Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Are you worried that you have an aggressive puppy?
In my experience as a trainer working within a large veterinarian clinic, I realized that puppy aggression was one of the most commonly misinterpreted behavior scenarios that causes distress to pet owners.
Fortunately, while collaborating with the vets and behavior experts, we were able to put to rest the fears associated with puppy aggression in most cases.
You go to your vet and say, “Please help! My puppy keeps biting me aggressively!”
But at the clinic, the puppy shows none of the usual signs of biting or aggression.
Of course he’s a perfect cuddly pup in front of everyone else…
Without being able to see any physical or medical problems, your vet can’t offer a solution.
He might say, “It’s probably just normal puppy behavior.”
Does that make you feel any better?
You might still be distressed.
You might be wondering:
How do I KNOW if my puppy’s bites, growls, and barking are normal phases of puppy play or if there’s a bigger problem?
How do you learn how to stop a puppy from being aggressive?
That’s exactly what we’re talking about today!
Keep in mind that dog aggression is a controversial topic.
It’s important to realize that there are lots of reasons dogs can be aggressive.
So after reading this article, if you’re still not confident that the aggressive puppy growling and biting is part of your pooch’s normal growth and learning cycle, you should go ahead and talk to your vet or call a trainer.
Did you know there are more than 10 types of aggression characterized in dogs?
In addition to snarling, growling, and biting characterized by what is considered typical puppy play behavior, there are several types of aggression that dogs can exhibit.
Aggression due to fear, food, object guarding, and idiopathic biological aggression are just a few examples of more serious behavioral problems.
These are all atypical behaviors that a dog exhibits in response to pain or fear, or to communicate conflict or threat.
There are lots of theories as to causes and methods of treatment for dog aggression.
However, misinterpreting puppy play behavior for problematic aggression is common among pet owners.
Why is My Puppy so Aggressive?
Today, I want to focus on what’s classified as “play aggression.”
This includes all the behaviors considered typically aggressive puppy play.These behaviors will either intensify or weaken with maturity and training, so it’s important to learn how to stop aggressive behavior in puppies early. These behaviors turn into life skills for canines as part of their typical species behavior.
Even wild animals exhibit some of these behaviors in their play. Lion cubs learn to pounce on prey. Bears learn to wrestle and bite at each other’s muzzles to protect their territory as adults. Whether or not your teacup Chihuahua will ever need to rely on her hunting or defense skills, she will likely practice them quite a bit as a pup!
So what do these behaviors look like?
Here are some aggressive puppy signs you might be worried about.
Aggressive Puppy Signs
Does your puppy do any of the following?
Jumps up on your legs over and over
Snarls or growls
Snaps her jaws in the air as if she’s trying to bite at you
Barks at you
Bites your hand when you’re trying to pet or snuggle her
Bites your ankles and feet when you try to walk
For comparison, here are some descriptions of typical canine puppy play interactions:
Chasing one another
Jumping on one another
Pinning another puppy to the ground and standing over him
Biting or chewing on another puppy’s ears and muzzle
Biting or chewing on another puppy’s feet and tail
Snarling and growling
So how on earth are you supposed to know what is normal, and what is problematic aggressive puppy behavior?!
You are not alone!
Don’t feel alone in your concerns, and never be embarrassed to ask for help!
I once had a client call me, practically in tears, saying, “My puppy is aggressive towards me!”
When I went to her house, I was prepared for the worst.
(I had bite-protection gloves and everything!)
I got there and saw the poor woman sitting on top of the counter in her kitchen while her 12-week-old Labrador puppy trotted around the kitchen barking up at her—wagging his tail.
For this woman, her fear was real.
She was genuinely afraid of being bitten by her puppy. But the puppy thought it was a game.
“I’ll bark at mommy, and she squeals so I bark some more!” The puppy was simply communicating with his human mama in “puppy speak.”
Brenda Aloff explains it perfectly by saying,
We often misunderstand dog aggression because we fail to realize that dogs relate to humans and other species just as they would another dog unless we teach them differently.
Tips for Differentiating Aggressive Puppy Behavior from Natural Play Behaviors
Here are some tips for differentiating between aggressive puppy signs and whether your puppy is just trying to play:
Is he play-bowing and wagging his tail? If your puppy bows with his forearms on the floor while his rump is high in the air, and his tail is wagging—that’s a good indicator that he is happily initiating play rather than threatening aggressively.
Does he leap and pounce onto his target? That’s another sign of a game.
