Back to all articles

JoAnne’s Workshop: Puppy Anger Issues

JoAnne’s Workshop: Puppy Anger Issues

As I was about to begin my article, I made the mistake of reading Elizabeth Barrett’s article about picking an agility puppy in the August issue. In reading this amazing article on raising a litter of puppies, and what she goes through as a breeder, I know without reservation, that any puppy anger issues I was about to write about, will never come from her litters.

In fact, any of the amazing Doberman breeders that are conscious about breeding and raising an outstanding litter will not have the issues I will be describing. Reading this article made it very difficult for me to focus on the naughty little puppies that I so frequently see in my puppy classes.

Most puppy issues come from poorly selected parents, and from poorly raised puppies. That doesn’t mean none of these well bred and socialized puppies will have any issues, but chances are greatly diminished when you do your research on getting a puppy. However, my article is going to take you through what I do with puppies that do have issues, minor or major, and perhaps some of you have friends that have had anger issues with puppies.

As an instructor, I have had many puppies come through my puppy class that should never have been placed with an inexperienced owner. Some of these puppies should not have been placed at all. That is what I deal with every week.

I frequently get calls about puppies that are biting, jumping, chewing, chasing other pets, having accidents in the house, stealing socks or shoes and running with them, and a variety of other “issues” that are not issues at all, but people expecting a puppy to be an adult and know the “house rules” as soon as they get home. I have people that come to puppy class wanting their puppies to act like adults. So when a person calls me to say they have a puppy that is biting, the first question I ask is, “Is your puppy playing, or is he biting aggressively.” Of course, most of them say “aggressively”. In 99% of the cases, the puppy is just being a puppy. Puppy teeth are sharp, and while we try to curb puppy biting behavior, it is usually not aggression.

Dealing with puppy biting is simple. But this article is not about that, it is about the puppy that does have issues. It is about the puppy that turns from playful into attacking children or owners. It is about the puppy that as you try to put a collar on him, or put his leash on, he rolls on the floor screaming biting and not allowing you to touch him when he doesn’t want to be touched.

So how do we tell if the puppy is showing signs of play biting or real biting? Many pet owners have no clue how to tell the difference. And sometimes, because there is little difference, they are not able to see or read the puppy’s intention, and allow that little edge of aggression to creep through, which can cause mega issues as an adult. So how do I determine?

Just a puppy fact: As a puppy gets overtired, he will act out a lot more than normal, just as your young children get a bit more hyper active when they get tired, and start doing things they usually wouldn’t do. If that is the case, put them to bed. They need their sleep, and we do too!

However, I do not put the active puppy in a “time out” in his crate if he is chasing the other pets, chewing on furniture, or jumping on me and biting me, even if in play. This does not teach the puppy the desired behavior that we want; it serves to only frustrate the active puppy. If you must have your moment of stress free life, putting the puppy in his crate or ex pen can give you those moments that you need, however it does not teach the puppy to control this behavior.

What do I do with the puppy that during play, decides he wants to escalate into an aggressive tantrum? What about the puppy that lunges aggressively towards a treat? I am not talking about the over anxious puppy that wants the treat, but the truly snarky puppy that when you try to keep him from biting you while taking the treat, he escalates, literally baring his teeth at you and giving that extra lunge forward, demanding he gets that treat NOW.

I have said in other articles that I teach the puppies to do a “hold still” while I am handling them. If you are not familiar with this, I simply hold the puppy, and while having my hand in his collar, I loosely place my hand over his muzzle, telling him to “hold still.” If he squirms, I give a very gentle tug on his collar with a verbal “uh-uh” and repeat. The hand in the collar is soft, and strokes the puppy, but if he moves his face, the hand in the collar is the tug. I never hold onto the puppy’s face to prevent his moving. At a tenth of a second compliance, I say “yes” and reward the puppy. They learn in mere seconds what I want.

