Congratulations on adopting a new best friend! We know that bringing a new dog home can be amazing but also challenging. Please see the references below for advice on common growing pains that will hopefully make the transition from shelter to home a bit smoother.
Housetraining Your New Dog or Puppy
You’ve brought a new dog into your home—congratulations! Now comes your first dog-training challenge: house training.
House training is not an exact science—there’s no sure-fire formula or timetable that will work for every dog. The important thing is to make it a positive experience. Here are a few tips to help you through it.
1. Pay Attention to Your Dog — Never leave your un-housebroken dog unattended. Not even for a minute. If you aren't actively engaged with your dog, having her in the same room doesn't count. If you are unable to keep a close watch on your dog during housetraining, utilize a crate. Contrary to what some may think, crate training is not a harsh practice for the dog and can be a comforting experience. We will go over crate training below.
2. Establish a Definite Schedule for Meals and Potty — If you leave a bowl of food available at all times for your un-housebroken dog to nibble at, nibble he will. He'll nibble all day and he'll poop all day as well, and it will be next to impossible for you to figure out the best time to take him to do his business. I don't recommend the all-day-buffet method of feeding pets under any circumstances, but it's an especially bad idea with a dog that isn't housebroken.
3. Condition Your Dog Through a Reward System — In order to successfully potty train your dog it's crucial that you reward her for good behavior. Since your pup isn't fluent in English, it's important to praise her in ways a canine understands. She can pick up cues from the tone of your voice – for example, saying things like "That's a good girl, that's really good," in a quiet but loving tone.
Almost all dogs speak the language of food, so treats are also a good reward during the housebreaking process. When your dog eliminates in the right spot outside, praise her with words and give her a treat within three seconds of the behavior. Remember that consistency is crucial, so make sure you have treats with you to reward her within three seconds every time she goes in the right spot.
4. Provide a Leeway for Potty Mistakes and Accidents — This can be the most difficult principle to follow, but I can't stress its importance enough.
Yes, it's frustrating, disappointing and maddening when a four-legged family member just doesn't seem to want to cooperate with the housetraining program. But in order to successfully housebreak your pup, you must avoid punishment of any kind when he makes a mistake. And he will. I don't know where a "technique" such as rubbing a dog's nose in his excrement originated, but it's inappropriate, unhealthy, and not helpful in the least.
The important thing to remember is by the time your dog is relieving himself on your floor, your opportunity for a successful toileting adventure outside has passed. All you can do is clean the mess, review what you could have done differently to avoid it, and rededicate yourself to the housebreaking process. You will succeed!
- Stay consistent.
- Stay positive.
- Stay patient.
Do: Supervise your dog. Limit the dog’s run of the house to the one or two rooms where you are able to see her at all times. Dogs usually show “pre-pottying” behavior such as sniffing, circling and walking with stiff back legs; all signs that you should get her to the potty area ASAP! As the training begins to take hold, you can slowly enlarge her territory.
Don’t: Yell at a dog for a mess she made earlier. If you catch her in the act, it’s okay to startle her by clapping or making a noise (hopefully this will stop her long enough for you to whisk her outside). But a dog will not learn anything by being scolded for a past accident, even one a few minutes old. Just clean it up and soldier on.
Do: Offer big praise when she gets it right. Whether your goal is for your dog to eliminate on pee pads indoors or to do it outside, you have to really throw a party for her when she succeeds. Lavish her with praise, affection and some yummy treats!
Don’t: Rub her face in it. In addition to this action making your dog fear you, she’s incapable of making the connection that it’s the act of soiling indoors you object to—to her, you just really hate pee and poop. If she thinks that the waste itself is what you dislike, she’ll only get sneakier about hiding it from you.
Crate Training and Why It's Important, Safe, and Healthy
The Beauty of Crates
Why is a crate a good idea for you and your dog? A crate is a safe, effective way to keep your new dog out of trouble when you aren't able to keep a close eye on them. Additionally, a crate allows you to work with your pup’s natural desire to be a den dweller. Dogs in the wild seek out small, dark, safe spots to inhabit.
If you bring a new puppy into your home and you don’t have a crate ready for her, she will try to locate a spot – under a table or chair or even behind the toilet in the bathroom – which answers her need for a secure, out-of-the-way “den” of her own. If you were to leave her in her makeshift den, you’d soon notice she would not relieve herself there. That’s because dogs are programmed by nature not to soil their dens.
In the wild, nursing wolves and coyotes teach their pups to relieve themselves outside their dens. This keeps predators from investigating inside their little homes, and keeps messes outside the sleeping area. And that is exactly why crates are so useful for un-housebroken dogs. A dog with her own made-to-order den will not want to soil it, so by purchasing a crate for her, you work in harmony with your pup’s natural instinct to keep her little space clean.
As long as your dog is getting consistent and frequent trips outside to relieve herself, nature will prompt her not to soil her den space in between potty trips. This is also an effective way to keep your dog from destructive tendencies when you are away from home, such as chewing out of boredom.
Purchasing a Crate
Crate size is important. You want a space that is not too small, but not too big.
Your dog should be able to stand up, lie down and turn around in his crate. It should be large enough for him to move around in comfortably, but not so large that he can easily use one end as his bathroom and the other end for sleeping and snacking. A crate that large can actually slow down the housebreaking process.
If you’re unsure what size crate you need, talk to a store employee about the size of your dog and what you want to accomplish, and he or she should be able to help you pick the right size enclosure.
If you’re crate training a puppy, especially a medium to large breed dog, keep in mind you’ll most likely need to graduate to a bigger crate as your pup matures.
Getting Your Dog Used to His Crate
The first rule of crate training: never force your dog into a crate.
You never want to introduce a crate, shove your confused pup into it, close the door and leave him. That’s how you wind up with a dog with a raging case of separation anxiety and/or a pathological aversion to enclosed or small spaces.
On the flip side, never pull a dog out of his crate, either. The crate represents a safe zone for your dog, so you never want to make his safe zone feel unsafe to him by forcing him into it or out of it.
The second rule of crate training: it’s all good.
In other words, everything about the crate must be a good thing from your dog’s perspective. Treats go in the crate. So do chew toys, raw bones, and very special indulgences like maybe a Kong filled with almond butter or chicken strips.
The goal is to have your dog voluntarily enter his crate – and sooner rather than later.
It's also a good idea to drape a blanket over the back half of the crate to create a quiet, dark (den-like) environment. Dogs can then use their crates as bedrooms – they go into them to sleep.
If your pup has had no bad experiences with a crate and you create a safe, dark little den for him inside, he might just go right in voluntarily as soon as you present his new space to him. If so, that’s excellent!
Even if your dog takes to his crate right away, you still want to stick with the “it’s all good” rule and put treats, toys and other goodies in there for encouragement.
Overcoming Hate for the Crate
If your dog is nervous about his new little space or has an actual aversion to a crate due to a bad past experience, you’ll have to take it a bit slower.
A dog that has experienced a crate as a form of punishment or has been locked up for inappropriately long periods must be gently and patiently reconditioned to view his crate as a good thing.
Obviously, you want your pup in there comfortably -- with the door closed -- as soon as possible in order to successfully housebreak him. But until he gets the “it’s all good” message about his crate, you’ll need to be extra vigilant about getting him outside to potty at frequent, regular intervals.
Make sure to leave the door to the crate open for a nervous puppy or dog. Put food rewards around the outside of the crate and inside as well so your pup can get comfortable going in and out of his crate without worry about being trapped inside.
Move his food and water bowls closer to his crate to further associate good things with the crate.
Once you sense your dog is comfortable inside his crate at mealtime, try closing the door as soon as he starts to eat. Do it nonchalantly, without fanfare. Praise him in low tones and then get busy with something.
Chances are he’ll finish his meal and then realize the door is closed and he’s not free to leave his crate. Meantime, you’re going about your business as though nothing is different.
Your pup may look at you with an expectant or confused expression as if to say, “Um, hello? The door’s closed. I can’t get out.”
You don’t need to ignore him completely, but you should keep to your own business and stay very, very calm as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on. Your dog may whine or cry a bit, but he should pretty quickly decide to lie down.
It's recommended when you first start closing the crate door that you close it only for short periods of time. You’ll also want to leave an interactive toy or treat inside the crate – to keep your pup pacified.
After a few minutes, when your dog has relaxed inside the crate and seems to be saying “Okay, I’ll just hang out in here a while,” that’s your signal the crate has gone from a bad thing to a neutral experience for your dog. Open the door and allow him the freedom once again to come and go.
