If you notice your puppy growling, nipping/biting, or barking at you, you may ask ‘Is my puppy aggressive?’ Before we move on, I want to let you know that in most cases, the answer is no. However, there are important factors to take into account – and if you are concerned with your puppy’s behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet or work with a certified behaviourist.
Is My Puppy Aggressive? Normal vs Abnormal Behaviour
Normal puppies will nip and sometimes bite while playing
Picture this: you just brought home your 8-week old bundle of joy (and teeth). After those first few sleepy days, your new puppy’s personality begins to shine. And with that, comes a lot of biting.
Young puppies bite. Sometimes, they bite hard. This is absolutely normal. Puppy biting and nipping, even accompanied by lunging and growling, is all normal part of puppy play. It does not mean your dog is showing any aggressive tendencies.
(However, it is up to you to curb that nipping behaviour – you can learn more about ways to do that from experienced trainer Karen Proyer’s website.)
So, just to be clear, what is normal puppy behaviour?
- Biting or nipping at your clothes or your hands, ankles, and other parts of your body – and yes, sometimes those needle-like teeth will even make you bleed
- Growling while playing or while nipping
- Lunging at you, usually, mouth is wide open
- Running around while trying to nip you (getting the ‘zoomies’)
All of these behaviours are just part of normal play. Puppies play with their mouths. Puppies can also easily become overly tired and overstimulated. When that happens, many puppies will then ‘zoom’ around while biting anything in sight – it could be your hands, your couch, or if you’re lucky, their own toys!
A playful puppy will bite, run around, growl lightly (sometimes loudly!), ‘play bow,’ wag his tail, bounce around, pounce on toys, etc. Playful puppies are bouncy – aggressive puppies are stiff.
When people ask “is my puppy aggressive,” in MOST cases their puppy is just being a normal, impolite puppy who still has to learn the rules.
It is important you learn to understand dog body language so you can identify if your puppy is just in a playful mood or is showing true signs of aggression.
Young puppies that growl or snap during a vet exam may be showing aggression
So, what does real aggression in puppies look like? According to Best Friends Vet, any puppy who displays the following behaviours before 12 weeks of age may be showing true aggression:
- Growling in response to pain or fear (e.g. growling at your vet during an exam)
- Snapping in response to pain or fear (e.g. biting or snapping the air while you touch a paw)
- Prolonged, deep growling with a fixed stare
- Stiff posture with a curled upper lip, likely with ears pinned back
These puppies are likely showing signs of true aggression or fear aggression.
What To Do If You Think Your Puppy is Aggressive
It’s important to know the difference between normal and abnormal behaviour
If you think your puppy is showing signs that his behaviour is more than just normal puppy biting, nipping, and regular play, you should speak to your vet as soon as possible.
Puppies that display true signs of aggression at a very young age may have a neurological or genetic problem.
Your vet will be able to help you determine if your puppy is normal or if you may need to work on finding him treatment. It may be recommended that you work with a certified veterinary behaviourist to help diagnose, determine triggers, and give you a training plan.
Remember, if your puppy is truly showing signs of aggression, it does not mean he is a lost cause. Our dog Max is a rescue. Although we adopted him at 8 weeks old, he was rescued from a gutter on the side of the road when he was just 4 weeks old – so it is likely he experienced trauma during a vital period in his development.
Puppies who experience trauma at a young age can be much more difficult to raise, and they may show signs of fear aggression. Max was not an easy puppy. However, my husband and I were both relatively experienced dog owners and had access to the resources needed to work through his problems at a young age.
Though he still has some anxiety issues that we are constantly working through, he is a generally happy and confident adult dog!
Positive reinforcement training can help create a confident, calm adult dog
Even if your puppy has never shown signs of aggression, that doesn’t mean your dog cannot become aggressive. Unfortunately, poor training methods can turn a normal puppy into an aggressive adult.
Dominance-based training encouraged dog owners to use aversive training techniques such as pinning, “alpha-rolling,” scruff shaking, and swatting when their puppy did something ‘wrong.’
(I put wrong in quotations because puppies do not automatically know what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong!’ It’s up to use to show them – with love and respect and proper training!)
These training techniques do not work to train your puppy, but do work to make your puppy scared of you. Dogs understand that people are people – and not another dog.
The way a mother dog corrects her puppies is understood by puppies – but if a human tries to replicate that by ‘scruff shaking,’ the puppy will not understand. They will just become afraid the next time your hand goes down to their level.
And a scared dog can quickly become an aggressive dog.
Keep training positive, and you will not only help foster confidence in your dog rather than fear, but your bond will be even greater! Here are some tips for positive training:
- Reward good behaviour instead of punishing the bad – When your puppy sits calmly or lays down on his bed, give him treats. When he checks in with you in the backyard, give him treats. Focus on reward-based training rather than punishments.
- Keep them on lead – Keep your puppy on a leash at ALL times when you’re watching them. That way, you can interrupt bad behaviour before it happens, rather than punish the aftermath
- NEVER use physical punishment – Never punish your dog by hitting, scruffing, alpha rolling, flicking, etc.
- Train every day – Work on basic obedience commands and training whenever possible. Short sessions throughout the day help reinforce good behaviours and strengthen your bond.
- Socialize properly – Fearful dogs can be born from poor socialization. Provide positive experiences to other people, places, dogs, puppies, experiences, sights, and sounds between 8-16 weeks of age
(NOTE: check with your vet about safe places to bring an unvaccinated pup)