Going Head-to-Head with Puppy Aggression

A couple weeks ago you brought home this sweet, fluffy, cuddle-lamb puppy. He was so gentle and cautious about the world around him. Confidently exploring while keeping tabs on you… you know, everything you were looking for in a puppy.

And you conquered crate training! Well, maybe mostly-sorta. At least the puppy isn’t screaming in there anymore. He seems to like his little crate now and you aren’t getting up at night to let him out for a potty break.

So phew! You can relax and enjoy your adorable baby dog. Except that you can’t. Because your baby dog is suddenly a lot less cautious and a lot more bitey.


Oh What Fun!

The sleepy puppy phase is over. Welcome to the teething stage! Don’t worry, new puppy parents. It does not last forever. Well let me rephrase that. It won’t last forever if you correct the natural behavior properly. If you tolerate or encourage puppy biting it will last long after teething is over. And you won’t be less annoyed by it either. So listen up! And cut this habit before he is done cutting teeth!

Your puppy wants to chew on everything he can get his mouth on. The thing is, just like all babies, puppies explore the world around them with their mouths. And he is really, really curious.


The Road Ahead

What your individual experience with chewing and biting behavior will be is going to depend largely on what breed of dog you purchased, how much that dog weighs, and how much left-over energy that dog needs to burn on any given day. (Left-over energy; that is, how much energy is left-over that isn’t being burned off intentionally and interactively by you in other activities.)

For example, a Labrador puppy will probably eat everything in sight. With those steel trap jaws they can really wreak havoc on your hands and home. A puppy you adore can quickly become a puppy you resent if you’re not careful to meet their needs for chewing.

Now if you have a cockapoo you won’t have to worry so much. The vast majority of cockapoos (particularly well-bred ones from yours truly) are very “soft-mouthed”. Meaning they don’t bite that hard. Give them some ropes and stuffed toys to “kill” and you’ll sail through these months just fine.


Busting Puppy Myths

First off I want to dispel any myths about chewing and biting behavior that might have made it into your ears (and thinking).


My Puppy is Aggressive

The fact is that your puppy is not capable of aggressive behavior unless your puppy is about nine months of age or older. Puppies will not show “true aggression” because they are incapable of it. Oh they can have puppy-temper-tantrums. But the “aggression” that we all think of… that big, bright red flag that something is really, really wrong… the aggression that often means the re-homing of a beloved pet… it is absolutely not that aggression.

Puppies under about 9-12 months of age are generally really unable to show true aggression. Even really assertive, confident or bossy puppies are unlikely to show “true aggression even a little before that 9-month mark.

So if your puppy growls like some demonic, vicious beast you can laugh and think it is cute (because it generally is). Watch two cockapoo puppies at six weeks of age wrestle around and they sound like real-dog fights in tiny baby-dog voices… it’s pretty hysterical. And adorable.


My Puppy is Really Dominant.

The fact is that your puppy is not dominant. Because dogs do not suffer from “dominant personality disorder” the way that people do. (I’m sure you’ve met the type of human with this disorder I just made-up and I assure you that you have never met a dog with this set of issues).

The idea that dogs naturally form “packs” and have a dominant/submissive or alpha/omega type hierarchy is completely untrue. Of course if this is something you’ve always believed (and many of us, including myself really believed the whole dominant thing for quite some time) you can read here “Is My Puppy Dominant?” for a better explanation.

Read that and you’ll believe me. Your puppy does not have a “dominant” temperament. Your puppy is not trying to “dominate” you. That isn’t why your puppy won’t stop biting your ankles and feet every chance he gets with his little needle-point puppy teeth.


But He Knows I Don’t Like the Biting and He Still Won’t Quit.

Hey, I said that he isn’t trying to dominate you. I did not say he wasn’t being a little puppy brat. Perhaps your furry sweetheart is being a little doggy jerk?

Ok, well that obviously is not the case. The fact is that you’ve got yourself a baby. Puppies are just like human toddlers only slightly less complex. And that is what you’ve got at home now. A four-legged furry toddler in the midst of the terrible two’s. Puppy Parenting is what you’re doing. Welcome to parenthood! And if you haven’t read about my style of training called “Natural Dog Training (Puppy Parenting)” put it on your list of posts to skim over.

