They'll guide you through it, keep track of progress, and adjust the plan as needed. In cases where the dog's quality of life is severely impacted or the risks are too great, euthanasia may be considered as a last resort.

Treating Anxiety to Prevent Canine Aggression

Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviourist, believes that medication is an underutilised therapy that can significantly help in the management of dog aggression. Dogs with unresolved behavioural issues not only endanger public health, but are more likely to be surrendered and euthanized.

To a casual observer, a growling or barking dog may appear to be extremely threatening or violent, whereas in fact the dog is acting properly in the given situation. As Dr. Overall noted, agonistic behaviours are complex social interactions characterised by displays of dominance, submission, and reconciliation.

The key to addressing aggression is to determine the context and causes of the behaviour. Before becoming aggressive, a dog goes through an arousal phase in which it reacts to negative stimuli. Dr. Overall explained that the arousal phase can happen quickly and is easy to miss.

Dog owners like you can assist in your dog's therapy by recording your pet for a veterinarian to review. "We want videos. We want to see what they do at home. All the information is right there," Dr. Overall stated.

Clomipramine, fluoxetine, dexmedetomidine, and imepitoin are some of the pharmacological compounds now approved by the FDA to treat some types of canine anxiety.

Dr. Overall considers medications as an additional approach to behavioural change, which encourages positive behaviours while ignoring negative ones.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, overcoming behaviour challenges like aggression, anxiety, and fear in dogs requires patience, understanding, and professional guidance. You need to identify the root causes of these issues, implement tailored behaviour modification techniques, and provide a supportive environment. These things help you improve your dog's quality of life. 

More importantly, approach these challenges with empathy and a commitment to the well-being of both your dog and family. With dedication and perseverance, many dogs can overcome these obstacles and thrive in their homes. 

Remember, seeking help from qualified professionals is key to prevent and treat these complex issues, and in return help you build a harmonious relationship with your pet.

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