Look for reciprocity. In play, puppies alternate back and forth with their roughhousing. Is your puppy usually only aggressive when you are playing together? Does he stop if you stop? If you walk away, does he continue to chase you and snarl? If you startle him with a loud noise like clapping your hands, will he back off?
Maybe he’s teething. Teething in puppies is accompanied by a heightened desire to chew. If your puppy is just as content to chew on toys as he is to bite at your hand or feet, he might be teething. Be sure to rotate a variety of good teething toys to alleviate this issue.
Does he show signs of fear or pain? A puppy that is afraid or in pain will likely become aggressive. If his ears are pinned back, tail is tucked, eyes are darting, or if he’s slinking with his whole body close to the floor, your puppy might be afraid of something. It would be a good idea to consult a behavior expert and a vet to make sure there are no other problems causing your puppy to have unhealthy levels of aggression.
How to Deal with an Aggressive Puppy
There are two ways to stop aggressive behavior in puppies.
First, you should manage situations during which your puppy becomes aggressive.
Second, you can train behaviors to shape polite play and attention-seeking from your pooch.
Aggressive Puppy Biting
Puppies love to chew and bite!
But puppy teeth are sharp, and if your hands are turning black and blue or bleeding from what seems to be aggressive puppy biting, you should interrupt the behavior every single time.
Here are some steps to manage aggressive puppy biting and other difficult puppy behaviors.
The Perfect Companion For Life With A New Puppy
To manage the behaviors, you need to manage the environment around your pup. Rough play is directly linked to energy level, so any time the play gets too rough, end the game and let your pup have some time to relax. Interrupt aggressive puppy biting and growling by standing up and walking away or removing your pooch to her resting area (crate or playpen).Learn how to stop aggressive puppy biting—interrupt and redirect his attention to an appropriate chew toy any time he bites at your hands during play or petting.Put your puppy on a long training leash during play sessions with other people or dogs. When he starts getting too rough, you can step on the leash or use the end of the leash to pull him away from his play buddies.
Children tend to squeal, scream, and move around a lot—all things that trigger excitement in puppies. So use a leash and teach your children and friends how to keep play calm or stop it when it gets too rough.If your puppy tugs on your clothes incessantly or nips at your ankles, keep him on a leash. This way you can pull him away from you and redirect his attention to walking straight ahead.Give your puppy opportunities to play with other dogs and socialize properly. (Be sure to wait until he has all his vaccinations!) Dog parks and doggy daycares are good places to let your puppy have supervised socialization. Sometimes other dogs make better teachers for our canine companions!
How to Train An Aggressive Puppy
In addition to managing the environment and situations during which aggression usually occurs, here are some tips for training your puppy that will break the cycle of aggression.
First, get your puppy used to being pet, handled, and snuggled without triggering rough play or chewing. Trainer Pippa Mattison has detailed instructions for this here.Teach your puppy bite inhibition. This is the process of learning when a bite is too strong or no longer part of reciprocal fun. Puppies usually learn bite inhibition early from their mothers, but you can learn some techniques for training here.Teach your puppy to “leave it” so that you can cue him to stop biting, chewing, or tugging at your shoes, clothes, the leash, or other dogs and people. Use the video on this page to learn how to train “leave it.”
Now that You Have a Plan, Put it into Action!
If your puppy is under 5 months old and exhibits any of these signs of puppy play aggression, try out some of our management and training techniques discussed here.
You can also look for puppy training classes in your area, as these classes typically include techniques for managing rough play in puppies.
If the problems persist after a few weeks of practicing, consult a vet to make sure there aren’t any medical problems that might cause other types of aggression.
For example, if you were to say, “My puppy gets aggressive at night,” I would want to rule out common medical conditions that worsen at night, such as vision problems or hormonal imbalances.
Only then would we explore behavioral trends that peak at the end of the day or your evening routine that might be cause for your puppy getting aggressive only at night.
If no medical conditions are discovered, and your puppy is older than 6 months and is still showing aggression, contact a trainer or dog behaviorist.
Let us know how your training is going with your puppy!
Check back in with us in a few weeks and be sure to keep an eye here for more training advice for you and your pup!
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers from all over the world, including Michele Pouliot, director of training for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over ten years.
Canine Aggression: Practical Management, Prevention, and Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff
An overview of types of aggressive behaviour in dogs and methods of treatment. Blackshaw, J.K., Applied Animal Behavior Science, 1991.
Playing styles and possible causative factors in dogs’ behaviour when playing with humans Lilla Tóth, Márta Gácsi, József Topál, Ádám Miklósi. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2008.