Animal Psychology Module 4

Calm The Pack

Anxiety, fear, and aggression are behind most of the challenging, worrying or upsetting behaviors in our pets. We will take a closer look at what is behind these states to give you a better understanding.

What you will learn in this module:

4.1    Understanding fear in dogs

4.1.1 Common reasons for fear

4.1.2 Dealing with fear

4.2    Anxiety

4.2.1 Separation anxiety

4.2.2 Addressing home-alone anxiety

4.3    Aggression

4.3.2 Types of aggression

4.3.1 Misinterpretation of aggression

4.3.3 Signs of possible aggression

Fear, anxiety, and aggression in your dog makes life unpleasant for you and your pet. We adopt pets into our lives to share love, company, fun, many more wonderful qualities, and bonds. No one likes to see a pet having a stressful experience but sometimes it can be difficult to work out what is going on. We will try to help you understand what is happening from a dogs point of view, and offer some advice that may help you to resolve unhappy situations.

4.1 Understanding Fear In Dogs

Fear is probably the most primitive emotion of all. The expression of fear in dogs follows a remarkably similar pattern to that in humans, although our brains are quite different. Fear is registered in the amygdalae. The hypothalamus transmits signals to and from the brain, and to hormone producing glands including the adrenals. They then produce the flight or fight hormone adrenaline. Immediately, we can see how fear can be linked with aggression.

The initial response to fear in a dog is usually to become suddenly very alert and then to freeze. The amygdalae has stored past frightening events. It rapidly sends signals to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, to decide upon a response. The dog’s body is tense, they may be shaking, eyes are wide, and teeth may be bared. The heart rate and breathing will have sped up.

There are two types of situations that can scare a dog:

  1. Something that has frightened them in the past.
  2. Something they have not experienced.

The next response will depend on what worked before. Some dogs will stay frozen and others will run away. If they have been frightened by something in the past, tried to run away, and did not have an escape route; this learning will come into play. The dog may resort to aggression as they learned this was the only option for them in the past to defend against what they sensed as a threatening situation. You know a cardboard box is harmless, but they have not learned that yet.

Fear is a powerful trigger for learning. When a dog is suddenly frightened by something unfamiliar, even a cardboard box, they can carry on having this fear about anything similar. They may show a fearful response when revisiting the spot where it happened, though the box is no longer there. This might explain how a dog may seem to have irrational fears. They are perfectly rational to them. Many clinicians who study dogs believe most cases of aggression are motivated by fear rather than anger or a need to dominate.

4.1.1 Common Reasons For Fear


This is understandable in some puppies. However, if it continues into adulthood it is likely to be the result of frightening situations or poor socialization during the early stages.


Many timid dogs are scared of other dogs. They avoid contact or take any social interaction very slowly and cautiously. Again, this could be due to poor socialization or a bad experience with a frightening dog.


Some dogs have a more nervous personality than others. Environments like walking on a busy city street with lots of people, traffic sounds, and quickly appearing obstacles of all kinds are overwhelming.


Fireworks and thunder are typical examples. They are common fear triggers for many dogs, causing them to try and run away or hide.

4.1.2 Dealing With Fear

Many owners lovingly adopt dogs from rescue homes. Sometimes the dog may be coming from a troubled background and the owner needs to spend time dealing with fearful reactions, without having any insight into what is behind the fear. You have our full support and humble admiration!

For any owner with a fearful dog, we hope this section will help.

Once a dog has learned fear, it can be difficult to change this learning. The response to the fear in the past was probably to run away. Unfortunately, they were not around  long enough to realize that the thing or situation may not have been frightening. The dog made the decision that this was something to be avoided.

Start by identifying the fear triggers.

The most effective method in trying to get the dog to relearn a new response is by gradual exposure to the source of the fear at a safe distance. This might have to be a very safe distance for dogs that are especially nervous. Allow enough proximity to trigger the alert response but not the fear response.

For example, if the fear is of strange people or dogs, walk where there are others but keep at a safe distance. Move a little past your dogs comfort zone. At the alert response give a treat and some calm, reassuring praise. If they move into fear, the best thing to do is to leave the situation quickly, and do not give a treat – you do not want to reinforce the reaction.

Another method is to stay in one spot so your dog can realize the source of fear is not actually a threat. Tell her to sit and give a treat. Doing this often enough may help her to relearn that in the presence of the source of her fear nothing bad actually happens, and something nice does.

Noise is a stimulus that is often not in your control including thunderstorms and fireworks. These can be very scary for dogs, and treatment does not always work to desensitize dogs. It is worth gradually introducing a recording of a similar noise starting at a very low level. Do it at a time that is safe, happy, and fun. For example, when he is playing with children or enjoying a tasty treat. It is important to keep it at a level that alerts him but does not cause fear – you do not want him to now associate fear with happy things. If this is accepted calmly, very gradually increase the noise over a longer period.

