A puppy looks to camera

How to stop an aggressive puppy

By BBC Maestro

Puppies are well-known (and loved) for their boisterous natures; however, sometimes this playfulness can cross the line and become something more aggressive.

It’s hard to admit that our adorable little pups might be developing aggressive traits. However, with patience and understanding, you can work with your puppy on improving their behaviours, and you’ll all be much happier for it.

If we’re to successfully curb and reverse aggression, we first need to understand what the signs and triggers of puppy aggression are. We take a look at these in this article, before looking at ways to stop an aggressive puppy becoming an aggressive adult dog.

What are the signs of an aggressive puppy?

While it’s normal for a young puppy to be boisterous, you can easily spot the signs of aggression when you know what to look for. Watch out for your dog:

● Growling, snarling, lip curling

● Seeing more of the whites of their eyes than usual

● Ears that back and flat

● Biting (more than the usual puppy bites)

● Tail tucked under their body (which is tense or rigid-looking)

● Freezing as opposed to wriggling about

● Staring (a “hard stare” rather than perky curiosity)

Sometimes, it’s still tricky to identify specific behaviours in the melee of puppy playtime. Let’s take a closer look at this, and “spot the difference” between playful and aggressive traits.

puppies play fight

How to tell the difference between puppy play and aggression

Here’s a quick guide to telling the difference between expected puppy play and aggressive behaviour.

Body language

Playful: wriggly and loose, and often stands in an eager-looking “play bow” (bum in the air).

Aggressive: stiff and tense-looking, and can freeze in position (often accompanied by a growl)

Facial expression

Playful: they have a soft-looking expression, with a closed mouth and their lips covering their teeth.

Aggressive: A hard stare with a closed mouth; and yes, dogs really do frown.

Play style

Playful: tugging, bowing, drawing back if another pup yelps.

Aggressive: more snappy and grabbing at toys, not pulling away from a bite.

Vocal signs

Playful: a play growl is high-pitched and accompanied by movement (like the tug-of-war wiggle)

Aggressive: a lower-pitched growl, with no movement: indeed, the puppy may have frozen.

Puppy play can look pretty intensive to us human onlookers; however, much of their physical play is their innate preparation for life in the wild (even the fluffiest baby Maltese still has their wolfish instincts). Having said that, if you’re observing puppies playing together and you spot any of these signs of aggression, it’s time to call it a day.

Is biting a sign of puppy aggression?

While it’s not normal for a puppy to be aggressive, biting is an everyday part of life for the typical puppy. Young dogs use biting to explore their world (sometimes called “mouthing”). In his BBC Maestro dog training course, expert Steve Mann advocates “legal” opportunities for mouthing, so dogs can enjoy experimenting safely and without any stress.

Play biting is also a key part of the rough-and-tumble among litter mates. If your puppy gets a bit too bitey while playing with you, try yelping like a hurt puppy and stepping backwards: a puppy who isn’t really aggressive will respond to this. Reward them then move on to a calmer activity for a while. We look at how to stop a puppy biting in our helpful article.

Is your puppy growling and biting more than you expected? If you think your puppy is developing real signs of aggression, including excessive biting, you’ll need a more robust training strategy than the occasional yelp.

How to stop aggression in puppies

There are plenty of strategies you can try to prevent your puppy from acting aggressively. All behaviour has a reason behind it, so if you want to successfully overcome your puppy’s aggression, it’s important to understand why they’re acting like this. We need to know what’s triggering the behaviour so we know the best way to deal with it.

Why is my puppy aggressive?

Puppy aggression doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there will be a trigger (or triggers) for their behaviour. Here are a few common reasons why your pup may be struggling.

  • Overtired. We can all relate to feeling grumpy when we haven’t had enough sleep, and puppies are no different when it comes to this.
  • Overstimulated. If you’ve raised a toddler, you’ll recognise over-excitement as well as overtiredness.
  • Resource guarding. They’re protecting playthings from other pets, or even from you. Even removing an unsafe plaything from your pup can lead to this protective behaviour with other items.
  • Territorial aggression. This time, they’re guarding a space rather than a thing. This could be their comfy bed from the cat, or the whole household from the postie.
  • Signs have been ignored. If you don’t spot and understand early attempts at communication, your pup will escalate their methods of getting their message across.
  • Fear response. This could come from a scary experience with another dog, or if you’ve picked up a rescue pup, from poor early socialisation.
  • Frustration. Why shouldn’t they play with the other dog or bounce up to that interesting-looking human? Sometimes, pups just get a bit frustrated with boundaries.
  • Predatory drift. This is really rare, and it stems from how dogs hunt prey. Because of how working dogs have been bred, most don’t harm the prey they catch or find (a pheasant’s no good if the gundog eats it on the way back to their owner), but very occasionally, this trait resurfaces.

Working out the possible causes of your puppy’s aggression can help you to help them. If they’re cross because they’re tired for example, you can take a look at things like their bed, its location, your pup’s daily routine and how long their walks are.

The stages of stopping your puppy’s aggressive behaviour

Because there are various different causes and symptoms of aggression in dogs, start out by making a plan. How are you going to tackle this behaviour?

  1. Identify the behaviour. Is it definitely aggression and not simply play? Understanding your dog’s breed can help to put their behaviour in a context. As Steve says “if I had one wish, it would be that potential new owners research their breed of choice before they actually get their dog.” A highly intelligent breed (like a poodle) could be playing up because they’re easily bored.
  2. Identify the trigger. Your puppy could be frustrated, tired or just trying to get your attention. Are they scared of losing a precious toy or of anyone who comes to the front door?
  3. When you think you’ve identified the behaviour and trigger, it’s time to plan a strategy. As an example, resource guarding is a common cause of canine aggression. Your approach here is to teach the pup that it’s OK for you to take something from them and there’s no need for them to worry. An effective technique is to always swap the item for another one, or you could use treats so your pup knows they’ll get to enjoy a snack when their item has gone. If they feel more relaxed about their beloved toys, or know that anything taken is replaced by something even better, they’ll manage their resource guarding instinct.
  4. Ask for help if you need it. A vet or a professional dog trainer will be able to advise you and help to support your training programme. Hopefully, you won’t need stage 4, because you’ve correctly pinpointed the problem.
A puppy sits calmly

Can a puppy outgrow aggression?

Sorry, it’s a no: if a puppy is showing signs of aggression at an early age, it’s likely that this will simply get worse as they get older. It’s time to nip it (no pun intended) in the bud now.

Canine behaviours can change with age, as happy puppies will naturally grow out of some of their babyhood traits such as biting. Most puppies lose the biting tendency when they leave the mouthing phase behind, which is somewhere between three to five months old with most breeds.

Your pup should also develop what’s called “bite inhibition”, the canine version of learning to pull your punches. This means that while young dogs continue to bite during play, their nips will be measured and won’t hurt their playmates. If you don’t see any signs of the mouthing stage ending or if their play bites cause pain, speak to your vet.

At some point (between six and twelve months, depending on their breed), your puppy will become a teenager. These can be tricky months as your dog is full of energy and hormones, and needs a lot of stimulation. Without solid earlier training and socialisation, aggression will build rather than diminish during this period.

To raise a happy and good-natured friend-for-life, any aggressive tendencies need to be managed during puppyhood. Never assume that a pup’s behaviour will naturally improve: they need you there, wisely and kindly guiding them.

Professional dog trainer Steve Mann covers all things puppy in his BBC Maestro dog training course. Find out how to socialise a puppy (helped by his charming canine assistant Elsie), how to introduce techniques like clicker training or learn why different dog breeds behave as they do.

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