Your pup is fun and lively, but those sharp little teeth can be painful. Pups are learning so much – from how to behave around you and your family, to greeting other dogs and animals – and they can be a bit wild in those first few weeks. Is your pup aggressive, or just having fun? Read on for clues – and how to handle an aggressive puppy.
Puppies at play
They run and tumble, growl and pull, tug, jump and bite. Especially during their early months, pups will play with their owners and with other dogs. This will often include play-biting.
If you’ve played with a puppy you’ll know their teeth can be sharp. But their bites don’t often pierce the skin in play – and if they do, it’s because the pup doesn’t understand how to apply pressure. Remember that, like babies, they’re actually teething. Pups need to lose all their teeth to allow the adult ones to grow through.
When they play, they’re also developing their social skills – in many respects they’re testing boundaries, because they don’t yet know how to act around other dogs and people. Watch your pup with an older dog. When the pup’s attention becomes too much or the older dog is tired, the elder will snap or growl at the pup in a noticeably different manner. The pup learns a lot about acceptable behavior from older dogs in its pack.
But there are signals that humans can read and transmit, too.
When playing, many dogs will display the “play bow” – front legs flat on the floor, bottom raised, with a playful expression. It’s usually the precursor to a playful pounce or a mad dash around the room!
You can and should encourage your puppy to play, as it helps stimulate their minds and exercise their bodies. Little and often is good, it increases the bond between you and puppy. Try toys such as ropes, balls, and food puzzles (like a Kong). At the end, wind down with gentle affection and maybe an ear rub.
Is your pup just playing?
Most puppies show some aggressive behaviors during play, and for the majority they are just playing – even if they haven’t exactly sussed the boundaries yet. But there are some signals that indicate your pup is being a bit more serious, and not simply playing. They include:
- Maintaining hard eye contact
- Growling and barking in a deeper tone (as if the pup is threatened)
- Rigid body posture
- Snarling (showing teeth)
Why puppies become aggressive
Fear provokes aggression, and dogs have memories. If they’ve been mistreated in their early weeks, they’ll be more wary of people. Fear produces the fight-or-flight response in dogs, just like in humans. For dogs, it’s usually ‘fight’; and they may go on red-alert when they see something that they think is frightening.
This is why dogs protect their humans and may be aggressive when they’re in defence mode.
Does your pup behave beautifully with you, but snarl at your mother-in-law? Aggression towards strangers can indicate that the pup needs to be socialized (and it’s not uncommon, either).
Pain, jealousy or frustration can also cause aggression. But these are things which can usually be limited or addressed.
The importance of reward-based training
In the past, punishment-based training has been used to bring pups into line. Scientist Rudolph Shenkel published a famous study explaining how pack wolves fought to establish an ‘alpha’, and this led to the school of thought that recommended physical punishments like the ‘alpha roll’.
But his study has since been disproven; modern trainers (and studies like this one) tend to agree that negative reinforcement isn’t effective, and can even increase aggressive response. Even stern or loud reprimands can enliven some pups’ defensive nature.
If you need further proof: at Guide Dogs for the Blind, they now exclusively use positive, reward-based training for service dogs – and say that this system has halved training time (as reported in Time Magazine).
However, when you are trying to train a puppy to STOP doing something, it’s not enough to simply reward the right behavior. Here are some suggestions to gently dissuade the wrong types of behavior.
How to handle a puppy’s aggression
If your puppy shows aggressive behavior, early training can help to lessen it. It’s far easier to train an aggressive puppy than an aggressive adult dog.
As the owner you have a great responsibility towards your dog but also towards the people that they encounter. For some dogs, the only way to completely mitigate the risk of aggression is to keep them away from triggers. If your dog reacts to strangers, children, or other dogs, this can be difficult. The good news is, in puppies, socialization can help them to accept a wider variety of people and animals.
Socialization simply means exposure to society. So take your puppy on walks to different places, including a variety of environments like busy streets, parks, and expanses of sand, and let them discover dogs of all sizes. Make sure you meet friends and family with babies and children, and your puppy has the best chance of a well-adjusted attitude towards everyone.
What if your puppy is aggressive towards you?
Here are some ways you can teach your puppy that aggressive behaviors are not acceptable.
Try pack techniques
When puppies bite another member of their pack, the older dog reacts. If your pup bites you too hard, stop playing and loudly say “ouch” – they will learn that this stops the game. If they nip gently (displaying bite inhibition), the game continues, and that’s how they are rewarded.
Keep the praise and rewards (more play) going when pup is being gentle or stops for a rest after playing.
If pup is playing inappropriately, give them a toy instead and leave or stop playing.
Remove the temptation
If pup bites your ankles when you walk away, stand completely still until they stop. (Don’t crouch and play or stroke the puppy.)
Distraction is valid
If they’re feeling bitey, give them some old cardboard or chew toys – let them know those are okay for chewing.
Breeds with lowest risk of aggression...
We should note that choosing a certain breed is no guarantee against aggression. Every dog can be aggressive; they are simply trained, or have evolved, to deploy different behaviors. However, some breeds are believed to be more friendly and gentle; typically breeds which were not historically used for protection.
In 2008, Applied Animal Behavior Science published a paper which studied the aggression levels of more than 30 breeds. “Breed differences in canine aggression” listed Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Whippets, Greyhounds and Bernese Mountain Dogs as the dog breeds which exhibit the lowest levels of aggression towards humans and other dogs.
In the UK, the Labrador was recently revealed as the dog breed responsible for the most attacks. This was met with surprise by dog experts, but perhaps there is an explanation.
It could be down to sheer numbers. The Labrador Retriever has been Britain’s most popular dog for more than 30 years – there are currently around 40,000 registered per year. In 2020, that was around 4x more labs than bulldogs and 10x more labs than whippets.
Anecdotally, the Labrador is an all-round family favorite, generally very easy-going and friendly, energetic and trainable. Properly raised, this is a dog which can become a reliable companion and household protector... with very little propensity for biting.
The Whippet has boundless energy and an alert nature, but at home tends to be restful and calm. They really love their chosen human.
With their short coats, slender bodies, and graceful stature of around 21”, whippets are very handsome – but they’re not built for cold climates. They have short fur and very little body-fat, so they will need a warm place to sleep (ideally wherever you were just sitting) and maybe even a sweater in winter.
Whippets were bred for hunting rabbits and racing, and excel at both with their extreme speed. Though they were raised for a purpose, whippets developed a strong bond with their owners and are typically affectionate with family – but can be cautious around strangers. Once they’ve run, whippets have no interest in much except sleeping, and quite honestly won’t be awake enough to guard your home.
The Bernese Mountain Dog
Big dogs like the Newfoundland and the Bernese Mountain Dog are famously fond of children. And this gigantic mountain dog is as soft as it looks.
A farming dog bred in Switzerland, the Bernese Mountain Dog is covered in a supremely thick coat for its outdoor work, mostly herding cattle. But this farm-hand soon crept into the hearts and homes of the farmers, and became a loving companion.
This breed needs less exercise than you might expect: around 30 minutes + per day, according to the AKC. You’ll make up this time in grooming: the coat needs frequent brushing, especially in twice-yearly shedding season. Berners love training and agility; many still participate in “carting” contests in Derbyshire, England, using their immense strength to pull old-fashioned carts (sometimes containing children).
Low maintenance and truly affectionate, this gentle breed makes an easy-going pal for the family.