Dog aggression to owners can be one of the hardest problem behaviours to live with
If a dog is showing threat towards or biting family members it is perhaps one of the hardest problem behaviours to live with. Not only does it place the family at constant risk, but it can also be very hard to understand why a dog that is loved and well cared for behaves this way. So why do dogs sometimes bite the hand that feeds them?
As discussed in the article ‘Dog Aggression’ there are many reasons why dogs sometimes use threat or aggression, and all of these apply equally in cases of dog aggression to owners. However there are some particularly common scenarios in which dogs may use aggression towards family members, many of which can be prevented.
Puppies, like children, pass through numerous periods of development before they reach maturity. One of the most rapid of these occurs between 3 and about 12-14 weeks of age. This is when puppies start to explore and learn about the world around them. They are particularly sensitive to forming bonds with other species, such as humans or other family pets, learning what is safe and developing the skills to cope with things that bother them during this period. It is therefore important this is managed carefully.
However behavioural development doesn’t stop there. As the puppy continues to grow he will go through a series of further behavioural developmental stages. For example some puppies experience a period of increased sensitivity to potentially scary experiences, typically somewhere between 9 -18 months. If this isn’t handled in the right way it can lead to longer term fearfulness, which can in some cases lead to aggressive behaviour due to fear or panic.
There are also changes linked to fluctuating hormone levels, just as in teenage humans. Testosterone is linked to confidence, the drive to breed and the dog’s willingness to take risks. It can therefore increase the likelihood a dog will challenge for something he wants, the speed with which he goes from warning to biting and how much force he uses. Testosterone levels start to rise as young male puppies approach puberty and can fluctuate until they settle down as the puppy matures. Owners may therefore find their puppy is particularly confident or pushy at times and occasionally even tries things like growling to see if it gets him his own way during this period. If this is handled calmly it usually passes. However if the puppy either learns it works or is punished for it then this behaviour may get worse over time.
Bitches also start to be affected by their hormones with the onset of their seasons. They can be more irritable and competitive during the early part of their season and this may lead to uncharacteristic snappy behaviour. This also usually settles as the season passes, as long as it isn’t aggravated, but may recur again the next time.
Behavioural development continues until the dog reaches maturity at between 18-36 months, depending on the breed and the individual. This process involves ongoing changes in the brain with existing nerve cells constantly being replaced by new ones. Once a dog reaches maturity they often become calmer and more restful. However, in some cases maturity may also lead to a change in the way the dogs react to things that bother them. For example a puppy that uses appeasing to ask someone not to touch them in a way he finds worrying, may escalate to using threat when this doesn’t work once they are mature.
Another common trigger for dog aggression to owners is fear. This is most commonly caused by excessive use of punishment. If a dog learns that a certain way of behaving leads to something he or she doesn’t like, such as being ignored or the owner leaving the room, this can deter unwanted behaviour and teach better manners. However harsher punishments (see Box 1) may make the dog fearful or cause pain and so trigger defensive behaviour. This is particularly likely to happen if these types of punishment are given at the wrong time or aren’t given consistently. The dog won’t be able to work out the reason for them and so starts to expect them to happen at any time. The dog then resorts to using defensive aggression to try and prevent them. This may make the dog seem unpredictable. However, the dog is in fact reacting to what they see as unpredictable behaviour by the human and so are only doing what they feel they have to do to protect themselves from anticipated punishment.
Punishment methods that may trigger defensive aggression
- Hitting the dog with a rolled up newspaper
- Alpha rolling (forcing the dog onto his or her side)
- Shouting or staring at the dog
- Grabbing the dog by the scruff
- Jabbing the dog with a foot, fingers or clawed hand
- Collars that tighten around the dog’s neck e.g. check chains, slip leads and prong collars
- Use of a lead to correct or force the dog to do something
- Electric ‘shock’ collars
- Rattling cans of stones, spraying with water or using canisters that emit a hiss of air in dogs that are worried by them
Dog aggression to owners can also occasionally arise when a dog is groomed or handled in a way he or she doesn’t feel comfortable with. This can be because the dog is in pain, or has learnt to associate being groomed or handled with pain. It can also be due to fear if the dog has been punished for wriggling in the past. Some of the ways humans handle dogs can also seem threatening to them, even if they are not intended to be. For example dogs threaten each other by putting their head over the other’s neck and so a worried dog may see a human touching the back of their neck as a threat. Some dogs also simply don’t like being touched on certain parts of the body such as their feet or under the tail. This can result in the dog using threat to ask the person to stop.
Some of the ways humans handle dogs, such as putting a hand on the dog’s head or neck, can seem threatening even if they are not intended to be
Dogs and children can be of great benefit to each other and dogs generally instinctively know to be gentle with children and babies. However, every dog has its limits and children, especially younger ones, can sometimes unintentionally do things to dogs that hurt or scare them. Lots of noisy children can also encourage dogs to become over excited which can then sometimes spill into overly boisterous behaviour or – rarely – aggression, just as an over excited child may have a tantrum. Providing suitable escapes for dogs, making sure they get enough rest, teaching children how to behave around them and supervising young children around dogs can all go a long way to preventing this type of problem behaviour. You can find more information about how to keep dogs and children safe together in the article ‘Children and Dogs’.
What should I do if my dog shows threat towards me or bites me?
All of these types of aggression can be prevented, or corrected with the help of an accredited behaviourist. If your dog is showing aggression to you the first port of call is your veterinary surgeon, so he or she can be checked for any signs of illness or pain. If your dog is given a clean bill of health your vet can then refer you to an accredited behaviourist who can assess the reason for the problem behaviour and advise you how to address it without making it worse.