Once your dog is associating only good things with his crate and feels comfortable inside it, you can close the door for longer periods of time. Don’t try leaving your house for short periods until he’s completely comfortable with the crate while you’re home.
Establishing Verbal Cues
Bring your dog to a specific spot each time you take them out of their crate and give her about five-ten minutes to do her business. That’s usually enough time for her to sniff around and decide to go.
Now, if you take your un-housebroken dog to her spot and she just looks at you … and you look back at her … and she keeps looking at you as if she’s wondering why you’re standing there looking at her, it’s a good sign she’s not going to do her business this trip.
What you want to do in this case is bring her right back to her crate (or room) and close the door. You’ve got a pup with a full bladder and full intestines and you don’t want her loose in your house. That’s a set up for her to fail, and the goal of housebreaking is successes, not failures.
In about a half-hour or so, grab the treats, take her back outside to her spot and let her try again. You shouldn’t have to repeat this more than once before your pup really needs to go and will, but be prepared just in case to go back and forth from the crate to the potty spot a few times.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming if she doesn’t relieve herself when you take her out the first time that she doesn’t need to go. Sure she does – especially first thing in the morning. She should either be in her crate or outside in her potty spot until she has done her morning business.
Eventually, you’ll be able to take your dog to a spot – ideally any spot of your choosing whether at home or elsewhere – and give the verbal cue you've chosen and as if by magic, she will! ex: "Go, potty."
Reinforcing Positive Behavior
It’s easy to get overly excited when your pup potties outside right where you want him to, but you want to make sure not to get so excited that you scare him while he’s in the act, causing him to stop doing the thing you’re praising him for. Make sure your “go potty” verbal command is said in a low, reassuring tone.
Within three seconds of your pup finishing his business, you must give him a treat and say “good job.” Give him a couple more treats and continue to praise him before you go back inside.
Don’t wait until you’re back indoors to give your dog his treat. What will happen in his little doggy brain is he’ll associate the food reward with coming back indoors rather than with relieving himself outside. You’ll soon feel like you’re being tricked to let your dog outside, only to see her beg to come back in to receive a reward.
That’s why it’s critically important that you remember the treats when you take him outside, and then reward him within three seconds after he completes the desired behavior.
For those of you with fenced backyards …
If you happen to have the luxury of a fenced backyard and don’t care what part of the yard your dog uses as a potty, you can simply let him out on his own to relieve himself. However, I don’t recommend you do this at the beginning.
Number one, you won’t know whether or not he’s done his business unless you watch him every second he’s outside. Number two, it’s impossible to establish a verbal “go potty” cue if you’re inside and he’s outside. And finally, you can’t give him a food reward within three seconds if you’re in different places.
Some individual dogs and certain breeds just seem to understand from a very young age to do their business outside the house. Those pups tend to be the exceptions and not the rule, however.
Your dog may or may not become completely house trained if you let him out into the yard by himself or install a doggy door before he understands the verbal cue and food reward systems.
Sources: Healthy Pets
Mouthing, Nipping, and Play Biting in Adult Dogs
Most pet parents don’t enjoy dogs who bite, chew and mouth their hands, limbs or clothing during play and interaction. The jaws of an adult dog can cause significantly more pain than puppy teeth, and adult dogs can inadvertently cause injury while mouthing. Mouthing is often more difficult to suppress in adult dogs because adults aren’t as sensitive to our reactions as puppies are, and they’re usually more difficult to control physically because of their size.
Adult dogs who mouth people probably never learned not to do so during puppyhood. It’s likely that their human parents didn’t teach them how to be gentle or to chew toys instead.
- Avoid waving your fingers or toes in your dog’s face or slapping the sides of his face to entice him to play. Doing these things can actually encourage your dog to bite your hands and feet.
- Do not discourage your dog from playing with you in general. Play builds a strong bond between a dog and his human family. You want to teach your dog to play gently rather than not at all.
- Avoid jerking your hands or feet away from your dog when he mouths. Jerky movements might seem like a game to your dog and encourage him to jump forward and grab at you. It’s much more effective to let your hands or feet go limp so that they aren’t much fun to play with.
- Slapping or hitting dogs for playful mouthing can cause them to bite harder. They usually react by playing more aggressively. Physical punishment can also make your dog afraid of you—and it can even cause real aggression. Avoid scruff shaking, whacking your dog on the nose, sticking your fingers down his throat and all other punishments that might hurt or scare him.
Is It Playful Mouthing or Aggressive Behavior?
Most mouthing is normal dog behavior. But some dogs bite out of fear or frustration, and this type of biting can indicate problems with aggression. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between normal play mouthing and mouthing that precedes aggressive behavior. In most cases, a playful dog will have a relaxed body and face. His muzzle might look wrinkled, but you won’t see a lot of tension in his facial muscles. Playful mouthing is usually less painful than more serious, aggressive biting. Most of the time, an aggressive dog’s body will look stiff. He may wrinkle his muzzle and pull back his lips to expose his teeth. Serious, aggressive bites are usually quicker and more painful than those delivered during play.
If you suspect that your dog’s biting fits the description of aggressive behavior, please consult a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer you choose is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has extensive education and experience successfully treating aggression, since this expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a behaviorist or a CPDT in your area.
How to Minimize Your Dog’s Mouthing and Nipping
Dogs spend a great deal of time playing, chewing and investigating objects. They also enjoy playing with people, of course. Puppies chew on our fingers and toes, and they investigate people’s bodies with their mouths and teeth. This kind of behavior may seem cute when your dog is seven weeks old, but it’s not so endearing when he’s two or three years old—and much bigger!
It’s important to help your dog learn to curb his mouthy behavior. There are various ways to teach this lesson, some better than others. The ultimate goal is to train your dog to stop mouthing and biting people altogether. However, the first and most important objective is to teach him that people have very sensitive skin, so he must be very gentle when using his mouth during play.
Bite Inhibition: Teach Your Dog to Be Gentle
Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to control the force of his mouthing. A puppy or dog who hasn’t learned bite inhibition with people doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin, so he bites too hard, even in play. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that a dog who has learned to use his mouth gently when interacting with people will be less likely to bite hard and break skin if he ever bites someone in a situation apart from play—like when he’s afraid or in pain.
Young dogs usually learn bite inhibition during play with other dogs. If you watch a group of dogs playing, you’ll see plenty of chasing, pouncing and wrestling. Dogs also bite each other all over. Every now and then, a dog will bite his playmate too hard. The victim of the painful bite yelps and usually stops playing. The offender is often taken aback by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. However, pretty soon both playmates are back in the game. Through this kind of interaction, dogs learn to control the intensity of their bites so that no one gets hurt and the play can continue without interruption. If dogs can learn from each other how to be gentle, they can learn the same lesson from people.
When you play with your dog, let him mouth on your hands. Continue play until he bites especially hard. When he does, immediately give a high-pitched yelp, as if you’re hurt, and let your hand go limp. This should startle your dog and cause him to stop mouthing you, at least momentarily. (If yelping seems to have no effect, you can say “Too bad!” or “You blew it!” in a stern voice instead.) Praise your dog for stopping or for licking you. Then resume play. If your dog bites you hard again, yelp again. Repeat these steps no more than three times within a 15-minute period.
If you find that yelping alone doesn’t work, you can switch to a time-out procedure. Time-outs are often effective for curbing mouthy behavior in adolescent and adult dogs. When your dog delivers a hard bite, yelp loudly. Then, when he startles and turns to look at you or looks around, remove your hand. Either ignore him for 10 to 20 seconds or, if he starts mouthing on you again, get up and move away for 10 to 20 seconds. If necessary, leave the room. After the short time-out, return to your dog and encourage him to play with you again. It’s important to teach him that gentle play continues, but painful play stops. Play with your dog until he bites hard again. When he does, repeat the sequence above. When your dog isn’t delivering really hard bites anymore, you can tighten up your rules a little. Require your dog to be even gentler. Yelp and stop play in response to moderately hard bites. Persist with this process of yelping and then ignoring your dog or giving him a time-out for his hardest bites. As those disappear, do the same for his next-hardest bites, and so on, until your dog can play with your hands very gently, controlling the force of his mouthing so that you feel little or no pressure at all.
