Biting The Hand That Feeds: Dealing With Owner-Directed Aggression

Biting The Hand That Feeds: Dealing With Owner-Directed Aggression

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.

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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.

34 thoughts on “Biting The Hand That Feeds: Dealing With Owner-Directed Aggression

    1. Yes! Management and training are intertwined, in many cases – good management is frequently also good training 😉

  1. Thanks Dr Jen! I am going to implement your suggestions. I have a Scottie boy and he has, on a few occasions done some serious damage to me through his biting … mostly sleep related issues. I manage this irritation by calling him to wake if I need to move and I don’t allow him to sleep on my bed with me as he lashes out and bites if anything moves while he is sleeping. My biggest problem is that my Mom is terrified of him and he absolutely adores her … any suggestions to sate my Mom’s emotions and perhaps help my boy? Thanks so much

    1. That’s definitely a tough situation! Kudos to you for coming up with some good solutions to help manage his problem. With sleep-related aggression issues, I usually suggest exactly the things that you’re doing – having the dog sleep in a crate or on the floor rather than in bed, and calling his name or waking him up in some other way if you need to move near him or touch him while he’s sleeping.

      If your mom has been bitten by him before, or has seen him when he’s aggressive, I can definitely understand why she’s nervous – often, people are very “on edge” all the time around dogs with aggression issues, since they feel like they may bite at any moment. You can reassure your mom that for most dogs with these issues, their aggressive behavior is very context-specific – if your boy has never bitten under any other circumstances, I would feel perfectly comfortable handling him in a normal way as long as he isn’t asleep. She might enjoy taking him for walks, or even doing some simple trick training with him using treats to give them a fun, but structured, way to interact. As she spends more time with him doing fun things, she may be more comfortable with more casual interaction such as petting and cuddling if he enjoys this.

  2. I get the whole don’t punish – so what do you suggest should be the reaction when a dog reacts aggressively? Example – Dog is sitting on his bed beside his kennel, not in it, beside it. Young boy (visitor) walks over to him tries to pat him on the head while talking to him and making eye contact, the dog snaps at the boy, doesn’t hurt him at all, but scares the crap out of him. As the owner what is the very next step for you, minutes after its happened? Please answer two ways, if its his very first time acting out and his 3rd time acting out. Thank you. 🙂

    1. That’s a great question, and something that we often need to clarify for owners with this problem because it can seem very counter-intuitive… what to do when there is an aggression incident, in the moment, if we’re not supposed to punish?

      Ideally, as an owner in this situation if it’s the very first time this has happened, I would quickly separate the dog and child. Make sure the child is okay, and calmly put the dog in another room or otherwise remove him from the situation. What you have to remember is that once the dog is already upset and has bitten or snapped, this is not an opportunity for training – just get him out of the situation as quickly and safely as possible. This is crisis management, not a teaching moment. There is nothing you can do at the time that will change what just happened, and punishment will only make things worse in the future.

      As far as what I would do if it’s the third time this has happened, my answer is a bit different… after the first time, I would do my very best to make sure that this situation was not repeated in the future, so I very much hope that there wouldn’t be a third time 🙂 If there is, then I need to seriously re-evaluate how I’m managing my dog around children.

      What I mean by this, is that once I know that my dog doesn’t appreciate being approached and touched by unfamiliar children while he’s resting (which is really quite reasonable, from the dog’s point of view), I would do one of two things: with older children who are able to follow directions, assuming that the dog is comfortable around them otherwise, I would instruct them not to approach or touch him unless he comes to them first and supervise closely at all times to make sure that everyone is safe. With young children, or if I didn’t feel comfortable with my ability to supervise adequately, I would put the dog in a separate room with the door closed for the duration of their visit to prevent any contact.

      Now, note that I said this would be the ideal response – often, in reality, this is not how people respond! It’s human nature to be shocked and upset when your dog tries to bite, especially if it’s never happened before, and many of us react initially with punishment of some kind. So if you’ve done this, don’t beat yourself up – just realize that it isn’t helpful, and try to do better next time.

  3. Good article, agree with everything. I have had several similar cases and all but 1 successful using a combination management/training approach. (The 1 was where the humans could not agree to follow the discussed and I thought agreed plan and the husband, who firmly believed this was “dominance”, kept punishing the dog who eventually bit the wife badly and was put down. Very sad)

    1. That is definitely a sad situation – it can be very tough to make progress when everyone in the family isn’t on the same page.

    2. He did not taught the dog not to stop biting but made the situation worse by punishing the dog and making the dog more aggressive by biting one of his owner’s.