This simple technique is where most puppies reveal their inner devil side. I remain calm and gentle, but a dominant or aggressive dog will learn almost instantly that I am playing the dominant role. While a mild or passive puppy will immediately allow me to hold his collar with my hand placed loosely over his muzzle, and use the collar (not the mouth) to encourage him to “hold still”, the puppy that has issues will fight the small amount of discipline and control that I am exerting over him. What I do is gentle, and kind, but puts a puppy into a decision making mode, and a puppy that has issues will totally give me “Cujo” moments. Even a puppy with a really great temperament can give me a rebellious side, but will usually give in quickly, especially when the treats come.

So what do I do with the “Cujo” puppy? I stay as calm as I can, and just hold the collar, allowing the puppy to fight and come to the decision that calm is good. As soon as the puppy calms, I tell him “good” and I go to pet his face, gently, never aggressively. If he allows this, I give him the “yes” marker and reward him.

Through this whole process, I never let go of the puppy’s collar. I start from this session on, letting the puppy know that the collar can be a kind comforter, or a correction, but the puppy does not get to tell me that I am not allowed to hold his collar.

Some puppies I run into are so quick and so violent that I must put both of my hands on their collars to avoid being bit. I position them under the chin, and my hands together on the collar, so it is pretty much keeping me from getting bit. Again, I let the puppy fight his own battle, while I stay calm. I do not show aggression back, or I will be in real trouble. I do not holler or yank or do much of anything but hold the collar. When the puppy calms down, I continue. I then pet and carry on where we left off.

This session is quick and fun for a soft dog and it is quite intensive for an aggressive puppy. Failure to go through this process can allow a dog to win, follow through on his aggression, and for his life dictate to the owners what he allows and doesn’t allow. Some people simply want to give in, and let go, as they feel that they are upsetting their puppy. They are! But let’s wait until they have a baby that crawls on the dog and upsets him. What happens then?

Recently, I had a man come in with a puppy that did what I just described, and he has young children. This was a very feisty puppy, a lab mix, but lots of mix, very little lab. I was a bit worried about him deciding to keep this puppy. As I took hold of this puppy’s collar, he threw a massive temper tantrum. I did not let go. I am talking about simply having my hand in his collar. If you let go when the puppy thrashes his body onto the ground, then the puppy learns how to win this argument.

This man followed through with his puppy, and did exactly what I told him. The following week, the dog allowed me to take his collar, and he totally calmed. Eureka! The dog continued to be a little snappy, but a kind but firm collar grab totally turned the dog into soft. He is currently in my advanced class with a dog that is absolutely amazing. I am really hoping he chooses to show this dog in obedience. It was a beautiful success story.

On the other hand, what about the unsuccessful puppy? I cannot fix all dogs. As for the puppy, or type of puppy I just mentioned, after the initial struggle, most puppies will usually come right back for a treat. This also tells me a lot about the puppy. A puppy that is stressed may refuse a treat initially, but will resume taking treats as soon as he discovers there is no real threat, and it is a simple task that is asked of him. The puppy that does not recoil, and will not accept a treat is a puppy that may have a more severe issue.

Please note, that this “struggle” is not how I would work with a shy dog that is terrified of others touching him. This is about determining what will work with a puppy that is showing signs of dominance, and aggression at an early age. My “touch and hold still” task works easily on a puppy that has no issues. If the puppy has issues, and a tendency towards an aggression issue, this is what I push to begin working with the dog.

Recently a very nice man with a young daughter “rescued” a puppy that he told me was a German Shepherd, Lab mix. He said the puppy was around 5 months old, so as I assumed he would be a relatively larger dog, I asked him to join my beginner’s class rather than the puppy class. He came in with a small dog that looked like a miniature Akita. The dog wouldn’t walk on a leash. I felt we could work with this puppy more in puppy class, so we switched him.

