Biting Behavior in Dogs

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Biting and snapping behavior in puppy

Question: Dr. Mike,

Bebe, our 20 week old Lab X has started snapping at us when we do something she doesn't like. Tonight it happened twice.....first while trying to trim her nails (she is fearful of the clippers), and then again at bedtime when I tried to move her from our bed to her crate. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this?? She is generally a well behaved little pup who loves people but is fearful of other animals. We adopted her at approx. 5 weeks of age from the local shelter, so her background is unknown. Last night we attended our first puppy obedience class, and I am hopeful that we will learn some tricks on how to handle her there.

The biting and snapping really bothers us. I hope that we are going through a stage that she will outgrow.

Thanks, Patty and the biting baby Bebe.

Answer: Patty-

It is probably good that you have been able to see this behavior at this early age, when it is more likely that you can do some things to help control it. If it is possible to see a veterinary behaviorist where you live it is almost always the best option for aggressive puppies and aggressive dogs. It is helpful to recognize that aggressive behaviors can occur for a number of reasons and trying to decide the most likely ones, such as fear aggression or dominance aggression can be very helpful. Most general practice veterinarians have very limited training in doing this sort of thing and are less likely to be able to differentiate among the possible causes of the aggressive behavior. In many areas of the country there is not an available veterinary behavior specialist, though.

It is a good idea to attend obedience school so that your dog learns some basic commands and you learn to reinforce them. This allows you to control your interactions with the puppy better. If you make her respond to a command before giving her meals to her, before giving her any treats, prior to going on walks and intermittently during walks, all these things help to enforce your status as a leader. Using a head halter type collar (Promise Collar tm, Halter tm) is also helpful, as it gives you a lot more control over the situation and allows you to provide corrective action (moving her head away) immediately while not frightening her and worsening the situation. Keeping this up will often cause a puppy to be less aggressive since it tends to accept a subservient status better. If the aggression over being moved off the furniture or put to bed increase it may be necessary to make the furniture totally off limits. It is harder to decide what to do about dogs that won't crate at night without a fight. If this behavior continues it might be reasonable to make at least one trip to a behaviorist, even if the closest one is a long way away. Usually they will help with telephone follow-ups after a visit and this keeps the number of trips to a minimum.

For things like nail trims you can opt to take a slower approach to them, trimming one nail or two nails at a time until she is more used to the trimming and then gradually increasing the number of nails. In some instances, especially if this is the only time a dog is aggressive, it makes sense just to skip this activity and to let your vet trim the nails, using sedation or anesthesia, if necessary. We have several patients whose are only aggressive during nail trims, anal sac expression or some other "minor" procedure and are otherwise OK.

Mike Richards, DVM 3/5/2001

Sudden biting in Deaf dog

Question: Dear Dr. Mike,

My neighbour adopted a stray American Eskimo from a shelter about seven months ago. She's about three years old, now spayed, and totally deaf, with a chronic infection in one ear. The shelter didn't know she was deaf. She's housebroken and not destructive, but doesn't know any hand signs, so communicating with her is difficult.

Most of the time she acts like a normal happy affectionate young dog who just can't hear. But once in a while she snaps or bites. Usually the biting is sudden, with a curl of the lip but not much growling or warning. She has bitten technicians at the vet, members of her own family, and visitors to the house. So far, no children, and nothing that needed medical attention. But it seems to be happening more often.

We can't always figure out what triggered the biting. Sometimes it seems to be fear, at the vet for example. Or when someone reaches over her head from the back and she doesn't know they are there. But other times, she can be lying peacefully being petted by one person, and when another person approaches to pet her, she snaps at the second person. Sometimes she snaps at the person doing the petting. She fights with other dogs over food.

Is there anything that can be done? Right now, it looks like ten or twelve years of being very careful and constantly warning all who approach to keep their distance.

In your experience, can a deaf dog past puppyhood be successfully trained to read hand signs and behave in a trustworthy manner? Do you think she's skittish and unreliable because she's deaf, or is she more likely an untrained dog who has figured out that she can control people?

Our vet says that if she can't be muzzled she should be put down. She'll accept a muzzle at home for a minute, but not in the car or in the vet's waiting room.

Is this a losing battle, or do you think there's any hope for smoothing out the potentially dangerous rough spots in this otherwise delightful dog?

Answer: Ferne- Sudden biting behaviors do scare me the most when dealing with the potential problems of a biting dog. Predictable biting can often be avoided just by learning to avoid the triggering stimuli for it. This may seem like a cop out but it generally works. Unpredictable biting is dangerous and I do tend to agree with your veterinarian that it is a situation in which euthanasia is an option to consider.

I have seen several of my patients develop the tendency to snap suddenly when startled as they became deaf or blind in old age. I think that this occurs in dogs that have a fearful personality but react to fear with aggression. They are easier to sneak up on, even unintentionally, so it is possible to startle them, causing sudden fear and the reaction of aggression or snapping.

It is possible, in many instances, with extreme dedication, to provide behavioral and/or medical therapy that helps control the aggression. However, it is a big responsibility, it involves careful attention to detail and it is not a sure thing. If your neighbor is very dedicated to this dog and wishes to pursue treatment it really is best to work with a board certified veterinary behaviorist, even if it takes a lot of effort to find one. If this is not possible, a certified animal behaviorist or veterinarian with a strong interest in behavior would be good second choices. A third choice is to utilize the Tufts University behavioral web site service in which they assist with behavioral problems online. The only other option that I can think of is to purchase a good behavioral text, such as Karen Overall's book on clinical behavioral medicine and work with it and your vet to try to find a solution.

I do know of people who have taught hand signals to older dogs and I think that is possible, to help with part of the problem. It does take some patience but can usually be accomplished.