  4. I have a puppy that doesn’t want to be picked up most of the time. She doesn’t bite hard but try’s growls in hope that you will leave her. She also doesn’t like to be destrubed. At night we want to pick her up for bed time and also in the morning off the bed. I feed her a treat for pick up but in the morning I can’t she has to have antacid medicine an hour before eating anything.
    Thank you for any help
    Betty

    1. I can sympathize! Being picked up is a common trigger for growling or biting, since many dogs don’t like it. Have you thought about getting a set of doggy stairs, or placing an ottoman or footstool beside the bed so that she can hop on and off herself? You can even teach her to get on and off the bed on-cue, using treats.

      Separately, I would also want to work on teaching her to be comfortable being picked up since this is something that will definitely happen quite a bit in her life. You can start by placing your hand under her chest, then give a treat and let her go. Work up to lifting her slightly, giving a treat and putting her down. Then eventually, picking her all the way up, giving a treat, and putting her down again. You can also teach her a cue that means you’re about to pick her up, something like “let’s go!”, so that she knows what to expect – often, this goes a long way towards reducing anxiety about being lifted.

  5. Excellent info here, thanks! My anxious, fear-aggressive girl has snapped and bitten me a couple of times recently, in situations where I should have been more aware of her body language. Thankfully she has very good bite inhibition and she only used sufficient pressure to convey her desperate message. She didn’t hurt me physically, but my emotions took a blow! My fault more than hers though, it hightlights that I need to do better in avoiding those situations that make her most fearful.

    1. I definitely understand! That’s really it, isn’t it? Even if you’re not physically hurt, it’s a very emotional thing to have your own dog snap at you or bite you. I always try to reassure my clients that from the dog’s standpoint, it isn’t personal at all – it’s about being overwhelmed by the situation, not about you.

      It sounds like you do a great job of watching out for her triggers and reading her body language to help avoid issues, so kudos for that! These dogs can be challenging to live with, but they love their people just as much as any other dog 🙂

  6. We have a rescue dog who was 8 when we adopted him and due to his behaviors, we believe he has been seriously mistreated in the past. He has bitten most in my house mainly through fear, but because of nothing we’ve done to him, but I believe it’s triggers from his past. I did get bitten by him on one occasion, which was my fault, I woke him to say goodnight and the room was dark, he reacted very quickly and bit my thigh and my lip, the lip required plastic surgery. He does still lash out, sometimes he will be sitting with you and you are gently patting him and he’s enjoying it, then all of a sudden, he will turn on you and if you’re not quick enough, will make contact, sometimes, it is more serious than others drawing blood. It’s usually directed at people, he’s fine with the other animals in the house, sometimes to the point of being ‘hen pecked’ by our female dogs. He is now 11 years old and we don’t get cross at him, we try to give him space and be understanding towards him, but we do always tell visitors to just be careful around him, but he does genuinely lie people. I found your article very interesting and informative and I’ve actually thought about getting a crate for him so he can feel safe if he feels threatened by going into the crate.

  7. Good for you, for doing your best to understand your boy and give him space – I’m sure he appreciates it! These dogs can definitely be challenging to live with, but they love their people just as much as any other dog. You could certainly try getting a crate for him to use if he wants to. Many dogs with this issue do like to have a “safe spot” where they know they won’t be bothered.

  8. Thank you for this article, my husband and i adopted a baby mutt a few years ago, he was so scared of everything, he couldn’t be 1cm apart of me because he started crying and begging. We live in a small town in México and the nicest trainer we got told us we had to leave Kin (our baby dog) alone and not allow him to come and cuddle in my lap every time. I was heart broken but i trusted him because he was a “profetional” and never told us to hit him (like a few others did). Soooo, we took Kin to his lessons but he got worse: he would bark as crazy for any reason and bite us for walking next to his food or toys and if we punished him, wich happened very often, he became really scary. But one day, i was crying after Kin got very aggresive to me and i hit him with a branch to avoid his bite, he came to me and licked my tears and i knew i had to stop that shit… none of us was happy at all, yet he was a good boy… I hugged him and cried a lot more. The next years i tried to convince my husband that problems could be avoided instead of punishing my baby, that we didn’t need a broken dog but a happy friend, no matter his weirdness… So the trainer told me that it was my fault that Kin was aggresive because of my attitude and that he was a dog and not a person and he had to obey. I refused to listen to him and insted i took a lot of online courses and talks (coursera, the family dog project among others) and, finally, we saw the results. My husband and i learned together and checked that every piece of info was scientific of course (no weird new age stuff) and now, years later, we have a crazy dog, yes, but a happy dog (and we are happy as well). He still has his agressive moments, i know we screw things up in the beggining and the only cure would be to travel in time, but he is much better now, we all are… We never never hit or punish him anymore and we feel very ashamed and we regret deeply that we did before, but he still kiss my tears when i am sad and cuddle in my lap when it has been a long day. I hope he can forgive us, we were ignorant and scared but not anymore. (Sorry for the bad english but i wanted to share)

