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Are Fearful Dogs Dangerous?

On a recent walk, I encountered a man and his brindle-colored pit bull. When I asked if it was okay to greet the dog, he replied, “Sure, but she’s a little bit skittish.” Given that information, I declined, explaining that I didn’t want to scare her. (It didn’t help that I was carrying a camera with a long lens, which even confident dogs sometimes find scary.) As I walked away, I thought about how often people in this type of situation will ignore the owner’s assessment and say things like, “Oh, I’m sure it will be fine, dogs love me…” as they continue to approach. Well, you know how well that can go.


When encountering a fearful dog, many of us feel sorry for the dog and want to help him learn that people aren’t so scary after all. Sadly, many of the things people do tend to make dogs even more uncomfortable: squarely facing the dog, which is more confrontational than standing sideways; maintaining eye contact, which can be seen as a threat; or standing over or reaching toward the dog, which most definitely can be construed as a threat. While a dog who is free to move around might well back away or take flight when he feels threatened, a dog on leash has, by definition, nowhere to go. The scenario becomes even more intense when a well-meaning owner is convinced that having people come up and pet their cowering dog will somehow help with socialization. When you remove the flight option from fight or flight, what’s left? Sure, there are technically two other options—freeze and fool around—but you get my point.


A friend of mine, when asked whether a particular dog might bite, replies, “If it has teeth, it can bite.” And it’s true. Most mild-mannered dogs will try to avoid confrontation whenever possible. But if a dog is pushed far enough and feels he has no choice, although he may give a warning like growling or air snapping first, he may then resort to biting. And that brings us back to fearful dogs. Most people, when presented with images of a leashed dog that is lunging and barking and one that is cowering while on leash will say that of course the lunging, barking dog is more dangerous. And in some cases, they could be right. But the lunging, barking dog is choosing to communicate a warning, while a fearful dog who is backed into a corner, literally or figuratively, has few options and can be just as dangerous. So, let’s make the world a safer place for people and dogs by giving fearful dogs their space, help through gentle behavior modification, and the respect they deserve.

_________________________________________________________________________________ You can find my books, seminar recordings, blog, and more at and follow me on Facebook @NicoleWildeauthor. My mentoring service can be found at Dog Trainer's Friend. And if wildlife photos are your thing, check out my Instagram at nicolewildeart. 


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