Dealing With Puppy Aggression

How to recognize and solve conflict aggression

how to stop aggression in puppies

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

Conflict aggression, formerly called dominance aggression, can be a scary and difficult behavior for you to manage. Dog owners may assume that any type of growling is a dominance aggression problem. However, there are many kinds of dog aggression and they are categorized by the causes, with conflict aggression being one of the more common types that affect first-time puppy owners. That may be due to misunderstanding canine communication.

Conflict aggression includes guarding food and toys or other objects. This type of aggression very quickly gets worse if you punish the puppy. Conflict aggression happens when the dog believes his “place” in the family is threatened, causing him to try to put people back in line.

What Does Conflict Aggression Look Like?

Dogs under a year of age--puppies and especially adolescent dogs -- are most likely to be reported. Ninety percent of conflict aggressive dogs are males who develop problem behaviors by the time they reach 18 to 36 months of age, which corresponds with canine social maturity. In one survey, by two months of age, many puppies were aggressive over food. Female conflict aggression tends to develop at an even younger age, during puppyhood.

Pups that show conflict aggression often act submissive in other situations. They stay friendly or offer deference to other dogs. Watch the puppy's body language for clues. Conflict aggressive pups keep their ears and tail down during the attack (mimicking submissive signals) and tremble afterward. Owners may describe them as acting guilty or remorseful.

Why Conflict Aggression Develops

Testosterone makes dogs react more intensely, more quickly, and for a longer period of time. During adolescence, boy pups have a much higher testosterone level than once they reach adulthood. Neutering males can cool their jets.

Girl dogs can act with conflict aggression, too. When this happens as a pup, consult a veterinary behaviorist before having her fixed. Conflict aggressive intact female dogs tend to get WORSE if they are spayed, so consider all your options!

Behaviorists speculate that a first-time instinctive display of conflict aggression may arise from fear or disagreements that take place during play that goes out of control or feeling threatened near the food bowl. When snarls chase away the threat, the pup learns to use aggression as a way to avoid or prevent a repeat of the fearful or upsetting experience by being the first to aggress (scare off the person who might steal my food!) when faced with similar triggers.

Common Triggers for Aggression

Picking him up or restraining (such as for nail clipping), or reaching “over top” of the puppy near an “owned” object like a toy or the food bowl often triggers a conflict aggressive reaction.

While it's fine for most pups to share the sofa with you or even your bed, the conflict aggressive pooch becomes possessive of furniture, guards it and refuses to get off when told. Furniture possessiveness only affects family members the dog feels are less in charge. That may be softer-voiced women or young kids, but not the gruff-voiced men in the home. Sleeping in the bed with you elevates the pup’s sense of status and he’s more likely to consider himself your equal -- or your boss -- and challenge you with growls when he doesn't like your request.

Other predisposing factors include lack of training, playing tug-o-war games with the dog, and lack of exercise. Such dogs often live with teenagers in the home, have a history of a skin disorder (perhaps the discomfort aggravates a short temper), and suffered a serious illness in first 16 weeks of life (and perhaps the pup was babied as a result and allowed to get away with murder). These dogs may challenge the authority of young humans the way adult dogs harass adolescent puppies.

While dog aggression cases are best dealt with by professionals, you can relieve some of the issues yourself. If your pup has excellent bite inhibition you can begin working with him at home.

Dealing With Conflict Aggression

  • Identify and avoid triggers to prevent confrontations. If the dog protects toys, remove them from the general environment so he has nothing to guard.
  • Don’t challenge the pup, and DON’T punish.
  • Avoid all casual interaction and touching.
  • Require the pup to “earn” good stuff with good behavior. Create interactions based on your request (sit!) and his payment (he sits), which earns him what he wants (treat/attention/verbal praise). He should get NOTHING unless he earns it by responding in a positive way to your command.
  • When your puppy reacts around the furniture, make it off limits. Prevent access to problem areas by placing clear plastic carpet runners nub-side up on top of sofas or beds—or simply shutting the bedroom door.
  • Use happy words or phrases to change his mood. For example, if he’s growling or posturing ask, “Wanna go for a walk?” and watch his mood change. It’s hard for dogs to be happy and aggressive at the same time.
  • Confine a problem pup to a single room, an X-pen or a crate, to better control his movements and access to trigger areas.

    What Is Idiopathic Aggression?

    Idiopathic means we can’t identify a cause of the aggression. This type of aggression is characterized by the dog transforming from happy to Cujo in a heartbeat. He may show clear signs of submission but still attacks with excessive aggression that is out of sync with the situation.

    Idiopathic aggression most often affects young dogs one to three years old and is frequently misdiagnosed as dominant aggression. Some behaviorists believe idiopathic aggression more closely resembles status-related aggression but that the (poorly socialized?) aggressor misunderstands canine communication and attacks inappropriately.

    In such cases, pet owners must be vigilant and always supervise the dog. Manage with muzzles, and teach the dog to “go to bed” into a crate or other safe time-out area. Drug therapy from a veterinary behaviorist may benefit the dog.