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story! It was wonderful to read – I’m so glad that you’ve been able to come to a better understanding with Kin, so that all of you can be happy. Many owners have done things to their dogs that they regret later because they didn’t know any better, so don’t beat yourself up – all you can do is your best! When you learn a better way, then you do that instead 🙂

      Thanks again for reading, and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

  9. One of the things that’s good to start doing with a new dog at home is to put some food on its bowl, when it’s almost finishing eating the portion you put, you approach your hand putting more food. Doing it on every meal, like filling the bowl 4-5 times on the same meal, the dog will start to associate the people’s approach as a good thing, because everytime they get closer, he gets more food, never take it from it.

    Some months ago a friend was having this problem with her dog, but was on his bed. Everytime she gets in his bed to cover him with a blanket, or maybe just passing by his bed, he start to growl to make her step back. What actually started this behaviour was that when she was playing tug of war with him, she used to provoke him like she was going to steal the toy from him. On our minds this is just a game, but on the dog’s mind the person is probably trying to steal something from him, it doesn’t understand the difference.

    As John Bradshaw point on his book Dogsense, this may be a kind of dominance, but based on resource holding potential. The dog wants the toy (or the food) so much it will fight for it, even if is just a game on our point of view.

    I helped her suggesting that everytime she passed by his bed (which was on the bathroom way), she gave him a tidbit. Everytime she had to cover him with a blanket, gave him a tidbit (or maybe some, if she was going to take some time to do it). At the end, it’s all about making the dog associate the person’s proximity with something good.

    This also works for every game that you’re “fighting” with the dog, if you want to take the toy back, give the dog something in exchange, so it will not going to associate that you getting the toy back is a bad thing. (In the future there will be no need to keep giving the dog something in exchange).

    Hope this can help some people, since it’s pretty much the same concept approached in this post.

    1. I forgot to mention that my friend was playing tug of war on dog’s bed, since is the place the dog take the toy. So that’s why he associate the competition on this bed and started to avoid her close to his bed.

    2. Thanks very much for this comment! You’ve given some great advice here, and I’m sure it may be helpful to someone 🙂

  10. If social status plays virtually no role in behavior problems we commonly treat then why must we be “leader’ and or authority figure over our dog?

    1. We don’t need to do this at all – this is a myth that has been widely discredited. I don’t know of any educated behavior professional who would say that we need to be the “alpha” or “leader” over our dog in this sense.

      We do need to be consistent in our interactions with our dogs, and I do teach my dogs to look to me for direction if they’re not sure what to do – so I suppose this could be considered acting as a “leader”, in some sense. But I don’t teach this through any kind of punishment or intimidation, just repetition and reward 🙂

  11. I believe you should completely clarify this because in your first sentence you say we don’t need to do this at all, then you state later you could be considered as a leader. I think this would be very important for everyone to truly comprehend the science behind this (maybe even in a blog post)

    1. I do think that this could be an excellent topic for a future blog post, so thanks very much for the suggestion!

  12. Hi Dr. Jen, I have a dog that is exactly as you describe. He bites/snaps at me about once a month and often times it’s unpredictable. This morning, he snapped at me when I put his harness on. I had trained him to let me put it on as he used to bite me before, but I noticed that if he was in an excited state, he’d let me put it on. When I went to take his leash off (not even going for he harness) I noticed he was stiff and side eyeing me, so I just led him to his crate and gave him a treat. 4 hours later, he still has his leash and harness on. Is it possible that he’s regressed or just having a bad day? How do I get his harness off when I’m now afraid?

    1. Hi there! Leash and harness issues can be challenging, since this is often something that needs to happen daily in order for dogs to go outside for walks and potty breaks. Dogs do have bad days every now and then, just like us – so if he occasionally seems less tolerant and more irritable than normal, I would just give him his space and try again later to remove the harness or leash (or whatever the issue of the moment may be).

      Separately, you can work with him to make clipping and un-clipping his leash and harness a very positive experience that he looks forward to. For example, while he’s wearing his harness, I might sit with a bowl of very tasty treats and practice just showing him the leash clip at first. Show the clip, treat. Show the clip, treat. Repeat as many times as needed until he starts to perk up and look happy as soon as you show him the leash. Then, practice reaching it toward the clasp on the harness – don’t actually clip it on, just reach towards the area where you would clip it. Each time you reach, give a treat. Repeat until he looks happy about this.

      Within a few sessions, you should be able to work up to clipping the leash on and giving a treat. Then un-clip it, and give a treat. Etc. By doing this in a systematic way, you can actually teach him to look forward to having his leash put on and taken off. A similar plan could be used for the harness itself, since it sounds like this is also an issue.

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