8 Tips for Approaching a Fearful or Aggressive Dog

Learn canine body language

A black dog, Sweden.
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Dogs communicate fear and aggression through their body language. Shivering, cowering, tail tucked between the legs, and averted eyes are some common signs of fear in dogs. In addition, dogs often show aggression when they are afraid.

Before you approach a shy, fearful, or aggressive dog, be extremely careful. Your own body language and demeanor are very important when you are dealing with a fearful dog. If you see signs that indicate the dog may bite, do not approach. In these cases, it's best to find the owner or contact local animal authorities. 

Tips for Approaching a Fearful or Aggressive Dog

These tips will help you gain the trust of an aggressive, fearful, or shy dog. Remember, though, that even if you follow all these suggestions you may still need to reach out for help in managing the dog. Don't be shy about asking for support, as a frightened dog can be dangerous.

  1. Don't Loom Over the Dog. A dog who is already anxious may get even more stressed if you stand to face him with your body looming above. It's easy to imagine why a fearful dog would feel even more threatened when faced with confronting someone at least twice their size. Be aware of your body position when you approach any new dog, especially one that is frightened.
  2. Get Down on the Dog's Level. A better way to approach a fearful dog is to get down on his level. Don't put yourself directly in his face, but keep in mind that you'll be less threatening if you're not towering above him. You can squat or sit down close to him. For extremely fearful dogs, you may even want to lie down a little distance away to begin making him more comfortable with your presence.
  3. Turn Sideways. Turning with your side facing the dog, perhaps even leaning slightly away from the fearful dog, can also help. This isn't a natural position for most people; for us, good manners usually dictate that we meet others face-to-face and make eye contact. For dogs, however, this sort of behavior is rude, and a fearful dog may perceive someone facing them head-on as a threat.
  1. Avert Your Gaze. We humans usually consider it normal to make direct eye contact with other people. However, this is often considered rude, threatening, or even aggressive to dogs. To make yourself less intimidating to a frightened dog, avoid making eye contact. Instead, turn your head slightly to the side and keep your eyes averted.
  2. Speak in a High-Pitched Voice. Deep, low voices can be daunting to a fearful dog. Try to talk to the dog in a higher pitched, happy tone of voice. Men may have a little trouble with this; if so, try just speaking more quietly while remaining upbeat. A quiet, reassuring tone of voice can go a long way in making a nervous dog more comfortable.
  3. Never Punish a Fearful Dog. It may seem obvious, but it must be said: never scold or punish a fearful dog. You will only succeed in making him more fearful. You may also put yourself in danger because, as a dog's anxiety level rises, he becomes more likely to bite. Also, it's best to avoid using aversives when training a fearful dog. In most cases, these can hinder progress and escalate fear.
  1. Don't Force Things. Give dogs a chance to become comfortable and approach the objects of their fear on their own. Never force the interactions. For instance, if a dog is afraid of men, don't hold his collar while a man approaches and pets him. This will only serve to increase the dog's fear, making it more likely someone will get bit if the dog feels the need to defend himself. Most dogs can be slowly introduced to the objects of his fear, but a frightened dog is not ready to face additional challenges.
  2. Stay Positive. Training can make a big difference in your shy or fearful dog's confidence level. Positive reinforcement dog training has the benefit of allowing you to open the lines of communication with your dog without pushing him beyond his comfort level. You can even start training without asking him to do anything. As your dog learns more and becomes more confident, many of his fears will decrease or even fade away.

How to Help Your Dog With Specific Fears

While the tips above will help you deal with a dog that is anxious and upset, you may also want to help your own pet to overcome specific fears. If that's the case, these additional tips may help.

  • Try gently exposing your dog to an object or person he fears from a safe distance (one that does not provoke fear in your dog). Act like it is no big deal, and slowly inch closer. Stop advancing if your dog shows any signs of fear. You may even need to take a step back.
  • Offer your dog praise or gently hand him treats anytime he does something you like, such as walking towards an object or person he's afraid of. As your dog begins to better understand what you expect from him and realizes that he'll be rewarded for doing those things, he will begin to become more confident and offer those behaviors more frequently.
  • Try this process every day or two for about 10 minutes at a time. Depending on the level of your dog's fear, you may need several sessions to see a difference. Be patient and don't give up. Always remember to keep the things positive and upbeat.

If you keep things positive and move slowly and steadily forward, you will be more likely to earn the trust of your shy dog. If your dog continues to show signs of extreme fear or aggression, it may be time to consult a vet and/or animal behavior specialist.