What to Do Next: Teach Your Dog That Teeth Don’t Belong on Human Skin
After you teach your dog to be gentle with his mouth, you can move on to the next step: teaching him to avoid mouthing people altogether. Try the following tips:
- Substitute a toy or chew bone when your dog tries to gnaw on fingers or toes.
- Dogs often mouth on people’s hands when stroked, patted and scratched. If your dog gets all riled up when you pet him, distract him by feeding him small treats from your other hand. This will help your dog get used to being touched without mouthing.
- Encourage noncontact forms of play, such as fetch and tug-of-war, rather than wrestling and rough play with your hands. Teaching your dog to play tug-of-war prepares him for dealing with arousal and frustration. To keep tug-of-war safe and fun for you and your dog, you’ll need to follow strict rules. Once your dog can play tug safely, keep tug toys in your pocket or in a place where you can easily access them. If he starts to mouth you, you can immediately redirect him to the tug toy. Ideally, he’ll start to anticipate and look for a toy when he feels like mouthing.
- Teach your dog impulse control with specific exercises such as sit, wait and leave it.
- If your dog bites at your feet and ankles, carry his favorite tug toy in your pocket. Whenever he ambushes you, instantly stop moving your feet. Take out the tug toy and wave it enticingly. When your dog grabs the toy, start moving again. If you don’t happen to have the toy available, just freeze and wait for your dog to stop mouthing you. The second he stops, praise and get a toy to reward him. Repeat these steps until your dog gets used to watching you move around without going after your feet.
- Provide plenty of interesting and new toys and things to chew so that your dog will play with them instead of gnawing on you or your clothing.
- Provide plenty of opportunities for your dog to play with other friendly, vaccinated dogs. He can expend a lot of his energy playing with them and have less need to play roughly with you.
- Use a time-out procedure, just like the one described above, but change the rules a little. Instead of giving your dog time-outs for hard biting, start to give him time-outs every time you feel his teeth touch your skin.
- The instant you feel your dog’s teeth touch you, give a high-pitched yelp. Then immediately walk away from him. Ignore him for 30 to 60 seconds. If your dog follows you or continues to bite and nip at you, leave the room for 30 to 60 seconds. (Be sure that the room is “dog-proofed” before you leave your dog alone in it. Don’t leave him in an area with things he might destroy or things that might hurt him.) After the brief time-out, return to the room and calmly resume whatever you were doing with your dog.
- Alternatively, you can keep a leash attached to your dog when you’re around to supervise him. Let the leash drag on the floor. Instead of leaving the room when your dog mouths you, you can immediately take hold of his leash and calmly lead him to a quiet area. When you get there, tether him to a heavy piece of furniture or put him behind a baby gate to confine him. Then leave the area or turn your back to your dog for the brief time-out. When the time-out is over, untie him or release him, and resume whatever you were doing.
- If a time-out isn’t viable or effective, consider using a taste deterrent. Spray the deterrent on areas of your body and clothing that your dog likes to mouth before you start interacting with him. If he mouths you or your clothing, stop moving and wait for him to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise him lavishly when he lets go of you. Apply the deterrent to your body and clothes for at least two weeks. After two weeks of being punished by the bitter taste every time he mouths you, your dog will likely learn to inhibit his mouthy behavior.
- If your dog shows no reaction when you yelp, does not stop mouthing when you use time-out and isn’t deterred by bad tastes, another possibility is to make it unpleasant for him when he mouths. The following technique should only be used as a last resort—only if nothing else has worked. Carry a small can of peppermint or spearmint breath spray in your pocket so that it’s always handy. The instant your dog starts to mouth you, yell “Ouch!” and squirt a short burst of the breath spray directly into your dog’s mouth. He won’t like the taste, and he really won’t like the sensation of the spray. Your action should be swift and smooth. This tactic won’t work if it deteriorates into a wrestling match between you and your dog—and it definitely won’t work if your dog becomes aggressive or afraid of you. You should only need to use the spray a few times. If you’re uncomfortable using punishment and can’t implement it quickly and without struggling with your dog, it’s best to use the other procedures recommended here or seek professional help. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a qualified expert near you.)
- Because mouthing issues can be challenging to work with, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). A CPDT will offer group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of assistance with mouthing. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to find a CPDT in your area.
Mouthing, Nipping, and Play Biting in Puppies
Puppies spend a great deal of time playing, chewing and investigating objects. All of these normal activities involve puppies using their mouths and their needle-sharp teeth. When puppies play with people, they often bite, chew and mouth on people’s hands, limbs and clothing. This kind of behavior may seem cute when your puppy is seven weeks old, but it’s not nearly so endearing when he’s three or four months old—and getting bigger by the day!
What to Do About Puppy Mouthing
It’s important to help your puppy learn to curb his mouthy behavior. There are various ways, some better than others, to teach this lesson. The ultimate goal is to train your puppy to stop mouthing and biting people altogether. However, the first and most important objective is to teach him that people have very sensitive skin, so he must be very gentle when using his mouth.
- Avoid waving your fingers or toes in your puppy’s face or slapping the sides of his face to entice him to play. Doing these things can actually encourage your puppy to bite your hands and feet.
- Do not discourage your puppy from playing with you in general. Play builds a strong bond between a dog and his human family. You want to teach your puppy to play gently, rather than not at all.
- Avoid jerking your hands or feet away from your puppy when he mouths. This will encourage him to jump forward and grab at you. It’s much more effective to let your hands or feet go limp so that they aren’t much fun to play with.
- Slapping or hitting puppies for playful mouthing can cause them to bite harder. They usually react by playing more aggressively. Physical punishment can also make your puppy afraid of you—and it can even cause real aggression. Avoid scruff shaking, whacking your puppy on the nose, sticking your fingers down his throat and all other punishments that might hurt or scare him.
Bite Inhibition: Teach Your Puppy to Be Gentle
Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to control the force of his mouthing. A puppy or dog who hasn’t learned bite inhibition with people doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin, and so he bites too hard, even in play. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that a dog who has learned to use his mouth gently when interacting with people will be less likely to bite hard and break skin if he ever bites someone in a situation apart from play—like when he’s afraid or in pain.
Puppies usually learn bite inhibition during play with other puppies. If you watch a group of puppies playing, you’ll see plenty of chasing, pouncing and wrestling. Puppies also bite each other all over. Every now and then, a pup will bite his playmate too hard. The victim of the painful bite yelps and usually stops playing. The offender is often taken aback by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. However, pretty soon, both playmates are back in the game. Through this kind of interaction, puppies learn to control the intensity of their bites so that no one gets hurt and the play can continue without interruption. If puppies can learn how to be gentle from each other, they can also learn the same lesson from people.
When you play with your puppy, let him mouth on your hands. Continue play until he bites especially hard. When he does, immediately give a high-pitched yelp, as if you’re hurt, and let your hand go limp. This should startle your puppy and cause him to stop mouthing you, at least momentarily. (If yelping seems to have no effect, you can say “Too bad!” or “You blew it!” in a stern voice instead.) Praise your puppy for stopping or for licking you. Resume whatever you were doing before. If your puppy bites you hard again, yelp again. Repeat these steps no more than three times within a 15-minute period. If you find that yelping alone doesn’t work, you can switch to a time-out procedure. Time-outs are often very effective for curbing mouthing in puppies. When your puppy delivers a hard bite, yelp loudly. Then, when he startles and turns to look at you or looks around, remove your hand. Either ignore him for 10 to 20 seconds or, if he starts mouthing on you again, get up and move away for 10 to 20 seconds. After the short time-out, return to your puppy and encourage him to play with you again. It’s important to teach him that gentle play continues, but painful play stops. Play with your puppy until he bites hard again. When he does, repeat the sequence above. When your puppy isn’t delivering really hard bites anymore, you can tighten up your rules a little. Require your puppy to be even gentler. Yelp and stop play in response to moderately hard bites. Persist with this process of yelping and then ignoring your puppy or giving him a time-out for his hardest bites. As those disappear, do the same for his next-hardest bites, and so on, until your puppy can play with your hands very gently, controlling the force of his mouthing so that you feel little or no pressure at all.
What to Do Next: Teach Your Puppy That Teeth Don’t Belong on Human Skin
- Substitute a toy or chew bone when your puppy tries to gnaw on fingers or toes.
- Puppies often mouth on people’s hands when stroked, patted and scratched (unless they’re sleepy or distracted). If your puppy gets all riled up when you pet him, distract him by feeding him small treats from your other hand. This will help your puppy get used to being touched without mouthing.
