The Fearful Dog

We can trace some of the most disturbing canine problem behaviors back to a single trait: fear. Whether you already have a dog that is timid or fearful, or you plan on getting a dog or puppy, it’s important for you to understand the dynamics and impact of a fearful temperament—and to realize the advantage of professional advice.

For thousands of years, fear has had an important place in the range of human emotions. It generally prevents us from doing really stupid things, and therefore helps us survive. The degree of fear we each have varies significantly, usually sorting itself out in the long run. The spectrum runs from people who operate assertively behind enemy lines in combat to those who prefer to live quiet and isolated lives. While the former defends us against evil, the latter can create amazing works of art, science, and literature.

Nature versus nurture

Like those in people, canine character traits are a combination of nature and nurture. It’s critical to understand the underlying difference between the two. Many dogs that are otherwise balanced, social, and playful have something they are afraid of. This can include vending machines, men with hats, or the vacuum cleaner, among other things. The owner can usually identify the frightening situation or item, and the dog otherwise behaves normally. These specific fears can sometimes be traced back to past events, and they are relatively easy to control and amenable to desensitization techniques.

This is very different from having a dog that’s genetically predisposed to be fearful. The most serious manifestation we encounter is the family dog displaying signs of ‘aggression,’ i.e. growling, snapping, nipping, and sometimes biting visitors or, less commonly, members of the family. Dog bites are actually very common (4.5 million annually in the U.S.), yet many are preventable with proper knowledge and action. Healthy, mature, well-socialized dogs with confident, balanced temperaments do not normally show such behavior, provided that there is no ambiguity within the family’s ‘pack structure.’

Signs of a fearful dog

Dogs born shy or fearful will eventually become quite comfortable in their home environment. However, placing such a dog in an unknown environment will elicit typical fear-driven responses. The dog will be visibly uncomfortable, with a tense body posture: ears back, tail lowered or between legs, panting, and moving its head nervously. The dog displays the message “I don’t like what is going on here.” A fearful dog will often stand slightly behind its owner.

The fearful character comes in various shades of intensity, with some dogs’ shyness never materializing into significant problem behavior. While fearful character traits exist in all breeds, matters are much worse if your fearful dog is a working breed with an instinct to guard territory. The problem will often escalate faster and create bigger headaches.

More often than not, fearful dogs learn to self-reward in undesirable or even dangerous ways. When approached by a stranger, a fearful dog may initially start growling. Because most people will stop or retreat when they encounter a growling dog, the dog learns that growling makes the scary object go away. Unchecked, these situations worsen quickly, escalating from growling to snapping, from snapping to nipping, and from nipping to biting. The fearful dog will usually take a quick nip or bite, sometimes to the back of the person, and retreat immediately. Worse, it doesn’t need to be a stranger or visitor—family members, especially children, can become targets. As it’s often not clear what precipitated the behavior, it can’t be prevented. You now have a dog that can’t be trusted.

Strategies for helping your fearful dog

Is there any silver lining? Yes, there is, when you have a seasoned and knowledgeable K9 trainer to help you! At North Edge K9, we have a simple guiding rule: what measures would I take, and what would I recommend if that dog lived in my household? This may not produce the answer some of our clients want to hear, but it will be the most honest and practical piece of advice they can possibly get. Also, frustration can be avoided by recognizing and accepting each individual dog’s genetic limitations, and not asking the dog to do something it can’t do. Imagine your 18-year-old son, who stands 5’7” tall and weighs 135 lbs. You may badly want him to play in the NFL, and he may practice for that goal 24/7, but is it likely to happen?

You are the responsible adult, and it is your job to control the outcome. Fearful dogs that have nipped and bitten MUST be prevented from doing so going forward. Physical separation of your dog from your children and visitors is the necessary first step. Your dog must wear a muzzle in public and avoid stressful situations. Behavior modification is possible, but it will be a lengthy process with an uncertain long-term outcome. You also need to look at your life and the life of your dog going forward and decide whether this is even a viable option. Ultimately, surrendering the dog to an animal welfare organization may be the best solution for all involved.

Are there other, more hopeful strategies for dogs with a lesser degree of fear and less entrenched problem behaviors? The simple answer is yes, but it will take time and effort. Each family dog showing fear-aggressive behavior is different, and usually the result of several combined factors. An experienced K9 trainer will help set the stage, goals, expectations, and a way forward. There is no single magic bullet.

With a fearful dog, be proactive: tell people not to pet your dog, and don’t take your dog to crowded, overwhelming events. Don’t force the dog into situations it fears, which will only confirm that the world is scary. Instead, use a calm voice and confident movements to show you are the pack leader. Do NOT use reassuring gestures or words, or you will confirm the dog’s perception. You also need to control your own emotions. Your heart sinking in anticipation when the doorbell rings will travel down the leash, and your dog will sense that ‘something is up.’ You must teach your dog that growling or nipping is never appropriate, and that obedient behavior will be rewarded. The process is best undertaken with appropriate supervision and guidance. Not facing the problem will guarantee only one outcome: it will not be a matter of if, but only of when and how badly the situation escalates.

North Edge K9 is here to help

Our team at North Edge K9 is comprised of active police K9 handlers and trainers with decades of street experience. We always advocate knowledge, control, and prevention. We are available to guide and assist you in all your dog training needs. Contact us at with any questions.