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If you have an aggressive puppy, you are no doubt concerned right now. That’s OK – it’s normal to be worried, and in this article we will help you create a plan and get your puppy on the right track.

First, we need to look at the term “aggression” in puppies. What many dog owners describe as aggression can be a very different behavior from a dog trainer’s perspective.

So lets make sure we’re on the same page, then we’ll get into the solutions so you can have a plan of action moving forward.

Aggression in Puppies

There are varying forms of puppy aggression. They include dog-to-dog aggression, dog-to-human aggression, resource guarding, territorial aggression, fear-based or anxiety aggression, dominance aggression, and others. Each behavior requires its own solution. This can include calming techniques and behavioral training corrections. A Veterinarian, Dog Behaviorist, or Trainer should be consulted to work through puppy aggression.

Whilst dominance aggression in puppies is often cited and referred to, there is mounting evidence that this type of aggression is misunderstood.

It is now widely accepted by animal behavior specialists that dogs (including puppies) that show aggression towards others, are in fact not showing ‘dominance’.

It almost always is a result of social confusion, frustration, fear, or anxiety. It can also be a learned behavior. We have a post on anxiety aggression which you can read here.

If a puppy is aggressive towards a person and/or dog, and is rewarded by getting what they want through the exchange, then they may continue the behavior as they know that it works.

Unfortunately, there are some trainers who still recommend dominance training methods, such as “Alpha rolls”. This training can lead to further anxiety in puppies. This anxiety can exacerbate the problem behavior, or suppress it until such time as the puppy lashes out with a bite.

Aggression in puppies is extremely rare, and many times a normal behavior, such as puppy biting, is seen as aggression. If you think maybe your puppy is just biting a lot, then read our post on that subject here

Signs of Aggression in Puppies

Before identifying that your puppy is in fact being aggressive, it’s important to know if the behavior is true aggression, or perceived aggression.

True aggression is expressed through the following signs:

  • Stiff body
  • Ears pinned
  • Growling without a loose body or tail wagging
  • Baring teeth
  • Biting or snapping
  • Stiff movements side to side
  • Standing tall
  • Tail raised or tucked – stiff movements
  • Stiff legged stance
  • Pupils dilated
  • Nose wrinkled
  • Raised hackles

Perceived aggression is misinterpreted puppy body language, in which an owner believes their dog is showing aggression, but in reality it’s normal puppy behavior.

These include:

  • Play biting
  • Play growling
  • Low levels of resource guarding
  • Rough play
  • Barking during play

It’s important to watch a puppy’s body language during any of the above actions. If your puppy is growling, biting, barking, or being rough, what is their body doing?

If your puppy is loose, wiggly, wagging their tail, and they’re not stiff or backing away fearfully, then they are simply excited.

You can also use resources such as iSpeakDog to help you learn how to read your dog’s body language.

Although this image depicts an adult dog, the signs are the same no matter the age.

Puppy Growling During Play

Growling during play is normal. You will see this especially if you’re playing tug-of-war with your dog.

If you find your puppy is getting too aggressive during play, then it’s time to stop the game and calm them down. This can be done by leaving the game, or by calm talking with slow petting.

Non-Aggressive Puppy Biting

If your puppy is biting softly, also known as mouthing, then this is also normal puppy behavior. By the time you get your puppy, they should have learned soft teeth biting, which is predominantly learned in the litter.

Be sure to read our new eye-opening post, Is Pet Insurance Worth It: 5 shocking facts you need to know... You might be in for a shock!

If your puppy is biting too hard, then it will be up to you to take the roll of other litter mates. When your puppy bites too hard, then make a loud yelp and withdraw your hand. If it was in the middle of a game, then stop the game for a few seconds.

This process will teach your puppy that biting too hard hurts and it will ruin the game.

The Ladder of Aggression

It’s also important to talk about the Ladder of Aggression whenever we talk about aggressive puppies. Aggression is not a personality trait – rather, it is a display of behavior in response to a situation.

Both genetics and environment influence aggressive behavior, but it is never completely one or the other.

There is no such thing as a dog that will never bite, or a dog that is aggressive 100% of the time.

Below is the Ladder of Aggression. It’s an excellent visual to show how a dog will continue to escalate, and climb the ladder, if their lower-rung methods aren’t stopping the threat.

chart of ladder aggression in dogs

This is yet another reason why it’s so important to pay attention to puppy body language.

By noticing when your puppy is displaying signs at the bottom of the ladder, such as licking their lips and yawning out of context, you can prevent a situation where your dog climbs the ladder even further.