- Encourage noncontact forms of play, such as fetch and tug-of-war, rather than wrestling and rough play with your hands. Once your puppy can play tug safely, keep tug toys in your pocket or have them easily accessible. If he starts to mouth you, you can immediately redirect him to the tug toy. Ideally, he’ll start to anticipate and look for a toy when he feels like mouthing.
- If your puppy bites at your feet and ankles, carry his favorite tug toy in your pocket. Whenever he ambushes you, instantly stop moving your feet. Take out the tug toy and wave it enticingly. When your puppy grabs the toy, start moving again. If you don’t happen to have the toy available, just freeze and wait for your puppy to stop mouthing you. The second he stops, praise and get a toy to reward him. Repeat these steps until your puppy gets used to watching you move around without going after your feet or ankles.
- Provide plenty of interesting and new toys so that your puppy will play with them instead of gnawing on you or your clothing.
- Provide plenty of opportunities for your puppy to play with other puppies and with friendly, vaccinated adult dogs. Playing and socializing with dog buddies is important for your puppy’s development—and if he expends a lot of his energy playing with other puppies, he’ll feel less motivated to play roughly with you. Consider enrolling your puppy in a good puppy class, where he can have supervised playtime with other puppies and learn some important new skills! Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area who offers puppy classes.
- Use a time-out procedure, just like the one described above—but change the rules a little. Instead of giving your puppy time-outs for hard biting, start to give him time-outs every time you feel his teeth touch your skin.
- The instant you feel your puppy’s teeth touch you, give a high-pitched yelp. Then immediately walk away from him. Ignore him for 30 to 60 seconds. If your puppy follows you or continues to bite and nip at you, leave the room for 30 to 60 seconds. (Be sure that the room is “puppy-proofed” before you leave your puppy alone in it. Don’t leave him in an area with things he might destroy or things that might hurt him.) After the brief time-out, return to the room and calmly resume whatever you were doing with your puppy.
- Alternatively, you can keep a leash attached to your puppy during time-out training and let it drag on the floor when you’re there to supervise him. Then, instead of leaving the room when your puppy mouths you, you can take hold of his leash and lead him to a quiet area, tether him, and turn your back to him for the brief time-out. Then untie him and resume whatever you were doing.
- If a time-out isn’t viable or effective, consider using a taste deterrent. Spray areas of your body and clothing that your puppy likes to mouth before you start interacting with him. If he mouths you or your clothing, stop moving and wait for him to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise him lavishly when he lets go of you. Apply the bad taste to your body and clothes for at least two weeks. After two weeks of being punished by the bitter taste every time he mouths you, your puppy will likely learn to inhibit his mouthy behavior.
- Be patient and understanding. Playful mouthing is normal behavior for a puppy or young dog.
Because mouthing issues can be challenging to work with, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). A CPDT will offer group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of assistance with mouthing. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.
When Does Mouthing Become Aggression?
Most puppy mouthing is normal behavior. However, some puppies bite out of fear or frustration, and this type of biting can signal problems with future aggression.
Puppy “Temper Tantrums”
Puppies sometimes have temper tantrums. Usually, tantrums happen when you’re making a puppy do something he doesn’t like. Something as benign as simply holding your puppy still or handling his body might upset him. Tantrums can also happen when play escalates. (Even human “puppies” can have tantrums during play when they get overexcited or upset)! A puppy temper tantrum is more serious than playful mouthing, but it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the two. In most cases, a playful puppy will have a relaxed body and face. His muzzle might look wrinkled, but you won’t see a lot of tension in his facial muscles. If your puppy has a temper tantrum, his body might look very stiff or frozen. He might pull his lips back to expose his teeth or growl. Almost always, his bites will be much more painful than normal mouthing during play.
If you’re holding or handling your puppy and he starts to throw a temper tantrum, avoid yelping like you’re hurt. Doing that might actually cause your puppy to continue or intensify his aggressive behavior. Instead, be very calm and unemotional. Don’t hurt your puppy, but continue to hold him firmly without constriction, if possible, until he stops struggling. After he’s quieted down for just a second or two, let him go. Then make plans to contact a qualified professional for help. Repeated bouts of biting in frustration are not something that the puppy will simply grow out of, so your puppy’s behavior should be assessed and resolved as soon as possible.
When and Where to Get Help
A trained professional can help you determine whether or not your puppy’s mouthing is normal, and she or he can guide you through an effective treatment plan. If you suspect that your puppy’s biting fits the description of aggressive or fearful behavior, please seek consultation with a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT)—but be sure to determine whether she or he has professional training and experience in successfully treating fear and aggression problems, as this expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.
IDENTIFYING THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF “AGGRESSION”
Aggression is the most common and most serious behavior problem in dogs. It’s also the number-one reason why pet parents seek professional help from behaviorists, trainers and veterinarians. We ALWAYS recommend consulting with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB).
- DO NOT attempt to physically dominate your dog.
- DO NOT attempt to physically punish your dog.
- DO NOT force your dog into a situation in which they are uncomfortable.
What Is Aggression?
The term “aggression” refers to a wide variety of behaviors that occur for a multitude of reasons in various circumstances. Virtually all wild animals are aggressive when guarding their territories, defending their offspring and protecting themselves. Species that live in groups, including people and dogs, also use aggression and the threat of aggression to keep the peace and to negotiate social interactions.
To say that a dog is “aggressive” can mean a whole host of things. Aggression encompasses a range of behaviors that usually begins with warnings and can culminate in an attack. Dogs may abort their efforts at any point during an aggressive encounter. A dog that shows aggression to people usually exhibits some part of the following sequence of increasingly intense behaviors:
- Becoming very still and rigid
- Guttural bark that sounds threatening
- Lunging forward or charging at the person with no contact
- Mouthing, as though to move or control the person, without applying significant pressure
- “Muzzle punch” (the dog literally punches the person with her nose)
- Showing teeth
- Snarl (a combination of growling and showing teeth)
- Quick nip that leaves no mark
- Quick bite that tears the skin
- Bite with enough pressure to cause a bruise
- Bite that causes puncture wounds
- Repeated bites in rapid succession
- Bite and shake
Dogs don’t always follow this sequence, and they often do several of the behaviors above simultaneously. Many times, pet parents don’t recognize the warning signs before a bite, so they perceive their dogs as suddenly flying off the handle. However, that’s rarely the case. It can be just milliseconds between a warning and a bite, but dogs rarely bite without giving some type of warning beforehand.
Classification of Behavior
If your dog has been aggressive in the past or you suspect she could become aggressive, take time to evaluate the situations that have upset her. Who bore the brunt of her aggression? When and where did it happen? What else was going on at the time? What had just happened or was about to happen to your dog? What seemed to stop her aggression? Learning the answers to these questions can clarify the circumstances that trigger your dog’s aggressive reaction and provide insight into the reasons for her behavior. You need an accurate diagnosis before you can hope to help your dog.
Aggressive behavior problems in dogs can be classified in different ways. A beneficial scheme for understanding why your dog is aggressive is based on the function or purpose of the aggression. If you think of aggression this way, you can determine what motivates your dog to behave aggressively and identify what she hopes to gain from her behavior.
Some dogs will attack and bite an intruder, whether the intruder is friend or foe. Dogs’ wild relatives are territorial.They live in certain areas, and they defend this area from intruders. Wolves are highly territorial. If a coyote or a wolf who’s not part of a pack invades their territory, the resident wolves will attack and drive off the intruder. Some dogs display the same tendencies. They bark and charge at people or other animals encroaching on their home turf. Dogs are often valued for this level of territorial behavior. However, some dogs will attack and bite an intruder, whether the intruder is friend or foe. Territorial aggression can occur along the boundary regularly patrolled by a dog or at the boundaries of her pet parents’ property. Other dogs show territorial aggression only toward people or other animals coming into the home. Male and female dogs are equally prone to territorial aggression. Puppies are rarely territorial. Territorial behavior usually appears as puppies mature into adolescence or adulthood, at one to three years of age.
Dogs may show aggressive behavior when they think that one of their family members or friends is in peril. Dogs are a social species. If they were left on their own, they would live together in small groups, or packs, of family and friends. If one member of a pack is in danger, the others typically rush in to help defend that individual. This is classified as protective aggression because the dogs are protecting one of their own.
