What is aggression in a puppy?
Truly aggressive puppies display behaviors such as biting, snapping, and growling in situations they should not - like normal petting and handling from people. All puppies will bite and growl in play, but not with the the intent to cause harm to another dog or a person. In this article we will discuss true aggression, its causes, and its solutions. We will also discuss the normal play biting puppies do when playing with people and how to handle this behavior.
How do we define aggressive behavior in puppies?
Different breeds of dog have differing ingrained traits. For example, a slightly shy Australian Shepherd may be normal for that breed. A highly reactive Smooth Fox Terrier may be normal for that breed. A very mouthy Golden Retriever may be normal for that breed. When evaluating a dog’s behavior it is important to consider what is normal for that breed.
Next we have the context of the situation. Our first example will be a stranger approaching on a leash walk with a 12 week old Golden Retriever puppy. In this context, we expect the puppy to be bouncy and enthusiastic about greeting the new person. The puppy should have a full wag, a “smile”, ears perked up or slightly back, and a loose body. All of these things say “I’m friendly and want to say hi!” If we had the same puppy but with fear aggression we would expect the dog to attempt to hide behind the owner, tuck the tail between the legs, hold the ears plastered to the head, dilated eyes, stiff mouth with the musculature at the back curve of the lips apparent, body slinking towards the ground. If the puppy was approached and cornered (remember it is on a leash), it freezes and snaps at the person reaching to pet it. This response is not what is considered normal for this context, making it a problem behavior.
What causes aggression in puppies?
The two main causes are a physical problem or lack of socialization. A physical problem may be something that causes the dog pain (like a malformation of the cervical spine or severe hip dysplasia) or a true neurological problem (the dog is not “wired” right). Lack of socialization means the puppy has not been exposed to an adequate number of novel people, places, things, and sounds. This is something that starts in the breeder’s home (or with the shelter or foster family) and must continue once the puppy comes home. Weeks 8-16 are a particularly critical time. Significant lapses on socialization lead to puppies that are fearful and have trouble adjusting to new things. These puppies are more likely to lash out with aggression because they do not know how to deal with the situation.
How do we help an aggressive puppy?
If a physical problem is leading to the aggression, a veterinarian must be consulted for proper diagnosis. Many pain issues can be treated with medication or surgery. Puppies heal very quickly! If the problem is one of hard wiring, euthanasia should be seriously considered. These dogs will always be a liability for injuring people (and other animals). It is essential that a person keeping a puppy with a true neurological problem completely understands what it will entail to keep this animal safe from harming others. Working with the veterinarian and behaviorist, a management plan should be put into place. Keeping a dog with this type of problem is not something to be taken lightly.
Puppies who are aggressive due to a lack of socialization or a traumatic experience require remedial socialization and desensitization. This approach’s goal is to teach the puppy that novel things lead to positive consequences. Systematic densitization and counter conditioning are used to teach the puppy that previously fearful experiences can have a positive emotional association. This is best done under the direction of a behaviorist. A behaviorist is either a veterinarian who is board certified in behavioral medicine or a professional typically with a PhD in animal behavior. Your local veterinarian should be able to refer you, and below are links to associations for behaviorists. The sooner treatment is started, the better the prognosis. Young puppies learn quickly! Remember, work with a professional! Aggression can be a dangerous thing to deal with on your own.
What is normal puppy behavior versus aggressive puppy behavior?
The most common puppy behavior falsely viewed as aggressive is mouthing and biting. Puppies do not have hands. They explore their world with their mouths. It is normal for them to mouth people and all sorts of things. Puppies play with each other through mouthing and biting. It is during play they learn bite inhibition. This means they learn how hard is okay to bite without causing harm. Roughing housing and play is a “practice” for predatory behavior and must be done with the upmost care not to injure the playing partner. Dog skin is quite a bit tougher than human skin, so we have to reteach this bite inhibition when puppies mouth us.
Growling is another behavior that is often seen as aggressive. While growling can be use to threaten, it is also commonly used in play. Dogs may growl while playing tug, rough housing, and grabbing on to your pant legs. This means is “oh what fun!” It does not mean the dog is aggressive. A good way to tell is by looking at your dog’s body language. Do they have a fully wagging tail, loose and wagging body, play bow, and bounce excitedly? If so, they are likely just playing.
How do we stop play biting?
The best way to stop rough mouthing and biting is to provide your dog with feedback. There are two options: bite inhibition or bite prohibition. Teaching bite inhibition means teaching your dog how hard is safe to mouth on human skin. Teaching bite prohibition means teaching your dog to never mouth human skin. Bite inhibition is a very valuable skill. Were the dog to ever be in a position it felt forced to bite, the dog is much more likely to do so with discretion and not cause any serious damage. Dogs that are only taught never to mouth do not have this valuable skill. It is valuable to first teach inhibition and then prohibition. This way you have a dog with a valuable skill but one that is not constantly mouthing.
Most puppies understand a high-pitched yelp to mean “ouch!” Yelping the moment the hard biting starts tells the puppy to back off. Follow this with praise for not mouthing (playing with a toy) or gentle mouthing (“good gentle”). For puppies that do not stop with this, ending the game for hard biting is a valuable response. Ending the game means you yelp to signal the dog something is happening. Get up and promptly leave the room without saying a word. A baby gate will help keep the pup in the room and you out. Wait a few minutes and re-enter. Praise for playing with toys or using a gentle mouth as above. Repeat the end game every time the puppy is too hard.
Teething Puppies may bite
Remember that puppies are also teething. Their mouths are sore and chewing makes it feel better. Provide your puppy with lots of safe chew toys. Toys that can be frozen are very soothing. Have patience and be consistent. Your puppy will learn not to bite and will grow out of the teething phase. Most puppies have lost their incisors, canines, and premolars by 6 months. Some lose their large molars as late as 9-10 months. Don’t be surprised if you notice a second “wave” of mouthy-ness around that time.
Remember that true aggression means a behavior that is out of context for the situation. True aggression in a puppy requires the help of a knowledgeable professional. Normal puppies may mouth, bite, and growl. Know what is normal and how to make your puppy a good citizen in your home.
Author Jackie Nelson