4.2 Anxiety

Anxiety can often be confused with fear as some of the responses are similar. Anxiety is about the anticipation of fear – it is not triggered by the fearful thing or the situation but by indications that the frightening situation or thing might be about to happen.

4.2.1 Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety pet owners see. Some breeds are more prone to feeling it than others. As you are preparing to leave, your pet may show signs of anxiety. They may curl up in their bed because it is the safest place they know. They may be looking miserable and/or worried. They will probably be watching every move you make. Your pet may be anticipating feeling the fear that you are going away and never coming back.

Even if dogs can understand the concept of leaving and returning, their concept of time is not fully understood. Therefore, it is difficult to know how they deal with periods of time without knowing when something is happening or not happening.

Some dogs do not like spending any time on their own – they have formed an immense attachment with their owners, and want them to stay nearby. Of course, this is not always possible. There are many dogs that seem to chill out and be quite relaxed at spending time on their own.

The pets that react badly may show this through a variety of behaviors:

  • Chewing on furniture or other objects within reach, especially any that has a scent of the owner.
  • Scraping and biting around the exit door in an effort to escape and follow the owner.
  • Using begging gestures like pawing.
  • Whining, howling or excessive barking.
  • Pacing.
  • Urination and/or defecation.
  • Biting themselves.

Many things may contribute to a dog’s anxiety around separation: breed traits, socialization experiences in puppy-hood, mistreatment or long periods of aloneness in the past, and a nervous disposition or uneasiness about the environment.

4.2.2 Addressing Home Alone Anxiety

One reliable training method that can be used to help reduce separation anxiety is called “systematic desensitization.” It is a type of counter conditioning. It was developed by Joseph Wolpe in 1958 to treat anxiety, fear, and phobias in humans. The idea is to gradually introduce distance between you and the pet while keeping them feeling relaxed.

For this to work the dog needs to understand, and respond to commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘down’. You start by getting your dog to lie in their bed and stay there while you are close by. Reward their cooperative behavior with little treats.

Gradually, start to move away enough for the dog to notice you are doing so but without feeling anxious. It is important that you do not trigger the anxiety response while you are doing this conditioning. You are trying to gradually get your dog used to a slightly new situation while remaining comfortable. This way they learn a new response to you distancing yourself. Do not aim for too much too quickly. If you have made progress; leave the next lesson for another day.

As well as gradually moving further away, gradually increase the length of time your dog stays in the bed. Try to get to a point where your dog is comfortable to lie in the bed while you move to another room. Reward the staying with something they love. This reinforces the relaxed behavior, and makes it something they will want to do again. If you notice an anxious response, at any stage, pull back and try a smaller step. Gradually, move towards going outside for a very short time, and return when you are pretty sure the dog is still comfortable. This could just be a few minutes to begin with. The more confident your dog gets with relying on their own resources, and not responding with anxiety, the more you can extend your separation.

Always reinforce when your dog is on his own and relaxed with praise, treats, or a toy

You may also try a similar approach to desensitizing them to the actions that indicate you are preparing to leave, like putting on a jacket or picking up keys. Have a special, exciting toy that you will use.

On a few occasions, put on your jacket when you are not leaving. Immediately give the toy or a treat that keeps his interest like a rawhide bone or a puzzle treat. You want to change the association with the action (putting on a coat) from one that causes anxiety to one that is pleasant and keeps him relaxed.

Do the same with the sound of keys being picked up. These desensitizing practices will take the stress out of actions that previously caused worry.

When you know you are going out for a while, plan a good walk or run beforehand so your dog is well exercised. They will be physically relaxed, and hopefully have had some social interaction with other dogs satisfying another need.

Do not announce your departure or do any goodbye signals like a long hug or an apologetic voice. This tells the dog to be anxious. Leave a garment with your scent near him for reassurance. Some owners leave the TV on. This could be a good way of relieving the feeling of being alone.

If your dog does act out his anxiety, frustration, and boredom while you are away with destructive behavior or by leaving a mess, then it is important not to react badly. Moreover, this could lead to an escalation of this type of behavior. Your dog will link any anger or punishment purely to your returning; not to their actions. This will make the dog anxious about what will happen the next time they are alone, and you return. It will make them more likely to chew, scratch the door, bark incessantly, urinate, and/ or defecate. Even if you take them to the scene of the crime (they think present moment only), they will not link it to your response. The dog does not know that they have done wrong. They have their tail between their legs, body low, and ears pinned back. The dog is exclusively reacting to your displeasure.

