How To Discipline An Aggressive Puppy

Jenna wrote to us about how to discipline her aggressive puppy:

From An Aggressive Puppy
To An Aggressive Dog?

“I’m very worried – my 9 1/2 week old shepherd/pitbull/lab mix puppy has been showing signs of aggression towards me, and I’m worried he’s going to turn from an aggressive puppy into an aggressive dog. He attacked my hand when I went to remove his leash after a walk around the park. I tried to grab him and say “no”. When he bites hard I grab his mouth and clamp down and say no until he yelps. Then he comes at me again with a growl soon as I release. Is this a bad tactic to discipline? Will this bring out his aggression more? I’m not sure how to discipline him when he acts out. Is this just puppy behavior or should I be worried? For the most part, he loves people and is very affectionate. However his aggressive behaviors come out periodically.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!!”

Adam replied:

Hi, Jenna:

Would it be possible to video this and put it on Youtube, so that I can see it?

The problem is: When it comes to a puppy this age, different people’s idea of “aggression” can vary quite a bit, and that can change my suggestion on how to proceed.

Definitely start reading the sections on puppy aggression in my dog training book, so that you understand basic concepts, but if you have a way to video this behavior (maybe with a smart phone, like a droid or an iPhone?) … that would help, a lot.

Lynn Stockwell added:

I too am curious. Sometimes puppies do a lot of play-biting, and there is a big difference between true aggression and play in their body language. I don’t doubt that he’s giving you trouble, and now really is the time to teach him that teeth-on-skin is Unthinkable. As Adam mentioned, a video would be helpful to really pinpoint the problem and tailor a response as to how to correct it–that’s the one drawback on the internet, is that we are not there to witness the issue!

Holding The Puppy’s Mouth Does Not
Stop Aggressive Puppy Behavior

While holding a puppy around the mouth can be done as a correction, there are also other factors that make it effective. You’ve already noticed that simply holding the mouth by itself isn’t really useful, since he just bounces back. I’ll try to get a video together showing a good way to correct a puppy for play-biting that utilizes a few other concepts too. It may look weird, but when used properly and consistently, it does teach the puppy that certain actions get it NOWHERE.

The caveat comes when the puppy decides to really push its boundaries and the play-biting “correction” is ineffective. If this is the case, it’s possible that you might have to use a properly-sized pinch collar, to correct for ONLY the biting, just to communicate clearly to the dog that it is unacceptable. We usually do NOT recommend pinch collars for young puppies, but as Adam mentioned above, knowing a few more details of the situation (plus video, if possible) might help us determine whether that’s the right course of action to take.

Jenna continued:

“Great – all that information is very helpful. I will try and get a video to post tonight of his aggression, or attitude. I’ve never had a puppy before so maybe it is just puppy play. However, when I say no loudly and hold his mouth, he comes right back at me with growling and nipping. He never nips so hard, but he is definitely defying my orders and I don’t like the growling. I’ll post a video as soon as possible.

Today, he also growled when I tried to take his kong away. I was going to put another treat in it but he didn’t like that. How do I correct that behavior? Should I be worried about the growling or is that normal? Thanks so much for your help!!”

Adam responded:

Hi, Jenna:

It’s not typical.

Give it to him, then take it away again. Show him that any aggressive behavior will not get him what he wants. Reward him when he is calm. Do not reach for it quickly or act fearful. Pretend like it doesn’t bother you at all and that it’s not threatening. Pin him on his side and hold him there firmly, until he stops growling. When you let him up, move your hand away slowly. If he tries to nip you when you start to release him, then immediately pin him down and keep him there until he submits.

A video would be helpful, because then we can advise (like Lynn mentioned) if a small pinch collar would be appropriate for this type of aggressive puppy behavior.