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Fear Biting

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A fear-bite is a bite that occurs out of sheer panic. Itís not to be confused with dominance-aggression, which is a sign of deep-set personality problems; a fear-biter isnít necessarily a Ďfierceí dog. Heís just scared.

Why does fear-biting happen?

A fear-biter bites because itís his only way of expressing his extreme fear or panic, and his only way of telling his owner that he canít handle the situation.

Almost all cases of fear-biting are actually caused by well-meaning, but ill-advised, humans: they see whatís clearly a scared dog, and Ė intending to either comfort the dog or to show him that thereís Ďnothing to be afraid ofí Ė they approach too close, and push an already-anxious dog over the edge.

Dogs canít ask us to please leave them alone. They canít tell us that somethingís bothering them, or that they need some space: all they can do is sign the message to us through their body-language.

Itís easy to tell when a dogís feeling scared or panicky once you know what to look for. Fear-biting never just happens Ďout of the blueí: it only occurs when people ignore the signs.

Fear-biting: the warning signs

Fear-biters are submissive dogs. When faced with a new situation or unfamiliar people, they do not react with the customary effortless confidence of a well-socialized, well-adjusted dog: instead, they become nervy and on edge.

A scared dog, when faced with the unfamiliar, will assume a distinctively submissive posture, and will display several marked behaviors. The more common of these are listed below.


- Tail tucked (or, if docked, the back legs will crouch down and the haunches will Ďtuckí)

- Hunched, lowered back

- Ears flat against the head

- Elbows bent in a slight crouch


Excessive panting (hyperventilating)

Yawning (an attempt to reduce tension)

Avoidance of eye contact

In extreme cases, a dog may also urinate or defecate out of fear

What makes some dogs into fear-biters?

All dogs undergo whatís called a fear-imprint stage when theyíre about eight weeks old, and another one at about fourteen weeks. During this period of a dogís formative puppyhood, heís significantly more prone to Ďspookinessí: being excessively startled by new experiences and situations. If a dog has a scare during this time which isnít properly dealt with by the owner (ie, after receiving a scare, he isnít then taught not to be frightened of that thing), he may develop a life-long phobia towards that object.

For example, if heís been frightened by a repairman arriving at the door unexpectedly, and isnít then acclimatized to that person, he may develop a long-standing phobia of men who resemble that repairman (men with beards, men in overalls, men holding toolboxes, etc).

Some dogs are also just highly-strung and more prone to anxiety because of their breeding. Certain breeds Ė typically, the more intelligent ones, and the ones emotionally dependent on close, regular interaction with humans Ė have proven themselves more likely to develop phobias and excessive shyness than other, more emotionally stable breeds. A few of these Ďanxiousí breeds include Weimaraners, Great Danes, and Border Collies.

A history of trauma or abuse is another major cause of fear-biting: many abandoned or abused dogs develop anxiety problems, which, without proper treatment, may progress into fear-biting.

The difference between shyness and fear-biting:

Itís quite natural for some dogs to exhibit signs of shyness towards unfamiliar situations. It doesnít mean that that dog is a Ďdifficult dogí, or that he will grow up to be a fear-biter Ė some shyness is to be expected in almost all dogs at one point or another.

Shyness only becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with the course of daily life: when a dog can no longer be trusted around strangers, for example, or if his behavior is endangering his own safety (scared dogs often bolt, sometimes across busy roads), or when your own life becomes significantly restricted by your dogís fear.

How to cope with fear-biting:

First of all, make sure your own attitude to the problem is realistic. While the behavior of a fearful dog can often be significantly ameliorated by careful training and acclimatization, on other occasions Ė and sometimes, despite your best efforts Ė a dog will remain fearful to the end of his days.

You cannot force your dog to overcome his fear. Treatment requires patience, persistence, and consistency: rough treatment (anger, frustration, shouting, a take-no-prisoners approach) usually worsens the problem, because it increases the dogís anxiety levels instead of decreasing them.