It may be challenging at times. However, in the long run you will encourage better behavior, and form a mutually loving and respectful relationship if you use a positive, reward-based approach. No shouting or physical punishment!

4.3 Aggression

It is important to remember that our dogs are animals, not people. They can resort to primitive behavior that we need to be wary of.

Important Note!
This course will give you an understanding of aggression, and some tips to help avoid minor outbreaks of aggression in your pet. Moreover, it does not offer an adequate approach for training dogs that are dangerously aggressive or show the potential to be so. This situation requires a trained, professional instructor. If needed, we recommend that you contact someone who is trained and experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs.

Before deciding on your pet, remember to consult the Choosing a pet checklist from Module 1, section 1.8.1.

Bear in mind that a powerful dog can be difficult to manage. If it becomes aggressive, they could pose a danger that you may not be able to deal with. Suit your breed choice to your lifestyle rather than your taste.

Though dog experts debate whether domesticated dogs are motivated by pack mentality, it is a useful approach to consider when creating a safe, and harmonious environment to share with your dog. Even if your pet shows no signs of dominance or wanting to achieve a certain status in your household; all dogs have the instinct to be competitive about food and territory. This alone is enough reason for you to instill rules, boundaries, and habits so that you are all clear where you stand in your households’ hierarchy.

4.3.1 Misinterpretation Of Aggression

Some behavior is misinterpreted as aggression:


A dog will initially freeze. Their first reaction to a fearful or anxious situation will be to run away or hide. It is usually only when these choices are not available that they will respond with aggression. It is a defensive action rather than a desire for confrontation. If a dog is in a continuous state of anxiety, then they may slip into the habitual response of reacting aggressively to everything. They never feel like they can get away from the anxiety.


Larger dogs in particular need lots of exercise and outdoor time. Any high energy dog that does not get enough physical activity may get frustrated to the point of aggression. Again, this is not for the sake of aggression. If you are unable to provide plenty of physical activity, then arrange for someone else to do it. Leave toys, chewable bones, and treats to provide mental stimulation when the dog is alone.


Dogs that are left to themselves usually work things out between them, without aggression, by giving signals that we are not so good at reading. Often, it is when we interfere with our own fears, interpretations, and actions (like picking dogs up) that we interrupt this natural order. A lot of aggression towards other dogs is learned from humans. Try to let go of preconceptions, fears, and let dogs socialize unhindered.


A dog who snaps at a familiar person uncharacteristically may be doing so in response to pain or fear of pain. Check if there is a physical reason, particularly in aging dogs.

A dog who gets plenty of exercise, socialization, and an owner that is calm, assertive and in control, is much less likely to be aggressive than one who is bored, frustrated, and in need of exercise

4.3.2 Types Of Aggression


Some dogs associate being restricted with the need for aggression. This includes being held on a leash or being picked up when other dogs are free to roam. The restriction leads to frustration at not being free to behave according to their normal instincts, and may in turn lead to aggression.


This is in response to a perceived threat to a member of the dog’s family group. The dog needs to be trained to trust that the pack leader is strong, in control, and their aggressive behavior is not required. Mothers who are suckling their pups can be aggressive towards intruders. Moreover, this is natural but if it becomes a problem it can be reduced with a careful approach.


This is the easiest to understand; it is a primal instinct. A dog can be protective of the home, car, and yard.

It is a useful security measure. However, if the dog is over alert, leave treats outside for visitors to offer him as they enter, and therefore teach him to see familiar people as friends, not enemies


Even though food is a guaranteed resource for domesticated dogs, they can still behave aggressively if they think they are in competition for it. This is another reason to feed a dog only after other household members are already eating or are finished. They can also aggressively guard a food bowl, so do not leave it around outside of feeding time. Guarding of toys and treats needs more assertion from the owner in order to remind the dog who is in charge. Train a puppy to adjust to the idea that you can take away their food at any time so this becomes normal, and they accept that you are in control. It reduces the feeling of possession around food.


As dogs in domestication do not have the same freedom for sexual expression they would have in the wild, male dogs can become aggressive when in competition with other males for a mating opportunity. Neutering eliminates this in most cases. Females can also aggressively compete for male attention, though this is less common.


A reminder of the animal in your dog; the instinct to prey can still be present in domesticated dogs. Unlike the other forms of aggression above, there are usually no warning gestures. Moreover, it is difficult to break the focus once it kicks in. It is mostly triggered by the scent of a wild animal.

4.3.3 Signs Of Possible Aggression

  • Low swishing of tail
  • Rigid body, freezing
  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Snapping
  • Baring of teeth
  • Charging
  • Barking combined with any of the above actions

Dog owners need to act responsibly and look for training advice if a dog shows any tendency toward aggression.

Well Done!