It is inherent for dogs to want to protect what belongs to them. Particularly if it is something that she highly values.
For example my pup Juno is fine with me having a seat next to her when she is enjoying a Bullystick. But, on occasion, she finds a real treasure and her body freeze momentarily when I move close and she will give a low growl. I heed the warning and give her space.
Today’s ask a behavior consultant reader asks:
” My [9-week old] pup’s aggressive towards me, he growls, bites and scratches me [when I take items away from him], but only when I have told him no. He gets angrier when disciplined or told not to do something.” – Pup Parent
If you are unsure whether your pup is resource guarding or if her behavior is normal puppy biting, the following resources may be useful:
- How Should I Manage Dog-Dog Resource Guarding?
- My Dog Attacks Other Dogs in Doorways: Spacial Resource Guarding.
- Dog-Dog Resource Guarding Exercices.
- Six Strategies to Stop Puppy Nipping – Fast!
- My Puppy Bites Kids. What Do I Do?
However, because Pup Parent’s dog is just 9-weeks old, they could be dealing with normal puppy behavior. Puppies both explore their world with their mouths and are are often nippy and growly when they play.
This is because play often mimics fight behavior but with lots of inhibition and play gestures to signify it’s all in fun. New puppies can learn to inhibit their bite and learn alternatives with time and practice.
How can you tell the difference between play biting and aggressive actions? Let’s look at the differences below.
Is It Normal Puppy Biting?
As I mentioned above, puppy biting is normal. I have yet to meet a puppy that doesn’t interact with people and other dogs with her teeth (and I have met thousands and thousands of puppies over the years)!
Having said this, puppy teeth are sharp and they can be quite painful and destructive. They may chew on our shoes, furniture and walls despite having their own chew items. Additionally, play often involves play fighting, which can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from actual fighting.
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Aggression and Playing?
Although play often involves biting, jumping up, growling and general rough interactions, play has some distinguishable differences:
- Gentler biting. Play involves bite inhibition. Puppies may still need to learn how hard is too hard to use their teeth. But during play, they will adjust their jaw power. There is no intent to harm, so though it might hurt a little, your limbs (and the limbs of their playmates) are left intact.
- Play bows. Play bows (bum up and elbows down) signify that everything that may otherwise be interpreted as a threat is actually just play.
- Relaxed body. A dog who is actually feeling fearful, anxious or behaving aggressively stiffens their whole body and may actually freeze momentarily. A dog who is simply playing, on the other hand, is wiggly and bouncy. She might appear to contort her body or turn her bum towards you. She might roll around on her back and then leap up and pounce.
- Vocalization. Growling is normal play behavior. So is barking. As long as it comes with the other signals above, it’s nothing to worry about. If, however, your pooch freezes her body, gives a low growl, and or snaps her teeth in your direction with the intent to warn or make contact, then this could indicate she is feeling fearful or protective.
To promote healthy puppy play:
- Avoid roughhousing with your new puppy. This high energy and largely uninhibited type of play just encourages all the behaviors we don’t want to see in our puppies.
- Prevent biting in the first place. Set up some kennels, exercise pens and time-out zones where you can separate yourself from your puppy when her arousal levels start to get too high. This might be sending your pup to her pen with some fun self-entertaining items such as a stuffed KONG. Or, it might be removing yourself from your nippy pup.
- Provide her with lots of choices. A variety of chew items is ideal, and you may find she prefers some more than others. Stuffies, Nylabones, stuffed KONGS or other food dispensing toys, and Bully Sticks are some of my favorite go-tos.
- Redirect her attention. If she is chewing on a chair or a couch cushion, instead of raising your voice or trying to physically remove her, direct her to something she is allowed to have instead. At nine weeks, Pup Parents little one is far too young and new to know the rules. This takes time. I have a 10 month old pup who still slips up now and then when something irresistible is left out in plain sight!
- Teach her to enjoy being handled and not to bite moving hands. I use food rewards a lot when training any dog. Food is valuable and highly motivating for dogs. Practice moving your hands around and rewarding your pup for NOT nipping. Eventually work up to petting without nipping.
- Reward the good moments she offers you spontaneously. Yup, those moments are there. You just need to look for them! When she is being calm, reward her with a treat. If she is chewing on an appropriate chew item, reward that! Often times we focus on all the things that are going wrong and try to fix the problem as they arise. But if we reward those good behaviors, she is much more likely to repeat them in the future.
What If It’s Resource Guarding?
Resource guarding is a somewhat normal and natural behavior for dogs. Resource guarding simply refers to the behavior of guarding valued items from either people or other animals. However, these signs are generally very subtle and most dogs learn that they have nothing to worry about.