Ok, so your puppy may know very well that you don’t like him biting you. But the thing is, he wants to bite you. He really, really, wants to bite you. So he keeps right on biting you. And he may know you don’t want him to bite you the specific second after you directly tell him so. But he doesn’t know that you won’t change your mind or “give in” if he keeps trying. He doesn’t know for sure if you don’t like it five minutes from now. Do you dislike it forever? Impossible! Everyone loves to bite and wrestle according to our puppies! Because it is just the best way to play ever! So yes. He is going to keep on trying. It is the equivalent to nagging. Please mom. Please? It will continue forever unless you firmly put the proverbial foot down about it.

And then we have attention span and memory to consider. Did he know you forbade biting yesterday? Because today is a totally different day. Two hours ago? Well that is some distant haze of memory now. An hour is an eternity to a puppy. He’ll get better about retaining learning as he grows. Patience and consistency here is key.

Of course most of us would never ever call our puppies “brats” or our dogs “jerks” in anything more than jest and that is exactly what I mean here. Your puppy sometimes throws tantrums but of course is never a “brat” or a “jerk”. I just say that to be funny. Your puppy isn’t trying to hurt you. He really isn’t. And he isn’t riddled with unfortunate, permanent, psycho-reminiscent apathy either. He is a puppy toddler. He simply lacks the capacity for this kind of understanding (empathy). It isn’t that he doesn’t want to be a compassionate, empathetic and kind little puppy. It is quite simply that he doesn’t have the ability to be that way.

A human two-year-old toddler is no more aggressive than your puppy and any teacher insinuating that would be laughed out of daycare, right? Your puppy is no different. A little three-year-old boy hitting his sister is not “aggressive” in the way that a man mugging you might be. Different ball game. Entirely.

So to recap: if you think your puppy really understands that his biting is genuinely unpleasant to you then you are mistaken, my dear. Just like a human baby your dog is incapable of understanding that just yet. It is an adult human ability that often we take for granted. He is on the brink of a rudimentary understanding of empathy. And as an adult dog he will be closer to understanding empathy than any other animal (apart from humans) on the entire face of the earth. But he will never be as good at it as humans are (which is where anthropomorphizing can get you into trouble). And as a puppy he is truly incapable. That isn’t his fault. And you can rest easy knowing that you didn’t pick out a “mean” puppy because that cannot exist! Baby dogs are no more “mean” than baby humans (which are never mean, in case you were wondering this at three a.m. when your little was awake and demanding a feed. Ha-ha!)


What We Know

Well, now we know that your dog is not biting you to gain a position of authority over you. And we also know that he isn’t biting you to be mean to you and he isn’t just a puppy-jerk. And we know that he doesn’t consistently realize that you don’t want him biting you at all, ever and forever. But we also know that he wants to bite you (well that’s what I’ve told you, isn’t it?) So then what the heck does he want to do this for?

Partly because he is teething. And because his gums and jaw hurt him, chewing makes them feel better and they have an urge to bite down on stuff and exercise their little jaws to speed up the process and provide some relief.

But I also said that teething is only part of the reason. When you say to me “Annette, he has every chew toy on the planet but he keeps biting my hands and fingers and feet!” I will tell you this: your puppy wants to play with you. Try offering him one of those suitable toys in an effort to redirect his attention to appropriate objects.

If your dog keeps right on biting you when you offer him a suitable alternative for his chewing/teething needs, then you can pat yourself on the back. That means you have brought home a very people-oriented puppy. He is going to make a really lovely companion. Your puppy wants to play with you. And I mean really interactively play with you.

Puppies play with each other by wrestling. They play-fight constantly. They wrestle and tumble over things and smash into each other and they growl and bark and bite the heck out of each other. To a puppy this is the most fun they can have! It is so much fun and they just want to play with you because they like you so much. And they will keep right on trying to win you over to encourage you to get up and play with them. They want your attention and your puppy has some serious energy he needs to burn off. He cannot do this without you interactively and intentionally exercising him.

