Perhaps it began with a look. A sudden, hard stare as you sat down on the couch beside your trusted family dog, or reached for a toy in his mouth. Nothing overt, but… a strange feeling. Hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Something not quite right.
Or, perhaps the first sign was something much more obvious and seemingly out-of-the-blue – a snarl and growl, a snap or even a bite that drew blood as you reached for his collar or walked past the food bowl at mealtime.
Whatever it was, chances are you remember it well.
Of all the behavior problems that I see on a regular basis, owner-directed aggression is by far the most fraught with emotion. Leash reactivity is considerably more common, and fear aggression towards strangers is arguably more dangerous, but few things provoke a truly gut-wrenching visceral reaction quite like being bitten by your own dog.
Fortunately, this type of aggression is frequently very manageable – so if you’ve experienced this with your dog, don’t give up hope! In today’s post, we will discuss the behavioral underpinnings of this issue and recommended training strategies to help address it.
So, first things first – what does a typical dog with owner-directed aggression look like?
The short answer is: not what you might expect.
Several years ago, one of the first behavior cases that I saw as a newly minted veterinarian involved an eight-year-old terrier mix I’ll call Mickey.
I remember him as an exceptionally charming little dog – when I first visited the house for our initial consultation, he approached me with a wagging tail and lots of kisses, happily rolling over for belly rubs when I sat on the floor next to him. His owner told me that he was this way with all visitors, friendly and easy-going. When he came to our clinic for his annual wellness visits, he was a perfect gentleman – he took treats readily from everyone he met, and the staff could give vaccines and draw blood for lab testing with no problems at all.
He was, by all outward appearances, a perfectly lovely pet.
His owners had contacted me for a behavior consultation because Mickey had bitten them badly multiple times in the past, resulting in ER visits and bloodshed on more than one occasion. Although he was loving and affectionate most of the time, in certain situations he could be very frightening – he would bite hard and without warning if he was disturbed while resting on the couch, and was very possessive over his food bowl and any chew toys he was given.
He was also extremely sensitive to feet moving hear him – at the time of my visit, the most recent bite incident had occurred when the female owner attempted to step past him in the hallway while he was sleeping on the floor. She was not wearing shoes at the time, and had deep puncture wounds in her foot as a result.
Surprising as it may seem, this apparent Jeckyll-and-Hyde dichotomy is typical for many dogs who display aggression towards their owners. In my experience, they are usually friendly dogs who enjoy contact with people, and are quite affectionate and closely bonded with their human families.
In some ways, unfortunately, this makes their violent outbursts all the more difficult to understand.
Once upon a time, we would have called this behavior “dominance aggression” – indeed, if you look at scientific literature and behavior textbooks published prior to the early 2000s, you will see this terminology widely used. It was initially classified this way because the aggression is normally directed towards family members rather than strangers, and it most often occurs over resources or encroachment into the dog’s personal space. Common triggers include being disturbed while resting or eating, leaning or bending over the dog, reaching for the collar, and physical or verbal punishment.
No wonder, then, that this behavior was initially assumed to be status-related.
In more recent years, this explanation has fallen out of favor. Dominance theory as it applies to domestic dogs has been widely discredited, and we now know that disputes over social status play virtually no role in the behavior problems we commonly treat – see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) position statement on dominance theory in dog training for more information on why the “alpha dog” paradigm is outdated and potentially dangerous.
So if it’s not about dominance, then what is it about?
Obviously, the answer is complicated – as with most behavioral issues, it’s impossible to sum up a complex problem like this by attributing every case to a single, tidy underlying pathology. But in general, we can make a few common observations about the vast majority of dogs who bite their owners.
In my experience, dogs like Mickey are friendly and affectionate much of the time. Most are not outwardly fearful or anxious in the way that many stranger-aggressive dogs tend to be, and often do fine with visitors. They enjoy social contact with their owners, including petting, cuddling, and play, on their terms and when they feel comfortable.
BUT – and this is a big but – they become overly anxious and defensive in a variety of everyday situations, sometimes as minor as being petted while they are resting, or having their collar touched to attach a leash. In addition, they often have poor impulse control in a variety of contexts, and a remarkably low threshold for any kind of frustration or discomfort. As a result, where another dog might huff in mild annoyance at being nudged off the couch by his owner’s foot, a dog with this issue reacts by whirling around and biting.
