To The Dogs—Canine Advice Column

From Flight to Bite

Nip fear-biting in the bud with understanding of the submissive-aggressive canine personality.

By Hilton Butler


This column, over the last several issues, has taken a deeper look at canine personality types; in this last installment, we will touch on a term heard often in the canine world: “Fear Biter.” Fear-biting dogs are just that—dogs that react with aggression or a bite when they are frightened. Typically, these dogs are submissive and have sweet dispositions, but when fear or panic sets in, they act on instinctual behaviors. This is a hallmark of the submissive-aggressive personality type.

You’ve probably heard about the “Fight or Flight” reaction—an irrepressible, unconscious reaction to a threat or perceived threat. You might have even experienced this reaction personally at some point. The term “Fight or Flight,” however, is somewhat misleading because there is a third reaction that’s not often mentioned but is the first to occur. “Freeze” should be included, as most mammals’ first reaction to a threat or perceived threat is to hold still in place, even if for just a moment or two.

In my military experience, I have seen this reaction alive and well in patrol operations. The point man—the soldier leading the patrol, whether human or canine—will literally FREEZE for a split second when perceiving a threat. No other communication is needed to convey this information to the rest of the pack/patrol members. The freeze reaction allows the brain to move to the next step: the decision of flight or fight.

That being said, most fear-based dog bites are the fault of the human involved. When a dog appears timid, shy or nervous, a well-meaning person sometimes tries to comfort him in an effort to prove there is no reason to be afraid. Instead of reading the dog’s instinctual body language displayed, we humans “over reason” and think we can overcome the dog’s fear. This is exactly what you shouldn’t do, and it’s the very thing that causes a normally sweet and submissive dog to react with aggression.

To the dog, the situation of an approaching stranger or threat is too much to handle, and he instinctually goes into Freeze, Flight or Fight mode. Sheer panic sets in and, not being able to flee, the dog reacts with a bite. Always pay close attention to the warning signs a fearful submissive-aggressive dog exhibits.

Body Language

A submissive-aggressive dog that’s feeling uncomfortable or fearful will often display characteristics such as:

  • Tucking in the tail close to its belly
  • Hunching or crouching down (slinking away from the threat)
  • Turning his head away or avoid eye contact
  • Flattened ears
  • Showing the whites of eyes or teeth
  • Trembling
  • Fear urination

The dog’s stance and appearance is clearly one of worry and fear; it’s unmistakable. You can see how his back is slightly arched and his tail is down. He is also looking cautiously up at whatever is frightening him, as his ears flatten against his head.

So how does this fearful behavior start? Most dogs are just born shy and timid with the innate submissive-aggressive personality, and they’re more prone to anxiety because of their breeding or genetic blueprint. All of the personality types are individualized and can be modified based on training and experience, but only to a certain extent. And unfortunately, submissive-aggressive types develop fearfulness more easily as a direct result of unpleasant past experiences with abuse or abandonment issues.

It is important to understand that just because a dog is shy, it does not mean he will turn into a fear biter. A passive-submissive or passive-dominate dog can appear shy as well.

In the human world I equate fear biting to a type of panic attack. Although humans do not usually cope by biting or through aggressive behavior, a panic attack is normally brought on from intense fear and apprehension.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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