The biting behavior when other dogs approach and she is being petted, and the tendency to bite while being petted, both imply that there may be a dominance behavior component to the aggression, as well. It is not too uncommon for dogs to have aggressive tendencies due to more than one personality trait, since the aggression is a tool that they have learned to use. Just like people, who often apply the same behaviors to all the tasks they are faced with, dogs that learn one technique for dealing with life will often try to apply it to multiple situations. Dealing with dominance aggression is also a lifelong project but it seems to be more controllable than fear based aggression in many instances.

The basic question for most people, at the beginning of the process of dealing with aggression, is how committed they are to the process. If everyone in the family is not going to be able to help with the behavioral modification or if the fear of being bitten weakens the commitment to the process of dealing the aggressive tendencies, then it may be best to consider euthanasia. This is particularly true if there is significant risk of a child being exposed to a biting situation, because children have more risk of a serious injury.

I know this isn't a clear cut answer. It is a difficult situation and I am not a behaviorist. I do know that dealing with this situation is going to take a lifelong commitment to the process (the dog's life span) and the first step is deciding if that is going to be something that your neighbor can handle.

I do hope this helps some.

Mike Richards, DVM 1/9/2001

Biting behavior in young pug

Question: Dr. Mike,

Thank you for your response to my question about pugs and anesthesia. I talked to my vet yesterday too, and he assured me that neutering was the best way to go and that they take every precaution.

I'm writing with another question; a behavior question. My six month old pug is a terrible biter. Most of the time, he's a love, but suddenly he goes into what I like to call his "Rosemary's baby" phase. Again last night he began attacking my arm, growling and biting. When I say "No" or "Off", he just gets madder. We have tried Bitter Apple, pulling him down by the scruff of his neck, holding our finger in his mouth and saying no, putting him down and leaving the room and closing the door, giving him a time out in his kennel...all, it seems, to no avail. He does play with our older dog who treats him like she's his mother. When they get going, they do get pretty rough, even though the big dog is A LOT bigger. He just hangs in there and keeps going. Should we separate them? They both seem to enjoy it a great deal, so I hesitate to do that, but I think maybe that's where he's getting his rough behavior from. We've never played roughly with him, and we always try to play catch with his toys. Any ideas?

Thanks for this excellent service. I appreciate your information.

Lynn and Freddy Pig

Answer: Lynn-

While I am definitely not a behavioral expert, I don't think that separating the puppy from the older dog will help with the biting behavior directed at people and that a decrease in exercise and activity might actually make that situation worse.

When you are dealing with an aggressive pet it really is best, when possible to seek the advice of a veterinary behaviorist, especially when biting behaviors are occurring already. If this is not possible in your area, Tufts University has an online (or fax) behavioral site that offers behavioral counseling. ( )

It is usually pretty difficult to identify the underlying cause of aggressive behaviors in puppies, except very fearful ones. Aggression can be the result of dominance behavior, which can occur in young puppies, or it can be due to inappropriate play, territorial aggression, fear or possessive behavior, which is often seen as growling or biting when people approach the puppy's food or a toy.

It has been our experience that it is pretty hard to punish a dog and cure aggressive behavior. Most of the time it is necessary to figure out a long term plan for dealing with the behavior and then stick to it, as long as it is helping. When a puppy is aggressive because it wants something, it is important to make the puppy do something to earn the desired object or action. Most puppies can be taught to sit and then made to sit prior to being fed, prior to being let out the door, before being petted -- really before anything the puppy desires to happen. This reinforces to the puppy that the person is the dominant member of the family and it is a relatively easy way to do that. If there is some fear or anxiety in the behavior, using a relaxation program can be helpful (your vet can find directions for these in "Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals" by Karen Overall or some information in several other texts. If anxiety is part of the behavior that is one of the times when using medications can be very helpful in controlling inappropriate behavior. Anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications (amitriptyline (Elavil Rx) or fluoxetine (Prozac Rx)) can be helpful. The important thing to remember is that any behavioral modification program has to be very consistently applied, so it will take cooperation among all family members and everyone must understand what is expected, and believe in the approach, before it will work well.

We have not tried to use a halter type collar on a very short nosed breed, as far as I can remember, but they work well with rottweilers, some of whom have pretty short noses, so it seems possible that they would work with a pug. These types of collars do give a way to control biting behavior quickly and work by allowing more control of the dog's head, which is helpful in lessening dominance behaviors in many dogs. The "Gentle Leader" collar is one example of this type of collar. Your vet can order this collar and may be able to show you how to apply it and provide some advice on its use, as well.

Dr. Overall's book is helpful and has a number of pages of specific protocols that your vet can copy and give to you. If your vet has this book you may want to ask for copies of the protocols for relaxation and for helping control aggression. If your vet doesn't have this book it still wouldn't hurt to ask about it -- maybe he or she would be willing to buy it. (ISBN 0-8016-6820-4)

Mike Richards, DVM 10/12/2000

Biting Dog

Q: We adopted a young dog that was abused by its former owner. The dog became very aggressive & bit the former owner. We have had him about a year and he's still very jumpy and will attack if he thinks he's going to be punished. He has bitten my husband. We love him very much and he seems to love us. The aggression is somewhat unpredictable- Is our only option to put him down? The vet has assured us that the behavior is due to abuse and not a medical or genetic type problem. Would Prozac work for this type of aggression? I have heard that you can use it for dogs.

A: Prozac may prove to be beneficial in some cases of aggression due to seritonin sparing effects BUT you really need to consider finding a specialist trained in behavioral therapy with this sort of problem. A certified animal behaviorist or board certified veterinary behaviorist would be the best choice. Please ask your vet to help you find someone who can help you. You may be able to find a list of behaviorists certified by the Animal Behavior Society at your library.

Mike Richards, DVM


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...