What to Do If Your Dog Growls or Snaps

Many popular training guides advise that you punish your dog for showing aggression. Why that’s counterproductive, and what to do instead.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #25
Aggressive Dog

Some Possible Triggers of Aggression

Many dogs guard their food bowls, resting places, or favorite toys. Many are on edge around big, assertive men or erratically moving children. Did your dog get beaten up at the dog park that morning, then have to go to the vet, and did you just step on his foot while he was asleep? Did some ignorant trainer tell you to jerk on your dog’s leash when he lunged at another dog on the street? Is your dog old and arthritic? Is that chronic ear infection flaring up? Does the aggressive behavior reflect a sudden change, or have you sorta-kinda seen a problem coming but wanted to believe everything was fine? I strongly suggest making written notes. A detailed account of the aggressive episode is golden, whether your dog needs behavior modification, or medical treatment, or both. Meanwhile, prevent further rehearsals of the aggression-- avoid the problem situation as much as you possibly can.

How I Taught My Dog She Didn’t Need to Growl at Me

Izzy’s guarding of her pig ear was mild, so my behavior modification was fairly casual. A good program is meticulously tailored to the individual dog, so please get professional help rather than trying this on your own. I taught Izzy that if I approached when she had a pig ear, she could expect a small piece of roast beef to land nearby. Soon she acted glad to see me coming. Now I could approach more closely, and then more closely still -- always pairing my arrival with a tasty treat. I started trading her -- pig ear for roast beef, and then she’d get the pig ear back. Sometimes I’d hang out with her and her pig ear, giving her a treat from time to time. In a couple of weeks, the program was done. It’s been years since Iz felt any need to growl at me. I’m pretty sure a persistent humper would still get a roar and snap. And that’s okay by me.

For more resources on aggression, see the transcript at dogtrainer.quickanddirtytips.com. And talk to me! Email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, call 206-600-5661, or visit me on Facebook. That’s it for this week! Thank you.

Additional Information

For behavioral help, your best bet is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (especially if medical problems need to be treated or ruled out) or a trainer with special expertise in behavior modification. Evaluate any prospective trainer according to the criteria in my episode #5.

The use of pain, fear, or startle in a behavior modification program does not reflect the modern standard of care; the position statement of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior explains why.

While you shouldn’t attempt to handle behavior problems on your own, excellent reading materials can help make you an informed participant in your dog’s care. Here are just a few:

“Mine!” (resource guarding) and “Fight!” (dog-dog aggression), by Jean Donaldson, and “Biting” and “Fighting,” by Ian Dunbar, DVM.

“Feisty Fido,” by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., and Karen London, Ph.D., discusses on-leash aggression toward other dogs. Be sure to get the new second edition.

Pat Miller’s Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog and Positive Perspectives 2: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog are valuable general resources.

My example of a dog stressed by the presence of a child reflects reality: children are bitten more often than any other people. See, for example, Shuler, Carrie M., et al. 2008. Canine and human factors related to dog bite injuries. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 232 (4) (Feb. 15): 542-46.

Finally, Janis Bradley’s Dogs Bite: But Balloons and House Slippers Are More Dangerous is indispensable for putting the whole problem of dog bites into perspective. The title says it all, and Bradley backs up her position with meticulous research. 

Growling Dog image from Shutterstock


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).