Pet dogs may show the same type of aggressive behavior when they think that one of their family members or friends (human or animal) is in peril. Sometimes dogs reserve protective aggression for individuals they consider particularly vulnerable. A dog who has never shown aggression to strangers in the past might start behaving aggressively when she has a litter of puppies. Likewise, a dog might first show protective aggression when her pet parents bring a human child into the family.
While this behavior sounds appealing at first glance, problems arise when the protective dog starts to treat everyone outside the family, including friends and relatives, as threats to the baby’s safety. Both male and female dogs are equally prone to protective aggression. Puppies are rarely protective. Like territorial behavior, protective aggression usually appears as puppies mature into adolescence or adulthood, at one to three years of age.
Many dogs show the tendency to guard their possessions from others, whether they need to or not. Dogs evolved from wild ancestors who had to compete for food, nesting sites and mates to survive. Even though our pet dogs no longer face such harsh realities, many still show the tendency to guard their possessions from others, whether they need to or not. Some dogs only care about their food. These dogs might react aggressively when a person or another animal comes near their food bowl or approaches them while they’re eating.
Other dogs guard their chew bones, their toys or things they’ve stolen. Still others guard their favorite resting spots, their crates or their beds (Often, these dogs also guard their pet parents’ beds!). Less common are dogs who guard water bowls.
Usually a possessive dog is easy to identify because she’s only aggressive when she has something she covets. But some dogs will hide their cherished things around the house and guard them from unsuspecting people or animals who have no idea that they’re anywhere near a valued object. Male and female dogs are equally prone to possessive aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults.
A fearful dog may become aggressive if cornered or trapped. When animals and people are afraid of something, they prefer to get away from that thing. This is called the flight response. But if escaping isn’t an option, most animals will switch to a fight response. They try to defend themselves from the scary thing. So a dog can be afraid of a person or another animal but still attack if she thinks this is her only recourse.
A fearful dog will normally adopt fearful postures and retreat, but she may become aggressive if cornered or trapped. Some dogs will cower at the prospect of physical punishment but attack when a threatening person reaches for them. Fearful dogs sometimes run away from a person or animal who frightens them, but if the person or animal turns to leave, they come up from behind and nip. This is why it’s a good idea to avoid turning your back on a fearful dog.
Fear aggression is characterized by rapid nips or bites because a fearful dog is motivated to bite and then run away. Sometimes the aggression doesn’t begin with clear threats. A fearful dog might not show her teeth or growl to warn the victim off. In this kind of situation, the only warning is the dog’s fearful posture and her attempts to retreat. Male and female dogs are equally prone to fear aggression, and this type of aggression is common in both puppies and adults.
Motivated by fear, defensively aggressive dogs decide that the best defense is a good offense. Closely related to fear aggression is defensive aggression. The primary difference is the strategy adopted by the dog. Defensively aggressive dogs are still motivated by fear, but instead of trying to retreat, they decide that the best defense is a good offense.
Dogs who are defensively aggressive exhibit a mixture of fearful and offensive postures. They may initially charge at a person or another dog who frightens them, barking and growling. Regardless of whether the victim freezes or advances, the defensively aggressive dog often delivers the first strike. Only if the victim retreats is the defensively aggressive dog likely to abort an attack. Male and female dogs are equally prone to defensive aggression. It’s slightly more common in adults than in puppies simply because dogs need to have some confidence to use this defensive strategy, and puppies are usually less confident than adults.
Social / Hierarchical
A dog who perceives herself as high in status may show aggression toward family members. Animals who live in social groups, like people and dogs, typically live by certain rules in order to minimize conflict between group members. Canid species, including the dog, adopt a type of hierarchical order that influences which group members get first crack at food, the best resting spots and opportunities to mate. So rather than having to fight for access to valued things each and every time, those lower down on the totem pole know to wait until the higher-ups have had their share before taking their turn.
These ordered relationships are frequently reinforced by displays of ritualized aggression. Individuals of high status use aggressive threats to remind the others of their place in the pack. The relationships between people and dogs who live together are certainly more complex than this simplified description, but it’s still important to know that a dog who perceives herself as high in status may show aggression toward family members. (This kind of behavior is sometimes called dominance or status-seeking aggression).
This is why a dog might be perfectly trustworthy with one pet parent but react aggressively toward the other or toward young children in the family. Such dogs are often described as “Jekyll and Hyde” because, most of the time, they’re happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs. But if they feel that someone in the pack has overstepped his or her bounds, these dogs can quickly resort to aggression. An aggressive response is usually provoked by things that a dog perceives as threatening or unpleasant, such as:
- Taking food away
- Taking a chew bone, toy or stolen object away
- Disturbing the dog while she’s sleeping
- Physically moving the dog while she’s resting
- Hugging or kissing the dog
- Bending or reaching over the dog
- Manipulating the dog into a submissive posture (a down or a belly-up position)
- Lifting or trying to pick up the dog
- Holding the dog back from something she wants
- Grooming, bathing, towelling or wiping the dog’s face
- Touching the dog’s ears or feet
- Trimming the dog’s nails
- Jerking or pulling on the dog’s leash, handling her collar or putting on a harness
- Verbally scolding the dog
- Threatening the dog with a pointed finger or rolled-up newspaper
- Hitting or trying to hit the dog
- Going through a door at the same time as the dog or bumping into the dog
Social aggression is somewhat more common in males than in females and more common in purebreds than in mixed breeds. Puppies are rarely socially aggressive with people, but they can be with other dogs, particularly littermates. Social aggression usually develops in dogs between one to three years of age.
It’s important to realize that the complexities involved in social aggression are poorly understood and hotly debated by behavior experts. Some believe that all social aggression is rooted in fear and anxiety, while others believe that it’s motivated by anger and the desire for control.
When consulting a professional, make sure you’re comfortable with her treatment recommendations. If the professional’s suggestions consist of techniques for instilling fear and respect in your dog, such as alpha rolls, scruff shakes and hanging, there’s a very good chance that your dog will get worse rather than better—and you might get bitten in the process. Punishment may be appropriate, but only when it’s well planned and limited in application. The judicious use of punishment should always be embedded in a program that’s based on positive reinforcement and trust.
A dog who’s excited or aroused by something but is held back from approaching it can become aggressive. Dogs can be like human children in that when they get frustrated, they sometimes lash out with aggression. A dog who’s excited or aroused by something but is held back from approaching it can become aggressive, particularly toward the person or thing holding her back. For instance, a frustrated dog might turn around and bite at her leash or bite at the hand holding her leash or collar.
Over time, the dog can learn to associate restraint with feelings of frustration so that even when there’s nothing to be excited about, she tends to react aggressively when restrained. This explains why some normally friendly dogs become aggressive when put behind a gate, in a cage or crate, in a car, or on a leash. Likewise, a dog who loves people can still show surprising levels of aggression when her pet parent lifts her up so that guests can enter or leave the home. Male and female dogs are equally prone to frustration-elicited aggression, and this type of aggression occurs in both puppies and adults.
Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is aroused by or displays aggression toward a person or animal, and someone else interferes. Redirected aggression is a lot like frustration-elicited aggression with the exception that the dog need not be frustrated. Redirected aggression occurs when a dog is aroused by or displays aggression toward a person or animal, and someone else interferes. The dog redirects her aggression from the source that triggered it to the person or animal who has interfered. This is why people are often bitten when they try to break up dog fights.
When a person grabs or pushes a fighting dog, the dog might suddenly turn and bite. Another example is when two dogs are barking at someone from behind a fence. Sometimes one will turn and attack the other. Male and female dogs are equally prone to redirected aggression, and this type of aggression occurs in both puppies and adults.
An otherwise gentle, friendly dog can behave aggressively when in pain. An otherwise gentle, friendly dog can behave aggressively when in pain. That’s why it’s so crucial to take precautions when handling an injured dog, even if she’s your own. A dog with a painful orthopedic condition or an infection might bite with little warning, even if the reason you’re touching her is to treat her. The improper use of certain pieces of training equipment, such as the pinch (or prong) collar or the shock collar, can inflict pain on a dog and prompt a pain-elicited bite to her pet parent. Male and female dogs are equally prone to pain-elicited aggression, and this type of aggression can occur in both puppies and adults.
Intact male dogs will still vie for the attention of females in heat, and females will still compete for access to a male. Even though pet dogs rarely have the opportunity to reproduce, intact male dogs will still vie for the attention of females in heat, and females will still compete for access to a male. Intact male dogs sometimes challenge and fight with other male dogs, even when no females are present.