To limit this desire to interactively play the only thing you can do is bring home an independent puppy. If you purchased a dog that was the really independent puppy in his litter, while he may not be the greatest family dog in the world, he will mostly leave you alone. Perhaps he is intended to be an outdoor dog or strictly a guard dog or working dog. Perhaps his breed barely cares that there are humans around at all. This puppy won’t really bite the heck out of you. So if this is you then you’re probably doing pretty good (and probably wouldn’t be reading my blog). My guess though, is that you got a companion to be your companion. And the trait of loving companion is an important one to you.

If you bought a companion dog (and if you adopted from me, you absolutely have one. I only raise loving companion dogs) he will want to follow you around and love you every second of every day. If you came home from me then surely you brought home a dog-shaped-shadow.

Your companion puppy is going to want to play with you. Not just while near you… Actually with you… There is no way around it. Some of the very best traits our dogs have can also be really frustrating traits. Life is like that sometimes and it is annoying. But there you go. God has a sense of humor. Your wonderful, friendly companion dog is going to cry in a crate for much, much longer than his independent cousins. He is going to want your personal attention in playing and cuddling every single day. He would be lonely and begin to have behavioral problems if left alone too much of the time without adequate companionship. He will like other dogs, sure, but he will like people more. With our most wonderful doggy traits like companionability come some negatives too. Boo on that. But it is the way it goes.


You Need a Laid Back, Lower-Energy Puppy

Well slow down. We don’t know if your puppy is necessarily “high needs, high energy”. To start that is going to vary greatly by breed. Should you have a Jack Russel Parson’s Terrier then yup. You have a high energy and high needs puppy. But if you have a typical teddy-bear poodle mix or a spaniel mix you very probably have a moderate to low energy puppy. Low energy does not mean no energy! It is still a puppy. If your breeder told you that your puppy was the lazy one of the crew then sigh in relief because if you think it is bad now just imagine how it must be for the one the breeder labeled as the most energetic, rough and rowdy!

There are days that I think my four-year-old son is like a mini cartoon Tasmanian devil. And I feel frustrated with him. And then somewhere along the line I spend time with someone else’s four-year-old and my four-year-old is acting like a Tasmanian devil and the other mom says “Gosh… your boy is so sweet and polite and mellow. How do you do that? He is so calm and easy going.” And I look at her with my mouth gaping open because my mud-smeared wild-child son is laughing like a maniac and just threw a bucket of sand in the air and sprayed like 10 kids with it (and I’m probably getting dirty looks from every mom at the playground) … and I start paying a little attention to the other four-year-old boys… who turn out to be not quite so laid back as my Tasmanian devil…

It is all about perspective, so try hard to remember that when you are raising your puppy. It might not be all that bad compared to most biting puppies. And social puppies bite. So you knew it was coming. And if you didn’t know it was coming then you probably also know by now that you should have done way more reading before getting a puppy and then you would have known what was really coming your way. (Hey, I don’t judge. You’re reading now, aren’t you? That is all that matters. Keep at it.)


Conclusive Answer to the Original Question

Now we have settled the issue once and forever: Your puppy isn’t a jerk. He isn’t mean. He isn’t dominant. He isn’t even necessarily rowdy. He could be the most laid-back puppy in the universe. But he still wants to bite you.

It is important to keep in mind that nothing is ultimate here. Nothing is final. These are growing pains and stages. And they will pass shortly. Right now you just need to survive it with your fingers intact. And in one year from now you can come back to this article and post a comment below that says “you were right. I thought he was the worst biting puppy on the entire planet. Now he is a very sweet guy and I couldn’t imagine my life without him! I’m so glad I stuck with it and tried your suggestions” and maybe you could throw in there that I’m brilliant too. I’d take that J


More on the How

How do you get the biting to actually stop? Oh. Well that is a different post entirely. So why don’t you read that one too while you’re in the “understanding-my-beloved-angel-piranha-puppy” spirit.

Here is the article… aptly entitled: Stop Puppy Biting! …So click away!

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