The puppy was very aggressive. I could see it before he even showed signs, by his refusal to acknowledge his owner or daughter, lying on the ground refusing to go to them while they happily offered treats and toys. (This was with me holding the puppy a few feet away from them. ) As I went to pet the puppy, his expression told me he didn’t like it at all. He turned to snap at me attempting to bite. He was 5 months, but small, so I was able to take his collar and hold on so he couldn’t bite. When he finally subsided from his temper tantrum, and I did let go, I offered him a treat, and he tucked his tail and gave me a really nasty look as he attempted to move away. This was not fear in any form. It was easy to read that this dog had severe issues. I was truly worried about this family, being first time dog owners.

This followed with the stories about the dog attacking them at home, something that sometimes I attribute to puppy play, but this was not the case with this dog. They walked the dog on a flexi-lead and when the dog reached the end, he would literally turn and charge them in attack mode. They were both scared of the dog. The dog would lunge at them without cause, and they had to put a gate up so the dog didn’t charge the daughter when he was eating. The father and I together deemed that this dog (due to contract) must be returned to the shelter.

I currently have a German Shepherd puppy that is showing signs of aggression. The owner told me that she knew the father was very aggressive. OY! “Why did you get this puppy then?” … “My friends talked me into him.” The puppy showed the signs of escalating when we did the collar hold, and he shrieked and carried on, as I sat quietly just holding his collar. I thought she would leave crying, as I told her that her puppy’s aggression was serious, and she did have a problem. The puppy also lunged with teeth bared to latch onto a treat, and if I turned my hand so the puppy didn’t get the treat when he lunged, he held back, bared his teeth, growled and lunged harder with those sharp puppy teeth. This puppy is 9 weeks old!

Instead of crying, she smiled at me and said she was so glad she found me, as she had no idea what to do with him, and he has been going after her aggressively at home. One week later, this puppy was a different puppy. I was simply in shock. This young girl did her homework, and the puppy came in wagging his tail, taking treats gently, not lunging at them. I let the puppy play in class for a while before seeing what she had actually accomplished with this puppy. As we sat on a bench with puppy between us, she did the collar hold, with the “hold still” and the puppy stopped all motion, and actually got excited for the treat. I then tried, and as I slipped a finger into the puppy’s collar, he stopped moving, looking at me with expression waiting for his treat. It was a Eureka moment. This young girl listened, and is on the road to helping this puppy.

She informed me that her family had to previously put down a dog for being aggressive, and she was not going to let this dog become that way. I did tell her that through her life, this dog will have to be managed as he will be her dog and her family’s dog, but she has a great beginning.

I have one more story for you. This is about a 5½ month old Pitt puppy that the Vet and two other trainers told the owner to put the dog down, she was nasty. She was crying when she called me, and I told her to bring the dog in. As she walked around the corner, this Pitt puppy hung back, body low to the ground, growling with fur up on her back. I took one look at her and said, “Your dog is terrified.” This is NOT a case where I would hold the dog’s collar. It is easy for people who cannot read dogs well to confuse aggression with fear. With this dog, I just stood and talked to her owner until she came and started to sniff me. I let her be for almost ½ hour. I allowed her to come into puppy class because she was so frightened, and adult beginner class wouldn’t be the best fit. This little girl became confident, and totally friendly. The people had an awesome dog for her life. They did call me after she passed away at over 10, telling me what an awesome dog friendly, people friendly dog she was, and thanked me for giving her that life. Not every dog that appears aggressive is.

What I am talking to you about in this article is for very young puppies that show real aggression. This is for young puppies only, not for the older, larger aggressive dog. I do the “hold still” for all my puppies, and the intensity is not in what I do, but in how the puppy reacts. I am gentle with my hands, not abusive in any way, and puppies learn to figure this out really quick.

As an after note, there was a young puppy in class that was injured at home, and needed stitches on his face. The owner told me that my “hold still” allowed the Vet and techs to hold the puppy and stitch him without having to put the puppy under anesthetic. She showed them how we did the “hold still” and the puppy responded, and remained calm through the whole process.

I hope this article helps some who have issues with aggression in puppies. Good Luck to everyone at Dobe Nationals, and I look forward to seeing everyone there.

Joanne Brettschneider