Fighting can also erupt between males living together in the same household. In the wild, this is adaptive because the strongest males are more likely to attract females for breeding. Likewise, females living together in the same household might compete to establish which female gets access to a male for breeding. This type of aggression is rare. It’s observed most often in reproductively intact males and less often in intact females. Dogs who were neutered or spayed as adults may still show this type of aggression. If sex-related aggression happens, the dogs involved are usually at least one to three years of age.
Some pet dogs show classic canine predatory behaviors, including chasing and grabbing fast-moving things. Dogs are closely related to wolves and coyotes, both of whom are large predators, and pet dogs still show some classic canine predatory behaviors, including chasing and grabbing fast-moving things. Many dogs love to chase running people, people on bicycles and inline skates, and cars. They might also chase pets, wildlife and livestock. Some dogs bite and even kill if they manage to catch the thing they’re chasing.
Predatory aggression is very different from other classifications of aggression because there’s rarely any warning before an attack. A predatory dog doesn’t growl or show her teeth first to warn her victim, so predatory aggression can seem to come out of the blue. Predatory behavior can be especially disturbing if it’s directed toward a human baby. Sometimes the sound of a baby crying or the movement of lifting a baby out of a crib can trigger a lightening-fast reaction from a predatory dog. Fortunately, predatory aggression directed toward people or other dogs is extremely rare in pet dogs.
Family Members, Strangers or Other Animals
Determining who your dog is aggressive toward is essential to understanding her behavior. It’s common for dogs to behave aggressively toward unfamiliar people. Some studies report that as many as 60 to 70% of all pet dogs bark threateningly at strangers and act unfriendly when around them. Aggression toward unfamiliar dogs is also widespread. It’s less common for dogs to direct aggression toward family members or other pets in the home. Most problematic are dogs who are aggressive toward children, especially children in the family. Not only is aggression toward children exceedingly difficult to treat because of safety concerns, the likelihood that a dog with this problem will ever become trustworthy is slim.
Some dogs are aggressive only to a certain category of people. A dog might be aggressive only with the veterinarian or groomer, or with the postal carrier, or with people in wheelchairs or individuals using canes and walkers. In some cases, it’s easy to limit a dog’s access to the people that upset her. For instance, if your short-haired dog dislikes the groomer, you can just groom her yourself at home. But in other cases, the targeted people are impossible to avoid. For example, if you have a dog who dislikes children and you live in a densely populated urban apartment building next to a preschool, it will be difficult to avoid exposing your dog to children.
Aggression toward people, aggression toward dogs and aggression toward other animals are relatively independent patterns of behavior. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, for example, that doesn’t mean she’s any more or less likely to be aggressive toward people.
If you’re deciding whether to live with and treat your aggressive dog, there are several factors to consider because you, as the pet parent, are ultimately responsible for your dog’s behavior. These factors involve the level of risk in living with your dog and the likelihood of changing her behavior:
- Size. Regardless of other factors, large dogs are more frightening and can inflict more damage than small dogs.
- Age. Young dogs with an aggression problem are believed to be more malleable and easier to treat than older dogs.
- Bite history. Dogs who have already bitten are a known risk and an insurance liability.
- Severity. Dogs who stop their aggression at showing teeth, growling or snapping are significantly safer to live and work with than dogs who bite. Likewise, dogs who have delivered minor bruises, scratches and small punctures are less risky than dogs who have inflicted serious wounds.
- Predictability. Dogs at the highest risk of being euthanized for aggression are those who give little or no warning before they bite and who are inconsistently, unpredictably aggressive. Dogs who give warning before they bite allow people and other animals time to retreat and avoid getting hurt. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it’s easier to live with a dog who always reacts aggressively when, for instance, every time you push him off the bed than a dog who does so only sporadically.
- Targets. How often your dog is exposed to the targets of her aggression can affect how easy it is to manage and resolve her behavior. A dog who’s aggressive to strangers is relatively easy to control if you live in a rural environment with a securely fenced yard. A dog who’s aggressive to children can be managed if her pet parents are childless and have no friends or relatives with children. A dog who is aggressive to unfamiliar dogs poses little difficulty for pet parents who dislike dog parks and prefer to exercise their dog on isolated hiking trails. In contrast, living with a dog who has recurring ear infections and bites family members when they try to medicate her can be stressful and unpleasant.
- Triggers. Are the circumstances that prompt your dog to behave aggressively easy or impossible to avoid? If your dog only guards her food while she’s eating, the solution is straightforward: Keep away from her while she’s eating. If no one can safely enter the kitchen when your dog’s there because she guards her empty food bowl in the cupboard, that’s another story. If your dog bites any stranger within reach, she’s a lot more dangerous than a dog who bites strangers only if they try to kiss her.
- Ease of motivating your dog. The final consideration is how easy it is to motivate your dog during retraining. The safest and most effective way to treat an aggression problem is to implement behavior modification under the guidance of a qualified professional. Modifying a dog’s behavior involves rewarding her for good behavior—so you’ll likely be more successful if your dog enjoys praise, treats and toys. Dogs who aren’t particularly motivated by the usual rewards can be especially challenging to work with, and the likelihood of such a dog getting better is small.
Always Work with Your Veterinarian
Some aggressive dogs behave the way they do because of a medical condition or complication. In addition to acute painful conditions, dogs with orthopedic problems, thyroid abnormality, adrenal dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, seizure disorders and sensory deficits can exhibit changes in irritability and aggression. Geriatric dogs can suffer confusion and insecurity, which may prompt aggressive behavior. Certain medications can alter mood and affect your dog’s susceptibility to aggression. Even diet has been implicated as a potential contributing factor. If your dog has an aggression problem, it’s crucial to take her to a veterinarian, before you do anything else, to rule out medical issues that could cause or worsen her behavior. If the veterinarian discovers a medical problem, you’ll need to work closely with her to give your dog the best chance at improving.
Always Work with a Professional Behavior Expert
Aggression can be a dangerous behavior problem. It’s complex to diagnose and can be tricky to treat. Many behavior modification techniques have detrimental effects if misapplied. Even highly experienced professionals get bitten from time to time, so living with and treating an aggressive dog is inherently risky. A qualified professional can develop a treatment plan customized to your dog’s temperament and your family’s unique situation, and she can coach you through its implementation. She can monitor your dog’s progress and make modifications to the plan as required. If appropriate, she can also help you decide when your dog’s quality of life is too poor or the risks of living with your dog are too high and euthanasia is warranted. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to learn how to find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area. If you choose to employ a CPDT, be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she has education and experience in treating canine aggression, as this expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.
Can Aggression Be Cured?
Pet parents of aggressive dogs often ask whether they can ever be sure that their dog is “cured.” Taking into account the behavior modification techniques that affect aggression, our current understanding is that the incidence and frequency of some types of aggression can be reduced and sometimes eliminated. However, there’s no guarantee that an aggressive dog can be completely cured.
In many cases, the only solution is to manage the problem by limiting a dog’s exposure to the situations, people or things that trigger her aggression. There’s always risk when dealing with an aggressive dog. Pet parents are responsible for their dogs’ behavior and must take precautions to ensure that no one’s harmed. Even if a dog has been well behaved for years, it’s not possible to predict when all the necessary circumstances might come together to create “the perfect storm” that triggers her aggression. Dogs who have a history of resorting to aggression as a way of dealing with stressful situations can fall back on that strategy.
Pet parents of aggressive dogs should be prudent and always assume that their dog is NOT cured so that they never let down their guard.
Are Some Breeds More Aggressive Than Others?
It’s true that some breeds might be more likely to bite if we look at statistics gathered on biting and aggression. There are many reasons for this. One likely reason is that most dog breeds once served specific functions for humans. Some were highly prized for their guarding and protective tendencies, others for their hunting prowess, others for their fighting skills, and others for their “gameness” and tenacity. Even though pet dogs of these breeds rarely fulfill their original purposes these days, individuals still carry their ancestors’ DNA in their genes, which means that members of a particular breed might be predisposed to certain types of aggression.
Despite this, it’s neither accurate nor wise to judge a dog by her breed. Far better predictors of aggressive behavior problems are a dog’s individual temperament and her history of interacting with people and other animals. You should always research breeds to be sure that the breed or breed mix you’re interested in is a good fit for you and your lifestyle. However, the best insurance policies against aggression problems are to select the best individual dog for you.
At PAWS we use the Dr. Ian Dunbar Dog Bite Scale to determine how, or if, we are able to work with a dog's behavior.
Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale (Official Authorized Version) An assessment of the severity of biting problems based on an objective evaluation of wound pathology.
Level 1. Obnoxious or aggressive behavior but no skin-contact by teeth.
Level 2. Skin-contact by teeth but no skin-puncture. However, may be skin nicks (less than one tenth of an inch deep) and slight bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of teeth against skin, but no vertical punctures.
Level 3. One to four punctures from a single bite with no puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Maybe lacerations in a single direction, caused by victim pulling hand away, owner pulling dog away, or gravity (little dog jumps, bites and drops to floor).
Level 4. One to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Mayalso have deep bruising around the wound (dog held on for N seconds and bore down) or lacerations in both directions (dog held on and shook its head from side to side).
Level 5. Multiple-bite incident with at least two Level 4 bites or multiple-attack incident with at least one Level 4 bite in each.
Level 6. Victim dead.
The above list concerns unpleasant behavior and so, to add perspective:
Levels 1 and 2 comprise well over 99% of dog incidents. The dog is certainly not dangerous and more likely to be fearful, rambunctious, or out of control. Wonderful prognosis. Quickly resolve the problem with basic training (control) —especially oodles of Classical Conditioning,numerous repetitive Retreat n' Treat, Come/Sit/Food Reward and Back- up/Approach/Food Reward sequences, progressive desensitization handling exercises, plus numerous bite-inhibition exercises and games. Hand feed only until resolved; do NOT waste potential food rewards by feeding from a bowl.
Level 3: Prognosis is fair to good, provided that you have owner compliance. However, treatment is both time-consuming and not without danger. Rigorous bite-inhibition exercises are essential.
Levels 4: The dog has insufficient bite inhibition and is very dangerous. Prognosis is poor because of the difficulty and danger of trying to teach bite inhibition to an adult hard-biting dog and because absolute owner-compliance is rare. Only work with the dog in exceptional circumstances, e.g., the owner is a dog professional and has sworn 100% compliance. Make sure the owner signs a form in triplicate stating that they understand and take full responsibility that: 1. The dog is a Level 4 biter and is likely to cause an equivalent amount of damage WHEN it bites again (which it most probably will) and should therefore, be confined to the home at all times and only allowed contact with adult owners. 2. Whenever, children or guests visit the house, the dog should be confined to a single locked- room or roofed, chain-link run with the only keys kept on a chain around the neck of each adult owner (to prevent children or guests entering the dog's confinement area.) 3. The dog is muzzled before leaving the house and only leaves the house for visits to a veterinary clinic. 4. The incidents have all been reported to the relevant authorities — animal control or police. Give the owners one copy, keep one copy for your files and give one copy to the dog's veterinarian.
Level 5 and 6: The dog is extremely dangerous and mutilates. The dog is simply not safe around people. I recommend euthanasia because the quality of life is so poor for dogs that have to live out their lives in solitary confinement.
One of the most common complaints of pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone. Their dogs might urinate, defecate, bark, howl, chew, dig or try to escape. Although these problems often indicate that a dog needs to be taught polite house manners, they can also be symptoms of distress. When a dog’s problems are accompanied by other distress behaviors, such as drooling and showing anxiety when his pet parents prepare to leave the house, they aren’t evidence that the dog isn’t house trained or doesn’t know which toys are his to chew. Instead, they are indications that the dog has separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from their guardians, the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.
Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety become agitated when their guardians prepare to leave. Others seem anxious or depressed prior to their guardians’ departure or when their guardians aren’t present. Some try to prevent their guardians from leaving. Usually, right after a guardian leaves a dog with separation anxiety, the dog will begin barking and displaying other distress behaviors within a short time after being left alone—often within minutes. When the guardian returns home, the dog acts as though it’s been years since he’s seen his mom or dad!
When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. This is accomplished by setting things up so that the dog experiences the situation that provokes his anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety.
What NOT to Do
Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses! Your dog displays anxious behaviors when left alone because he’s upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The following is a list of symptoms that may indicate separation anxiety:
- Urinating and Defecating
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone or separated from their guardians. If a dog urinates or defecates in the presence of his guardian, his house soiling probably isn’t caused by separation anxiety.
- Barking and Howling
A dog who has separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone or when separated from his guardian. This kind of barking or howling is persistent and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything except being left alone.
- Chewing, Digging and Destruction
Some dogs with separation anxiety chew on objects, door frames or window sills, dig at doors and doorways, or destroy household objects when left alone or separated from their guardians. These behaviors can result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, cut and scraped paws and damaged nails. If a dog’s chewing, digging and destruction are caused by separation anxiety, they don’t usually occur in his guardian’s presence.
A dog with separation anxiety might try to escape from an area where he’s confined when he’s left alone or separated from his guardian. The dog might attempt to dig and chew through doors or windows, which could result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, cut and scraped front paws and damaged nails. If the dog’s escape behavior is caused by separation anxiety, it doesn’t occur when his guardian is present.
Some dogs walk or trot along a specific path in a fixed pattern when left alone or separated from their guardians. Some pacing dogs move around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines. If a dog’s pacing behavior is caused by separation anxiety, it usually doesn’t occur when his guardian is present.
When left alone or separated from their guardians, some dogs defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement. If a dog eats excrement because of separation anxiety, he probably doesn’t perform that behavior in the presence of his guardian.
Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs develop separation anxiety. However, because far more dogs who have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem than those kept by a single family since puppyhood, it is believed that loss of an important person or group of people in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder. The following is a list of situations that have been associated with development of separation anxiety.
Change of Guardian or Family
Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or given to a new guardian or family can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Change in Schedule
An abrupt change in schedule in terms of when or how long a dog is left alone can trigger the development of separation anxiety. For example, if a dog’s guardian works from home and spends all day with his dog but then gets a new job that requires him to leave his dog alone for six or more hours at a time, the dog might develop separation anxiety because of that change.
Change in Residence
Moving to a new residence can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Change in Household Membership
The sudden absence of a resident family member, either due to death or moving away, can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Medical Problems to Rule Out First
- Incontinence Caused by Medical Problems
Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence, a medical condition in which a dog “leaks” or voids his bladder. Dogs with incontinence problems often seem unaware that they’ve soiled. Sometimes they void urine while asleep. A number of medical issues—including a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems and abnormalities of the genitalia—can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Before attempting behavior modification for separation anxiety, please see your dog’s veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
There are a number of medications that can cause frequent urination and house soiling. If your dog takes any medications, please contact his veterinarian to find out whether or not they might contribute to his house-soiling problems.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether a dog has separation anxiety or not. Some common behavior problems can cause similar symptoms. Before concluding that your dog has separation anxiety, it’s important to rule out the following behavior problems:
- Submissive or Excitement Urination
Some dogs may urinate during greetings, play, physical contact or when being reprimanded or punished. Such dogs tend to display submissive postures during interactions, such as holding the tail low, flattening the ears back against the head, crouching or rolling over and exposing the belly.
- Incomplete House Training
A dog who occasionally urinates in the house might not be completely house trained. His house training might have been inconsistent or it might have involved punishment that made him afraid to eliminate while his owner is watching or nearby.
- Urine Marking
Some dogs urinate in the house because they’re scent marking. A dog scent marks by urinating small amounts on vertical surfaces. Most male dogs and some female dogs who scent mark raise a leg to urinate.
- Juvenile Destruction
Many young dogs engage in destructive chewing or digging while their guardians are home as well as when they’re away. Please see our articles, Destructive Chewing, for more information about these problems.
Dogs need mental stimulation, and some dogs can be disruptive when left alone because they’re bored and looking for something to do. These dogs usually don’t appear anxious.
- Excessive Barking or Howling
Some dogs bark or howl in response to various triggers in their environments, like unfamiliar sights and sounds. They usually vocalize when their guardians are home as well as when they’re away. For more information about this kind of problem, please see our articles, Barking and Howling.
What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Treatment for Mild Separation Anxiety
If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, counterconditioning might reduce or resolve the problem. Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. It’s done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something really good, something the dog loves. Over time, the dog learns that whatever he fears actually predicts good things for him. For dogs with separation anxiety, counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and good things, like delicious food. To develop this kind of association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish. For example, try giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty, like low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese or low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. A KONG can even be frozen so that getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them and the high-value foods inside when he’s by himself. You can feed your dog all of his daily meals in special toys. For example, you can give your dog a KONG or two stuffed with his breakfast and some tasty treats every morning before going to work. Keep in mind, though, that this approach will only work for mild cases of separation anxiety because highly anxious dogs usually won’t eat when their guardians aren’t home.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex desensitization and counterconditioning program. In these cases, it’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short separations that do not produce anxiety and then gradually increasing the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions.