In the worst case scenarios, puppies learn that their lower-level signals are ignored – or even punished – so they learn to always skip to the top of the ladder.

These dogs are much harder to work with and much more dangerous – the warning light has been taken away.

This is also important to understand if your puppy is growling.

You’ll notice that growling is the last step on the ladder before we get to biting. (Remember – a level 1 bite is the same as a snap).

A saying among dog behavior professionals is that “a growl is a gift.”

Growls tell you the dog is extremely uncomfortable, and respecting the growl is what keeps everyone safe.

It can be extremely tempting to think of the growl as a dog talking back to you, and as something that needs to be punished.

Instead, if you punish a dog for growling, they only stop the growling. The underlying reason that caused them to feel the need to growl doesn’t go away.

In the future, they are likely to skip straight to biting.

Don’t punish your puppy for growling. Take a step back, change the situation so everyone is safe, and figure out a better way to train for the situation so the growling doesn’t happen in the future.

To learn more about disciplining your puppy, be sure to read our post: How to Discipline a Puppy.

Types of Puppy Aggression

There are a variety of behaviors under the umbrella term of “aggression.” These include the following:

  • Dog aggression
  • Human aggression
  • Territorial aggression
  • Play aggression
  • Resource guarding (Protective aggression)
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Pain elicited aggression

Knowing the reason for your puppy’s aggressive behavior is the first step to solving it, and we’ll get more into them in the following headings.

If you’d like a comprehensive guide to fear-based or anxiety-based aggression, be sure to read our post on this subject here.

Dog-Dog and Dog-Human Aggression

When it comes down to aggression there are two main types, dog-to-dog aggression, and dog-to-human aggression.

In dog-to-dog aggression, the end result is often a dog fight, that may or may not leave wounds on either dog.

In dog-to-human aggression, the end result is usually a dog attempting to, or successfully, biting a human, with varying levels of injury.

In either case, if your puppy has bitten another dog or person out of aggression (displaying body language in line with aggressive behavior), you need to be seeking professional help. This behavior is concerning, especially in young puppies.

There are many educated trainers and behavior consultants that can be found through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Territorial Aggression in Puppies

Territorial aggression in puppies is common and should be expected. Even socialized puppies can be protective of their home or owners when a stranger, or perceived threat, approaches.

If your puppy is older and hasn’t been well socialized, you might like to read, Too Late to Socialize Puppy? (Age Expectations)

It’s important at an early age to introduce your puppy to visitors to your home. Be sure to put some rules in place, such as having them sit to greet visitors, and treat when they do so. Don’t allow your puppy to jump on you or visitors, having the visitor turn their back on them. Treat when they respond favorably.

In time, your puppy will still be sure to alert you when someone approaches, however they will also be able to calm themselves if the correct training has been implemented.

Use this video to see how to train your puppy to be well behaved when it comes to greeting strangers.

Play Biting, Excitement, and Frustration

What many owners describe as “aggressive” behavior is often an over aroused dog that is play biting, too excited, or too frustrated.

As a result, they appear out of control, and may be jumping repeatedly or nipping at hands.

In these cases, the puppy simply needs to learn how to calm down, regulate their emotional arousal, and often improve their bite inhibition so their play bites are softer.

Be sure to read our post: Calm Down Your Crazy Puppy: A Complete Guide

Resource Guarding (Protective aggression)

Another type of aggression you may be seeing in your puppy is resource guarding.

This occurs when your puppy is protecting something they want to keep, such as their food, a bone, a toy, a person, or a bed.

In the case of resource guarding, your puppy is simply worried about having their things taken away!

Imagine this example, that I often demonstrate during group puppy classes.

As I’m teaching, I’ll ask a student to “hold my pen for a moment.”

They gladly oblige, and grab the pen from me.

A few minutes later, I walk back to them, and swipe the pen from their hands without saying anything.

The student’s reactions vary – some are surprised, some try to hold on to the pen even harder, and some laugh nervously.

In all cases, though, it was simply rude of me to take the pen back without asking. Even though, in this case, they were holding the pen with the understanding that it was my pen, and I would need it back in a moment.

Now, imagine that you are me in this scenario, and the student in class is your dog.

It’s rude to dogs too, when we simply walk up and take their things.

Even worse, it’s usually something that does belong to the dog – like a toy – that they had no idea you would be taking back from them!

Resource guarding is a natural behavior for dogs and humans alike. We’ve all also guarded a plate of fries from the friend who “didn’t want any fries” and is now trying to sneak a few!

