One of the most common problem behaviors we encounter is the family dog displaying signs of ‘aggression’, i.e. growling, snapping, nipping and sometimes biting, most commonly other people visiting the family home, and less commonly some members of the family itself. Dog bites are serious business, and are actually very common (4.5 million annually in the U.S.), yet many are quite preventable with proper knowledge and action. Common reasons for a dog to bite include fear, pain, prey drive, herding and maternal instincts, and resource guarding. Most dogs don’t want to bite, unless a reaction of last resort that is typically preceded by escalating warning behavior.
For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the problem of a family dog growling, snapping and nipping at home. Healthy, mature and well socialized dogs with a confident yet balanced temperament do not normally show such behavior, provided that there is no ambiguity within the ‘pack structure’ of your family. The family dog has its rank and place below every human member, period. The vast majority of dogs prefers, seeks and accepts such black and white rank arrangement as opposed to any ambiguity, power vacuum and shades of grey. Dogs as part of the family see humans as members of their pack and may challenge more submissive family members, especially children. Subtle signs of attempted dominance can go unnoticed or are explained away, and further ignoring or allowing the behavior facilitates the dog surpassing certain family members in rank order, increasing the likelihood of conflict and bite.
Establishing or restoring appropriate pack structure is thus the first and foremost task you need to consider if your dog shows the above problem behavior. Many situations can actually resolve or significantly diminish with this first step. Dogs do not dominate people on whom they must rely. It sounds simple, but you can’t watch yourself at home and it is often a very good idea to spend some time with a knowledgeable trainer either describing what you do or even better having somewhat observing you and your dog at home.
Many working breeds including but not limited to German Shepherds or Rottweilers have an innate instinct to guard ‘their’ territory, which is what gets the mailman bitten. Some dogs readily learn to differentiate between people that are welcome and intruders but others do not. Dogs are very good at sensing your attitude toward strangers and become protective if you are fearful. If you do not want or cannot handle such dogs do not purchase or adopt these types of breeds. The innate, confident and controlled guarding that is wanted in certain dog breeds is fundamentally very different from the growling, nipping and biting that can occur in insecure or fearful dogs that are very uncertain and tentative in their behavior.
Many dog owners are not fully aware that, similar to people, canine character traits are a combination of both nature and nurture. Within each breed and within each litter are a plethora of traits expressed to variable degrees. Most fear biting dogs were genetically born shy. When approached by a stranger, fearful dogs will often take up a position slightly behind their owner when present, and may initially start growling. And because most people will either stop or retreat when encountering a growling dog, the situation will worsen with each such encounter as the dog learns that growling will make the scary person disappear and as such the dog self-rewards the behavior. What if you tell your friends to just ignore that and come in? Most likely nothing initially, but with each such unchecked encounter the game escalates, from growling to snapping, from snapping to nipping, from nipping to biting. A bite in this situation will not look like what a confident police dog is trained to do, i.e. bite and hold no matter what. The fearful dog will usually take a quick nip or bite, sometimes to the back of the person, and retreat immediately.
Can you ‘fix’ the problem? The simple answer is yes, but this will take time and effort. Also, much frustration can be avoided by recognizing and accepting each individual dog’s strengths and limitations, your willingness to apply your training methods within this framework, and ultimately accept genetically programmed behavioral traits of your dog and not asking the dog what it cannot do.
Each situation of a family dog showing aggressive behavior is different, and in all likelihood the result of several factors involved and combined. This is where an experienced K9 trainer will help setting the stage, goals, expectations, and a way forward. There is no single magic bullet.
Assuming you are fulfilling your role as pack leader, or have taken corrective action to do so, a few general points are worth noting. Dogs should be rewarded for good behavior and be both denied reward and reaction and corrected for bad behavior. Have your dog sit or heel before petting, going outside, entering and exiting the house or car, or snapping on their leash. These may not seem like important things but they teach the dog you are setting the rules. Consistency is of utmost importance.
With a fearful dog, be proactive and tell people not to pet your dog and don’t take your dog to crowded events that overwhelm the dog. Do not force the dog into a situation it is fearful of, as this will only confirm to the dog that the world is scary. Instead, use calm voice and confident movement to show you are the leader. Do NOT use reassuring gestures or behavior, because you’d be confirming the dog’s perception. You need to actively control your own emotions as well. Your heart sinking in anticipation because the doorbell rings will travel down the leash and your dog will sense that ‘something is up’ and leave their calm state in anticipation. You must teach your dog that growling or nipping is never appropriate, and at the same time teach that obedient behavior will be rewarded. As simple as this sounds as confusing it can become in reality. You will also need to solicit the help of friends, neighbors, even strangers. This is a stepwise process best undertaken with appropriate supervision and guidance. Not approaching the problem will guarantee only one outcome. It will not be a matter of if, but only of when and how badly the situation escalates.