Why do Puppies Snap at People Who Pet Them?

A case study of a mixed-breed puppy who sends mixed signals.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #134

A listener, Jill, recently wrote in about her 4-month-old Yorkshire Terrier and Mini Poodle mix. Every day, Jill brings puppy Lainie to her workplace. But lately, there’s a problem! “The past couple of days,” Jill reports, Lainie “will let someone pet her, but if they take their hand away for a second and then go back, she snaps at them!” Jill’s puzzled – as she points out, “these are people she has seen before, and they were just petting her.”  

This week: Why a dog might snap at a person who was just petting her, and what to do about it..

Aggression: Your Clue That Your Dog is Stressed

You can always take it as a given that if your dog responds aggressively in a situation, something about that situation makes her uneasy. In Lainie’s case, she snaps when someone who’s been petting her stops and then reaches for her again. There are at least 3 possible reasons, and close observation of her behavior can help Jill figure out what’s up:

Closely observe your dog’s body language to help you figure out why she’s snapping.

Possibility #1: The Puppy is Socially Ambivalent

Like other behavior specialists, I’ve had many clients report that their dog will approach people and look as if she’s seeking contact, only to duck away, growl, or snap when the person actually touches her. When I meet these dogs, I find that their body language is a mess of mixed signals. A dog may sniff at me with her neck stretched out as far as it can go and her tail tucked between her legs, for instance. That’s a pretty extreme and obvious case of social interest combined with huge anxiety about actually getting up close and personal.

Many dogs are more subtle; I might have a dog sit pressed next to me, for instance, but watching me out of the corners of her eyes. Or she may clearly signal relaxed friendliness right until the moment a stranger touches her, and then her whole body stiffens up. 

If Lainie does approach people voluntarily, Jill should keep a close eye on her body language to make sure she’s really enjoying whatever interaction follows.


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).