A Dog Case Study: Aggressive Puppy

A young puppy growls when his owner handles him. What should she do?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #084

If Elena still needs to medicate Wilson, she should try mixing pills or liquid meds with stinky cheese or mashing them with a bit of sardine. If he got medicine in a dropper, she could use one to offer him a liquidy mix of yogurt and canned dog food – droppers are yum! Well, we’d hope Wilson thought so.

Once Wilson is happily climbing into her lap and spending time close to her, Elena can experiment with touching him gently as she feeds him a meal. She can also teach Wilson to bump her hand with his nose in exchange for a treat. That can help a hand-shy dog feel at ease with human touch.

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Now, I can’t promise these ideas will work. Because Wilson is so young, his behavior is more plastic, more changeable, than an adult dog’s behavior; even a few days of soothing, pleasant contact, without any grabbing or force, might just turn him right around. On the other hand, he’s already had repeated lessons that human handling is no fun, and those lessons have been taking place for a large percentage of his very short life. If Wilson continues to growl when Elena handles him or tries to pick him up, she’ll need a careful, individualized behavior modification plan, and that means hiring a competent behavior specialist to work with her. The sooner, the better.

Normal Puppy Nipping and Chewing

Wilson also nips and bites in what seem to be normal puppy ways, appropriate in such a young dog. My articles on nipping and chewing explain in detail how to teach puppies not to use their teeth on us. The short version is that we need to provide appealing, “legal” chews, such as food-dispensing toys, and to manage the situation so that our puppies use those for their jaw-and-tooth workouts. Supervised play sessions with other pups can also help. If Wilson does nip or chew Elena, she can give him a brief social freeze-out, where she folds her arms and looks away from him for a few seconds. If need be, she can leave the room.

You might remember that Elena was using social withdrawal to deal with Wilson’s growling, and that it didn’t work. Here’s why. Dogs and puppies growl when they feel threatened; they want the threat to go away. So withdrawing is actually a reward. (It’s still the correct response in the moment, though--the last thing you want to teach a growling dog is that the low-level warning she’s just given you won’t do the job and she needs to escalate. Later, you can work on teaching the dog that there’s no need to feel threatened in the first place.)


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).

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