Within the framework of canine social communication, this is a genuinely overblown and inappropriate response. It’s very normal for dogs to express their displeasure towards other dogs over minor conflicts like this – often with a look, or a growl, or even a snap with no contact made. But a “normal” dog, with a reasonable set of social skills and good bite inhibition, would not be expected to bite and injure a housemate in this way.
In human terms, it’s the difference between rolling your eyes in annoyance when someone cuts in front of you in line, vs. becoming enraged and punching them in the face – the annoyance is reasonable, but the reaction is inappropriate and out of proportion to the trigger.
It’s important to realize that these dogs are not simply being jerks – in most cases, whether because of genetics, lack of social skills, or negative past experiences, they bite because they don’t know any other way to respond when they feel frustrated or threatened. It’s an emotional reaction, not a conscious choice. And if the dog has a history of being punished for growling or biting, this often inflames the situation further.
So with this in mind, what can we do to help?
If you have a dog with this problem, the first step is to sit down and make a list of every situation you can think of that triggers the aggressive behavior. For each trigger, we can then choose to either avoid the situation in the future (thus preventing further problems), or set up a training plan to work on it.
For example, let’s say that one of your dog’s triggers is walking past his food bowl while he’s eating. Avoidance would mean feeding him by himself in a separate room with the door closed, then picking up the bowl after he’s finished and has left the room – if this arrangement works well for everyone, this may be all you need to do.
If it was something you wanted to work on, you could set up a training plan to help your dog become comfortable with you walking past his bowl. This might involve exercises like walking past him at a distance, tossing cheese or lunchmeat into the bowl as you pass – over time, as long as he is comfortable, you could gradually get closer and closer until he is happily wagging his tail as you walk right by.
This type of plan should always be carried out with hands-on guidance from a good reward-based trainer or even a veterinary behaviorist, since working with any dog with a history of aggression carries a risk of being bitten – for safety reasons, it’s always best to have expert help! If you don’t have anyone in your area who is qualified to work with you on this, then I would recommend sticking with avoidance to manage the problem.
In general, all triggers should be avoided except during controlled training sessions. This is important from a safety standpoint, but also to avoid making things worse over time – the more your dog “practices” his aggressive behavior, the more entrenched it becomes.
So what about Mickey? To begin with, we made several immediate changes in his daily routine to help avoid problems.
He was fed his breakfast and dinner in a spare bedroom with the door closed as discussed above, which effectively eliminated any mealtime aggression issues. He was given chew toys only when he was in his crate, and his doggy beds were placed well away from areas with a lot of foot traffic.
From a training standpoint, we used food rewards to teach him a verbal cue (“off!”) to get off the furniture, so that the family could ask him to move if he was on the couch and they wanted to sit down. A few other simple cues, including “come” and “touch” (nose target to hand) were also taught, to allow the owners to direct him if needed rather than physically moving him. If they needed to walk past him while he was resting or sleeping, they simply called him over for a treat first, then went on with what they were doing once he was out of the way.
We discussed options for addressing some of his triggers more directly, but Mickey’s owners ultimately decided that they were fine with managing the situation and being proactive about avoiding problems. They also found that once they changed their approach and began to be more aware of Mickey’s signals and things that made him uncomfortable, he became much less tense and reactive in general.
I was fortunate enough to stay in touch with them over the next few years, until he ultimately passed away as an elderly dog due to an unrelated medical issue. He wasn’t perfect, nor was he “cured” of his behavior problem (this rarely happens, if ever!) – but his family was happy and able to enjoy him again, rather than constantly walking on eggshells in fear of a bite.
So, the moral of the story is this: If your dog is growling at you, don’t panic. Relax, take a step back, and diffuse the situation – and whatever you do, don’t punish! Remember that for dogs, aggressive displays like growling and snarling are just ways of communicating that they are uncomfortable – if we punish them for doing this, we make their anxiety worse and increase the odds that they’ll go straight to biting in the future. Instead, we want to figure out what’s making them feel threatened so that we can treat the underlying problem.
If your dog has bitten you, particularly if the bite was hard enough to require medical attention, I would definitely encourage you to get in touch with a veterinary behaviorist or a good reward-based trainer with experience treating aggression for help since this can be a difficult problem to tackle alone. But as illustrated by Mickey’s case and many others like him, it doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker – it’s often very treatable with smart management and a good training plan.