Signs of Dog Anxiety and How to Fix It: Growling, Aggression, and Fear – Mushy Beds

Signs of Dog Anxiety and How to Fix It: Growling, Aggression, and Fear

Signs of Dog Anxiety and How to Fix It: Growling, Aggression, and Fear

Dogs bark and growl and sometimes do things that make people uncomfortable, like jumping on them or trying to smell their crotch. Most dog behaviors are cute, funny, embarrassing, or annoying. And then there are the scary behaviors. Many people get confused when their sweet, friendly dog tries to bite the veterinarian, growls at roughhousing children, or acts like Cujo toward the mail carrier. Is the dog aggressive? Is it showing dog anxiety?

If so, what can be done?

Woman with her aggressive dog walking outdoors

Fear and Aggression Are a Continuum

Like all social species, dogs and humans try to avoid conflict, especially violent conflict. People apologize, try to have rational discussions, flee the situation, pretend it never happened, warn other people to back off, and worst case, we usually just yell at each other. We almost never actually attack each other. Dogs do the same things. Most so-called "dog fights" are just dogs yelling at each other, and most dog "bites" are just warning snaps that inflict little or no damage.

Most social conflicts involve a mixture of fear and aggression. The bully acts aggressively to see what he can get away with, and his terrified victim fights back. An ordinarily peaceful person feels backed into a corner with no way out, so in her current state of intense fear, she lashes out at anyone who comes near her.

We can understand dog aggression/fear within the same framework. However, unlike humans, we can't explain to the dog that the veterinarian is trying to help, the children are playing, and the mail carrier is just doing a job. We can, however, significantly reduce a dog's fear level and the chance of a dog actively aggressing through appropriate socialization, management, and training.

Heed the Growl

Never forget that dogs are armed. Every dog has a mouthful of knives that can rip through human flesh like it is paper. A large dog can break bones with one chomp. A tiny dog can take a person's face off. These warnings are not intended to scare you; they are just meant to remind you that your sweet little Muffin can cause serious damage if placed in a situation that prompts such a reaction. Don't let that happen.

If you are faced with a dog giving off strong aggressive or fearful signals, you need to get out of there. Do not stare at the dog. Do not wave your hands around. Do not move suddenly. Slowly back away and remove yourself from the situation. Never run. Never try to "show the dog who is boss." The goal is to avoid violence.

What are Signs of Extreme Aggression?

A threatening, aggressive dog will move stiffly and slowly. It will hackle and growl. It may wag its tail, slowly and stiffly, side to side or hold the tail straight up. It will stare hard and pucker its lips back and bare its teeth.

A small dog growling

What are Signs of Extreme Fear?

A fearful dog will crouch, tuck its tail, flatten its ears, and open its eyes wide, a sign called "whale eye." It may hackle and pant or drool. Usually, a very fearful dog won't make any noises. If a dog is exhibiting signs of severe fear, don't approach it. Don't try to pet it or shove your hand in its face to "make friends." Don't grab at it. Move away and defuse the situation.

Cooperative Care

To reduce your dog's fear level at the veterinarian's office, a training program called "cooperative care" should be instituted. This training program involves teaching the dog to perform certain behaviors on cue that reduce its fear, such as standing still for an examination. It also involves getting the dog accustomed to undergoing physical examinations, ear cleaning, grooming, and toenail trims. Most dog trainers will incorporate aspects of cooperative care into their puppy and obedience training programs or offer specific classes on cooperative care for dogs who are terrified of the veterinarian and groomer.  Dogs who aren't scared of being examined don't bite the veterinarian.

Reactive Dogs

One of the most common behavioral problems in dogs is aggressively barking and lunging at any strange person or dog that approaches. Most people think this means the dog is highly aggressive or experiencing dog anxiety but this is a fear-based behavior. The dog is afraid of the approaching dog or person, and the dog has learned that if it puts on a big show of barking and lunging, the threat will just go away. This behavior is sometimes called 'leash reactivity' because if the dog is not on a leash, aka free to run away, it generally runs away instead of barking and lunging.

Two dogs fighting for a toy ball

This problem can be addressed through classical conditioning, which aims to make the dog feel good about approaching dogs/people, or by teaching the dog to display a different, more acceptable behavior when people and dogs approach. For example, the owner can change how the dog feels about approaching dogs/people by making sure good things happen whenever they approach, such as giving the dog treats. Many dog trainers offer classes on how to reform reactive dogs.

Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is actual aggression, and it is very common in dogs. It is one of the major reasons why dogs bite people. Some dogs instinctively feel the need to guard food, chewies, toys, beds, and even their owners. When someone tries to take their possession, they will give off warning signals such as growling and hard stares, and if the thief doesn't back down, they will bite.

As a general rule of thumb, don't go near a dog that is eating. Don't try to forcibly take anything away from a dog. Don't try to physically move a sleeping dog. Teach your dog to drop things on command and to get off the couch on command to avoid conflicts.

The experts generally test shelter dogs for resource-guarding tendencies and usually decline to place dogs with strong guarding behaviors in homes with children, who are unlikely to heed the dog's warnings.

The good news is that most dogs can be trained not to resource guard through programs that teach the dog to trust that the owner isn't stealing their things and training to teach the dog and the owner to avoid confrontations. A professional should always be involved in this kind of training. Owners of dogs that engage in strong guarding behaviors should be aware that they need to take management steps to prevent conflicts, such as putting the dog in a crate whenever children come to visit.

Frustration/Redirected Aggression

This type of aggression is most commonly seen in restrained dogs, such as a dog kept on a chain or behind a fence. The dog becomes very aroused by something, such as a steady stream of people walking by that it can't do anything about, so as soon as it gets the chance to attack someone or something, it does. Frustration aggression is why a significant percentage of serious, even fatal, dog attacks are inflicted by chained dogs. If multiple dogs are kept behind a fence, it is not uncommon for them to start fighting among themselves when they become frustrated, or the dog may attack its owner, who is just coming to see what the fuss is all about. This type of aggression is best avoided by not chaining dogs and by keeping dogs away from fences that are located right next to heavily trafficked walkways.


Predator behavior is not aggression. Dogs are predators, hard-wired to chase things that move and try to kill them. If your dog chases squirrels and cats or tries to kill your chickens, it is not being aggressive. Dogs engaged in predatory behavior act playful, not aggressive.

Early socialization with cats, chickens, horses, and any other animals you don't want the dog to hunt is the best preventative measure. The puppy grows up knowing that cats are friends, not food. If it is too late for socialization, training (a really good recall), fences, and leashes can all prevent unwanted predation.


A program of training your dog to calmly ignore other dogs while out on walks instead of encouraging it to interact with any dog it sees will produce a calm, well-mannered dog. Dogs who go nuts and try to approach any dog they see are a nuisance and a major cause of dog fights. While puppies are naturally interested in playing with other dogs and should be provided with play dates, most adult dogs are not all that interested in interacting with dogs they don't know well. Dogs that rudely shove themselves into the faces of other dogs are likely to trigger an aggressive self-defense response. Don't let your dog scare other dogs by running up into their faces. Leash and train.


Aggression and fear are natural behaviors of dogs, and they exist on a continuum and are closely related. Aggression is often caused by fear. Fear in dogs can be reduced by socialization and training, and aggression can be avoided by training and management.