You cannot train a scared dog not to bite: heís responding to a powerful blend of instinct and sheer panic. No training in the world can counteract these two things Ė as motivators, theyíre just too strong.

What you can do is, firstly, build up your dogís confidence, to reduce his overall anxiety and tension levels; and, secondly, pay close attention the cause of his fear, and work to desensitize him to it.

Building Up His Confidence:

Obedience training is a great vehicle for doling out praise and rewards: simply dispensing treats at random wonít do any good, since the issue here is drawing attention to achievement and good behavior (your dog can tell the difference between an earned and an un-earned reward!).

Start small, with basic obedience classes, and practice the commands for five to ten minutes every day.

Remember to set him up for success: start off with the easy commands, and make sure heís thoroughly comfortable with them before progressing to the next level. Always treat and praise liberally for good behavior.

Desensitizing Him To The Fear-Object:

Desensitizing your dog is all about slowly accustoming him to whatever it is thatís eliciting the fear response, at a pace thatís comfortable for him.

The emphasis is on maintaining comfort levels: your aim here is to keep your dog happy and serene (as much as possible), so that he learns through direct experience that the cause of the fear isnít actually scary after all.

So if heís afraid of, say, the vacuum cleaner, start integrating it into daily life. Remember to move slowly and not to push him too far, too fast: start by simply leaving it out in a prominent position, where heíll have lots of incidental contact with it (for example, in the middle of the lounge carpet). Allow him plenty of opportunity to sniff it and walk around it, Play with him near it; feed him near it. Integrate the object or the situation (whether itís the garbage truck, strangers approaching the door, small children, driving in the car) into normal, everyday life as much as possible.


Once heís become desensitized enough to the fear-object that heís reasonably calm around it (so, he might be exhibiting signs of fear, but isnít panic-stricken to the point of wetting himself or hiding), you can start counterconditioning: teaching him to associate good things with the fear-object. You can do this by dispensing treats liberally, and doling out lavish praise for any improvements in his fear-levels.

Doís and Doníts


Cue your dog. He takes his emotional and psychological cues from you, so make sure youíre a good role model. Adopt a straightforward, no-nonsense attitude, and stick to it. When heís frightened, talk to him in a relaxed, donít-be-silly manner, keeping your tone matter of fact and direct.

Socialize him frequently and thoroughly. Even though the most critical socialization period is from eight to sixteen weeks, it should still be an ongoing process throughout your dogís life. The more opportunity he has to accustom himself to the ways of the world, the easier it will be for him to see that, really, thereís not much to be scared of.

Be patient and move slowly. Donít try to rush your dog, or force him to confront objects, people, or situations that heís scared of Ė youíre trying to countercondition his learned fear-reflex, and youíre not going to do that by teaching him to associate feelings of anxiety with the fear-object.

Pay attention to his body language at all times. Some whining and trembling are OK, but if heís wetting himself, hyperventilating, and showing the whites of his eyes, he probably needs some space. Even though a fear-bite isnít inflicted out of a direct desire to cause harm, itís still a bite, so give him what he needs!


Crowd him. Scared dogs need space, more than anything else Ė you wonít make things easier for him by entering his Ďpersonal bubbleí. If heís really scared, back off, and wait for him to approach you.

If heís hiding, or strenuously resisting your direction, pay attention to what heís trying to tell you: that heís not comfortable enough to proceed yet. Forcing him outside his comfort zone is when bites happen.

Donít coddle him or reward his fearful behavior with special attention. Itís great to praise, pet, and cuddle him for good behavior, increased calmness, and being brave enough to approach/sniff/explore the object of fear Ė itís not good to reward him for fearful behavior. Save the special attention for when he deserves it: remember to reward the behavior you wish to see repeated; ignore the behavior you donít.

For further information

For more information on problem behavior in dogs, check out SitStayFetch. Itís a comprehensive training manual for dog-owners, and covers just about everything you could ever want to know about raising a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog: from canine psychology to dog whispering to preventing and handling problem behaviors to obedience training, SitStayFetch has it all covered.

You can visit the SitStayFetch website by clicking on the link below:
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