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Why do Puppies Snap at People Who Pet Them?

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

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

Possibility #2: The Puppy Would Prefer Not to Greet People at All

Common small-dog scenario: The dog’s owner holds him, or holds him in place on leash, while other people reach to pat him. A dog who’s somewhat shy, or who’s not entirely comfortable with restraint or with handling, will respond to this experience with signs of stress. Most obvious are attempts to escape. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to restrain small dogs that many people just clamp down harder instead of accepting the dog’s clear communication that he’s not enjoying himself. You may also see pinned ears, lip licking, and shrinking away. Some dogs will freeze up, as if they were thinking of England and waiting for the whole thing to be over.

Suppose that picture matches Lainie’s situation, it’s easy to imagine her relief when petting stops, and then her exasperated snap when that hand comes back again.

Possibility #3: The Puppy is Tired and Cranky

Jill didn’t mention how busy, crowded, or noisy her workplace is. If it’s a quiet office and she’s rarely disturbed at her desk, I may be completely off base here. But suppose Jill is, oh, an IT person at a good-size firm. People will be in and out of her work space all day long; many or most of them will be unfamiliar to Lainie, and many or most of them will want to pet her and play with her -- she’s a 4-month-old puppy, after all. She must be crazy cute!

But puppies need quiet and rest as much as they need exercise and play. Also, they may get crabby when they’re overtired, just the way toddlers do. If Lainie’s episodes of snappiness took place late in the workday, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

What to Do About a Snappy Puppy

Make no mistake, it’s a huge benefit to be able to take your dog to work with you. But I would manage Lainie’s experience carefully. First, Jill should familiarize herself with canine body language so she can easily see when Lainie is happy and relaxed or playful, when she’s nervous, and when she’s tired and tense. This knowledge of her dog will enable Jill to look out for her.

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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).