The following steps briefly describe a desensitization and counterconditioning program. Please keep in mind that this is a short, general explanation.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
Step One: Predeparture Cues
As mentioned above, some dogs begin to feel anxious while their guardians get ready to leave. For example, a dog might start to pace, pant and whine when he notices his guardian applying makeup, putting on shoes and a coat, and then picking up a bag or car keys. (If your dog doesn’t show signs of anxiety when you’re preparing to leave him alone, you can just skip to step two below.) Guardians of dogs who become upset during predeparture rituals are unable to leave—even for just few seconds—without triggering their dogs’ extreme anxiety. Your dog may see telltale cues that you’re leaving (like your putting on your coat or picking up your keys) and get so anxious about being left alone that he can’t control himself and forgets that you’ll come back.
One treatment approach to this “predeparture anxiety” is to teach your dog that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. You can do this by exposing your dog to these cues in various orders several times a day—without leaving. For example, put on your boots and coat, and then just watch TV instead of leaving. Or pick up your keys, and then sit down at the kitchen table for awhile. This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because these cues won’t always lead to your departure, and so your dog won’t get so anxious when he sees them. Please be aware, though, that your dog has many years of learning the significance of your departure cues, so in order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks. After your dog doesn’t become anxious when he sees you getting ready to leave, you can move on to the next step below.
Step Two: Graduated Departures/Absences
If your dog is less anxious before you leave, you can probably skip the predeparture treatment above and start with very short departures. The main rule is to plan your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset. To get started, train your dog to perform out-of-sight stays by an inside door in the home, such as the bathroom. You can teach your dog to sit or down and stay while you go to the other side of the bathroom door. (You can also contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer for assistance. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.) Gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. You can also work on getting your dog used to predeparture cues as you practice the stay. For example, ask your dog to stay. Then put on your coat, pick up your purse and go into the bathroom while your dog continues to stay.
- Progress to doing out-of-sight stay exercises at a bedroom door, and then later at an exit door. If you always leave through the front door, do the exercises at the back door first. By the time you start working with your dog at exit doors, he shouldn’t behave anxiously because he has a history of playing the “stay game.”
- At this point, you can start to incorporate very short absences into your training. Start with absences that last only last one to two seconds, and then slowly increase the time you’re out of your dog’s sight. When you’ve trained up to separations of five to ten seconds long, build in counterconditioning by giving your dog a stuffed food toy just before you step out the door. The food-stuffed toy also works as a safety cue that tells the dog that this is a “safe” separation.
- During your sessions, be sure to wait a few minutes between absences. After each short separation, it’s important to make sure that your dog is completely relaxed before you leave again. If you leave again right away, while your dog is still excited about your return from the previous separation, he’ll already feel aroused when he experiences the next absence. This arousal might make him less able to tolerate the next separation, which could make the problem worse rather than better.
- Remember to behave in a very calm and quiet manner when going out and coming in. This will lower the contrast between times when you’re there and times when you’re gone.
- You must judge when your dog is able to tolerate an increase in the length of separation. Each dog reacts differently, so there are no standard timelines. Deciding when to increase the time that your dog is alone can be very difficult, and many pet parents make errors. They want treatment to progress quickly, so they expose their dogs to durations that are too long, which provokes anxiety and worsens the problem. To prevent this kind of mistake, watch for signs of stress in your dog. These signs might include dilated pupils, panting, yawning, salivating, trembling, pacing and exuberant greeting. If you detect stress, you should back up and shorten the length of your departures to a point where your dog can relax again. Then start again at that level and progress more slowly.
- You will need to spend a significant amount of time building up to 40-minute absences because most of your dog’s anxious responses will occur within the first 40 minutes that he’s alone. This means that over weeks of conditioning, you’ll increase the duration of your departures by only a few seconds each session, or every couple of sessions, depending on your dog’s tolerance at each level. Once your dog can tolerate 40 minutes of separation from you, you can increase absences by larger chunks of time (5-minute increments at first, then later 15-minute increments). Once your dog can be alone for 90 minutes without getting upset or anxious, he can probably handle four to eight hours. (Just to be safe, try leaving him alone for four hours at first, and then work up to eight full hours over a few days.)
- This treatment process can be accomplished within a few weeks if you can conduct several daily sessions on the weekends and twice-daily sessions during the work week, usually before leaving for work and in the evenings.
A Necessary Component of Separation Anxiety Treatment
During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear. He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him. This means that during treatment for separation anxiety, your dog cannot be left alone except during your desensitization sessions. Fortunately there are plenty of alternative arrangements:
- If possible, take your dog to work with you.
- Arrange for a family member, friend or dog sitter to come to your home and stay with your dog when you’re not there. (Most dogs suffering from separation anxiety are fine as long as someone is with them. That someone doesn’t necessarily need to be you.)
- Take your dog to a sitter’s house or to a doggy daycare.
- Many dogs suffering from separation anxiety are okay when left in a car. You can try leaving your dog in a car—but only if the weather is moderate. Be warned: dogs can suffer from heatstroke and die if left in cars in warm weather (70 degrees Fahrenheit and up)—even for just a few minutes. DO NOT leave your dog in a car unless you’re sure that the interior of your car won’t heat up.
In addition to your graduated absences exercises, all greetings (hellos and goodbyes) should be conducted in a very calm manner. When saying goodbye, just give your dog a pat on the head, say goodbye and leave. Similarly, when arriving home, say hello to your dog and then don’t pay any more attention to him until he’s calm and relaxed. The amount of time it takes for your dog to relax once you’ve returned home will depend on his level of anxiety and individual temperament. To decrease your dog’s excitement level when you come home, it might help to distract him by asking him to perform some simple behaviors that he’s already learned, such as sit, down or shake.
To Crate or Not to Crate?
Crate training can be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. However, for other dogs, the crate can cause added stress and anxiety. In order to determine whether or not you should try using a crate, monitor your dog’s behavior during crate training and when he’s left in the crate while you’re home. If he shows signs of distress (heavy panting, excessive salivation, frantic escape attempts, persistent howling or barking), crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. Instead of using a crate, you can try confining your dog to one room behind a baby gate.
Provide Plenty of “Jobs” for Your Dog to Do
Providing lots of physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behavior problems, especially those involving anxiety. Exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when he’s left alone. To keep your dog busy and happy, try the following suggestions:
- Give your dog at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity (for example, running and swimming) every day. Try to exercise your dog right before you have to leave him by himself. This might help him relax and rest while you’re gone.
- Play fun, interactive games with your dog, such as fetch and tug-of-war.
- Take your dog on daily walks and outings. Take different routes and visit new places as often as possible so that he can experience novel smells and sights.
- If your dog likes other dogs, let him play off-leash with his canine buddies.
- Frequently provide food puzzle toys. You can feed your dog his meals in these toys or stuff them with a little peanut butter, cheese or yogurt. Also give your dog a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things. Puzzle toys and chew items encourage chewing and licking, which have been shown to have a calming effect on dogs. Be sure to provide them whenever you leave your dog alone.
- Make your dog “hunt” his meals by hiding small piles of his kibble around your house or yard when you leave. Most dogs love this game!
- Enroll in a reward-based training class to increase your dog’s mental activity and enhance the bond between you and your dog. Contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer for group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of great skills to learn and games to play together. After you and your dog have learned a few new skills, you can mentally tire your dog out by practicing them right before you leave your dog home alone. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a CPDT in your area.
- Get involved in dog sports, such as agility, freestyle (dancing with your dog) or flyball.
Medications Might Help
Always consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.
The use of medications can be very helpful, especially for severe cases of separation anxiety. Some dogs are so distraught by any separation from their pet parents that treatment can’t be implemented without the help of medication. Anti-anxiety medication can help a dog tolerate some level of isolation without experiencing anxiety. It can also make treatment progress more quickly.
On rare occasions, a dog with mild separation anxiety might benefit from drug therapy alone, without accompanying behavior modification. The dog becomes accustomed to being left alone with the help of the drug and retains this new conditioning after he’s gradually weaned off the medication. However, most dogs need a combination of medication and behavior modification.
If you’d like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these professionals in your area.