Sometimes, though, our dogs display a reaction that is inappropriate for the situation.

In the example with the pen, it’s normal for my students to try to hold on to the pen, or to display signs of anxiety or surprise.

What wouldn’t be normal, though, is for a student to hit me – the equivalent of your dog lashing out and potentially biting someone who comes near their things.

Solving Resource Guarding in Puppies

If your puppy is displaying severe resource guarding, leading to snapping or biting, it’s time to seek professional help for the safety of you, your dog, and everyone else involved.

However, if you’re only seeing mild resource guarding, such as a puppy that is stiffening when you walk by their food bowl, there are a few things you can do to help.

The first step is to never take away food from your puppy unannounced. Think back to the example of me and my student and the pen. Don’t be me!

The second step is to teach your puppy that when you approach, only good things happen.

Don’t play with your dog’s food, or do other things that can put you at risk.

Instead, walk by your dog’s food bowl and toss a few yummy pieces of hot dogs at them, and then move on.

Do this until your puppy is absolutely comfortable with you approaching them. They shouldn’t eat faster, stiffen, growl, or display any other behaviors that show concern.

You should also teach your pup a cue for trading, such as with toys.

Asking them to drop a toy in exchange for another toy or snack can go a long way in making your puppy feel better about you taking something away.

It’s important to note that the trade must be of equal or greater value, as how the dog perceives it.

If I give you a dollar bill and ask to trade for change, I expect to get change equaling a full dollar in return!

The book Mine! by Jean Donaldson is an excellent resource on working through resource guarding problems as well – and it’s short and easy to read, too

Aggressive Puppy Biting

Take a look at the bite scale created by Dr. Ian Dunbar for more information about the severity of a dog bite.

You’ll notice that a level 1 bite is a dog behaving aggressively or snapping without contact.

Most dog bites will be a level one or level two bite, with no contact or minor contact that results in bruises or scrapes.

It’s at level one and level two bites that you need intervention. Do not wait for your dog to escalate to a level three bite or higher to seek professional help.

Dogs that have bitten at a level three or higher require much more work, and often require management for safety for the rest of their lives.

In over a decade of working with thousands of dogs, both in training, daycare, boarding, and veterinary clinics, I’ve only found myself on the receiving end of a level three bite once.

That’s partly due to good management, though. I’ve worked with many dogs that have bitten humans or other dogs and left a level three or four bite, but it’s important for owners to work with a skilled trainer to minimize any problems.

A lot of aggression is caused by intense fear, and working with a professional trainer or behavior consultant can help you determine the best path moving forward for your puppy.

Be sure to watch this video from McCann Dog Training concerning puppy biting and what owners do wrong:

How to Calm an Aggressive Puppy

Now that we’ve talked about all the ways your puppy may be displaying aggressive behavior, it’s time to talk about ways to solve the problem. Remember, if your puppy is displaying dog-to-dog or dog-to-human aggression, especially if they are snapping or biting, it’s already time to seek professional help.

Otherwise, you’ll want to spend some time teaching your puppy how to calm down when they’re excited. You can use a leash or baby gate to help set your puppy up for success.

The Relaxation Protocol by Dr. Karen Overall is an excellent way to help teach dogs how to calm down.

Another of my favorite games involves teaching your dog how to regulate their emotional arousal, and comes from the Control Unleashed series by Leslie McDevitt.

For this game, you’ll want to grab a toy. Play with your puppy for 10-15 seconds, whether you play tug-of-war, chase, or fetch.

Once your puppy is excited, put the toy behind your back. Wait for any signs of calmer behavior – a deep breath, a sit, a pause in jumping – and reward your puppy by playing with the toy again.

With practice, this game will help teach your puppy that calming down is what gets you to play again, and they will learn to calm down much more quickly with the practice.

If your puppy growls, bites, and is out of control, then watch this video on puppy impulse control:

Final Word

One of the biggest reasons for people giving up their puppies to shelters is due to behavioral issues. Have you heard the term, “there are no bad dogs”, well it’s absolutely true!

Some puppies will require more training than others, however with the correct techniques, time, and support from someone who knows dogs well, then the aggressive puppy hurdle can be overcome.

If your puppy is showing signs of true aggression, then we absolutely recommend you call in some help. Many trainers now offer virtual advice, and even one session might be all you need to get your puppy under control.

Good luck!

If you feel like your puppy has bitten without warning, then you may be interested in reading our post Dog Bite Without Warning.