TRUE OR FALSE: “99.99% of aggression is fear-based. The other 0.01% is medical based”

A while back I got this comment from somebody on FB and I stashed it away planning to write about it someday. Well, I finally got around to it and today is that day!

So let’s dive in:

Quick Note: I’m not concerned about the exact percentages, just the general point of the message

First let’s address the medical based aggression claim.

It is irrefutably true that some dogs lash out aggressively due to some underlying medical issue that is causing them pain, frustrating them, or just making them not feel like themselves, and those emotions manifest themselves as aggression.

This is most common in older dogs, who in some cases, have been complete sweethearts their whole lives then as they age and feel aches, pains, etc and then that causes them to become aggressive and unpredictable.

That exact scenario happened with a cousin of mine’s dog, who we’ll call Justice. Justice was a pitbull who lived to be 15 years old and he was awesome his entire life. Great with other dogs, great with kids, great with all the visitors (they host a lot of parties).

Then, when he got older, I’d say around 13-14, he became a grumpy old man who occasionally lashed out unpredictably and bit a couple people, though nothing too serious from what I understand.

And I never actually saw him be aggressive in any way, because whenever I was there he was medicated (I don’t know with what) so he was always the same old sweet Justice, just grayer and slower ha.

So this kind of aggression is somewhat common and hopefully can be fixed through treatment of what’s causing the discomfort/pain.

But overall, I would agree with our friend the FB commenter that this type of aggression is far and away the minority of aggression/reactivity cases.

So with that settled, let’s move on to the more interesting part of his claim: he thinks that besides for the occasional medically-induced aggression, every other case of aggression is fear-based.

And my take on this is that’s just absolutely false.

I guess if you played some mental gymnastics you could maybe trace all aggression or reactivity back to fear somehow, but I don’t think so.

Let me give you some examples:

Cash, my brother’s Belgian Malinois, I talk about him quite a bit. Him and Gibson fought many times in the past and Cash has bitten Gibson before.

Cash also used to go ballistic when he saw another dog on walks or through the front window in their house.

And let me assure you, that dog has no fear or anxiety issues. He’s unbelievably confident and always has been. It was his overconfidence and his mischievous personality that were causing fights with Gibson.

Because the way it always would go is Gibson and Cash would be playing together, and they’re both very high energy dogs about the same size, and they would play pretty hard.

But eventually, Gibson would have enough. He’s 3 years older than Cash and he’s not a Malinois! So he’d be the first to have enough of the playing.

But Cash wasn’t done. Even after Gibson would walk away, sometimes even hide under a table or chair to get away from Cash, it didn’t matter to Cash, he would just badger him and badger him to try and get him to play. And he knew it was ticking Gibson off, Gibson let him know many times, and of course we would stop him.

But eventually he would keep doing it and Gibson would have enough and then they’d fight.

Now some people, like our friend the FB commenter, might think that Cash’s behavior isn’t aggressive, so that’s a bad example. But I disagree. Cash knew that his behavior was leading toward a fight and he’d do it anyway. I call that aggressive behavior.

And certainly it wasn’t fear based.

Let’s move on to Cash’s reactivity. It’s a much simpler case.

Cash, at the time, was horrible on walks. One of the worst I’ve ever seen. (I used to be a dog walker and I walked 1 dog worse then Cash… another story for a different time)

He would pull crazy hard, he would sprint to the end of the leash, and if he saw another dog, he’d go crazy barking and lunging.

Cash was a prototypical case of leash aggression. Some dogs only behave aggressively on the leash, and like in Cash’s case, it’s often because of frustration.

Dogs like Cash, extremely confident, playful, social, and high-energy, when they’re not being properly led and trained, they hate that they’re constricted to the confines of a leash.

When Cash was going ballistic on the leash, if my brother would’ve just let him go, he would’ve sprinted to the other dog immediately and tried to play. It’s what he loves to do.

So when he wasn’t able to do that, because he was so confident, so independent, he got extremely frustrated and lashed out.

Besides frustration, overconfidence, and mischief, there are other reasons not rooted in fear that can cause aggression.

One is dominance. Some dogs who have the same overconfidence and independence that Cash has, they don’t also have his social personality.

So when you get an independent, overconfident dog who only listens to himself, that can easily manifest itself into that dog wanting to dominate other dogs or even people, which of course leads to severe aggression.

You could argue this is rooted in fear, but I think that’s mental gymnastics.

A dog like that, you wouldn’t fix it by boosting their confidence, teaching them their triggers aren’t dangerous, and all the other things you do to fix a fearful aggressive dog, that would do nothing.

So no, I think that’s a completely different issue than fear-based aggression.

Aggression and reactivity could also be the result of a very strong prey drive. That’s not based in fear either.

One other extremely rare cause, but it does happen, is some dogs are truly aggressive and truly malevolent. There’s no cause, it’s just their nature to be mean, mean, mean.

I’ve never met a dog like this, never known anyone to have one like this, but they’re out there.

So to wrap this up, while I 100% agree that the strong majority of aggression and reactivity is rooted in fear, my verdict on the comment:

“99.99% of aggression is fear-based. The other 0.01% is medical based”

is without a doubt FALSE.

Comment with your thoughts! True or False, what do you think?

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