Most people actually miss these subtle signs of guarding behavior and really only take notice when (if) the behavior becomes aggressive. Often the aggressive behavior escalates because the subtle warning signs have been ignored.
Dogs are opportunistic, and they will protect their valued items, especially if they have a reason to think someone might steal that item away.
A common mistake people make is taking away bones form their dogs while they are chewing or sticking their hand in food bowls in order to teach their puppy not to resource guard.
In fact, this can cause natural guarding behaviors and subtle warnings to become more intense over time, leading to aggression.
You should never, ever grab something from your dog’s mouth just to teach her that she should allow it. This will only lead to heightened anxiety levels when you approach her while she is enjoying her food.
Instead, trade her for something of higher value (a spoonful of peanut butter, perhaps)? Or, simply let her have what’s hers. If she has something dangerous, the trade game is likely to get you the desired results much faster than the chase game, anyway!
Things to Do To Prevent Resource Guarding
There are steps that we can take to prevent resource guarding behavior from ever escalating to aggression. Here are a few things to keep in mind for all dogs, but especially dogs who may be less tolerant of people near their valuable assets.
- The trade game. Simply trade up! Take something irresistible, offer it to your pup, and when she leaves her item for your offering, grab it and put it out of sight.
- Teach a reliable “Leave It” cue. I actually like to teach “leave it” as a default. In other words, she can take something when instructed, otherwise, I’d like her to leave it alone. The leave it cue is meant to be used before an item is picked up, not after. If she already has something in her mouth that you’d like her to spit out, you’ll need a reliable “drop it” cue.
- Teach a reliable “drop it” cue. This cue is meant to be used when the item your pup has in her mouth needs to be relinquished. Practice this with her toys, like a ball or tug toy.
- Teach her that good things happen when people are close to her valued items. Walk by while she is enjoying a KONG and toss a couple of treats beside her. This is twofold because, not only are you teaching her that good things happen when people approach her when she has a valued item, but you are also rewarding your pup for chewing on an appropriate item.
- Respect her warnings and never punish her. If she growls, no biggie. A growl is simply a warning, and without that alarm, we’d be in big trouble! The last thing we would ever want is for her to lash out without first warning us about how she is feeling. Punishing her for growling or guarding her items will undoubtedly make things worse, not better. If it’s something she truly shouldn’t have for safety’s sake, revert back to step one, the trade game!
Promote Bite Inhibition During Puppy Play
Bite inhibition is something puppies need to learn, it’s not something that they are born with. There are a few important skills every pup parent should work on with their new furry friend:
- Teach impulse control. Puppies are not born pre-programed with much self-control. There are several games, however, that can help to teach your new pup to inhibit her impulsivity.
- Teach appropriate play. As I mentioned above, avoid roughhousing. Teach her games such as fetch, hide-and-seek or tug when she is interacting with people. Also teach her some fun games to play on her own, such as “find it” or puzzle toys. These items will also keep her busy and out of trouble!
- Consistently redirect. When she does become overly excited and nippy, redirect her inappropriate biting behavior to a toy or item she is allowed to have or an otherwise appropriate interaction (such as have her do some of her favorite tricks.) That item or activity will need to be more fun and more engaging than you are. So, moving toys, interactive or food toys might be the most apropos alternative to fingers and toes!
- Manage her environment to prevent unwanted destruction. Use baby gates, kennels, or exercise pens to prevent her from becoming overly aroused. As soon as you see her become overly excited (or even better, when you know she is on her way to becoming over excited), send her to her pen with something fun and entertaining before she has a chance to jump and nip. Prevention is key to not only preventing her from performing undesired behaviors, but for preventing her from practicing them to. You know what they say, “Practice makes perfect!”
- Teach a “Drop it” and “Leave It” cue. Although I mentioned these two cues above for preventing resource guarding behavior, they are also appropriate here as well. Not only can they make play time with a tug toy or ball more pleasant and controlled, it can also be useful.
Since Pup Parent’s pupper is still so young, she has a lot of learning left to do. Both puppy training and preventing resource guarding are important steps for her to take with her new furry four-footer. Puppies are so much fun, and so much work! But one day you’ll look back on her early years and remember all of the wonderful times you shared together.
Erin is currently from Alberta, Canada where she works as a canine behaviour consultant. Erin is a CDBC and CPDT-KA, working with all types of dogs with all types of training needs. She has a MSc in Anthrozoology (the study of human and non-human interactions), and is a PhD candidate in the same field. Erin will be relocating to Christchurch, New Zealand at the end of 2018.