Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression to Family Members

Why does my dog growl or snap at me and my family members?

Animals communicate using body language and actions, rather than words. Subtle signals like looking away, leaning away, moving away, turning to the side, a direct stare, freezing in place, stiff body posture, a stiff or tucked tail, sniffing in the absence of strong odors, shaking off when not wet, and panting when not hot all have important meanings in the language of a dog – but often humans don’t see these mild signals of distress.

In some situations, a dog may resort to higher intensity behaviors, such as growling or snapping. Growling and snapping are forms of communication dogs use to respond when they are experiencing stress or internal conflict. If their signals are ignored, growling and snapping can easily progress to biting. While growling, snapping, and biting may be normal parts of dog communication, snapping and biting are particularly frightening to most people. Depending upon the severity, bites can present a serious safety risk to humans as well.

Growling, snapping, and biting are a distance-increasing behavior of dogs. Distance-increasing behaviors are the dog’s way of saying “Go Away!” or “You’re too close!” or “I’m really afraid!” or “Stop NOW!”

What are the underlying causes of aggressive behavior in dogs?

Some of the more common underlying causes of aggression toward family members include:

  • Resource-related aggression (guarding objects, foods, resting places, or preferred people)
  • Fear of handling or desire to avoid handling
  • Fear of social interaction (such as hugging)
  • Fear of specific people or events
  • Redirected aggression (reacting to something out-of-reach by lashing out at something within reach)
  • Sleep or rest disruption
  • Pain or other physical illness

Are there warning signs that predict aggression?

Learning how dogs communicate with body language is important for anyone living with dogs. All behaviors serve a purpose, and effective behaviors will continue. If a subtle cue works to stop an unpleasant situation, your dog will be able to continue using subtle cues. If a serious threat display is what it takes to stop an unpleasant situation, your dog will continue to use this strategy to restore his own safety or comfort.

Recognizing your dog’s subtle signs of stress or internal conflict is one way to detect the potential for discomfort to escalate into aggression. When a dog is stressed, they may enter a “fight or flight” response. Flight means the dog moves away. Fight means the dog acts, in an effort to move the stressor or threat away. Detecting stress before a fight or flight response is triggered helps prevent the fight response.

How can I prevent my dog’s warning signs from escalating to aggressive behavior?

If your dog shows signs of stress at home, stop the interaction. By responding to subtle signs from your dog, it may be possible to prevent your dog’s behavior from escalating to aggression because the aggressive display is not necessary. Seek professional help right away to help maintain a safe environment for everyone!

 The following steps can help minimize the risk of aggression:

  •  Recognize the body language of stress in dogs.
  •  Avoid disturbing resting or sleeping dogs.
  •  Do not allow unsupervised interaction between dogs and children
  •  Be aware of your dog’s triggers and avoid them when possible, until professional guidance is available.
  •  Respond to subtle signs of stress by stopping an interaction and asking for guidance from a professional.

What should I do if my dog is already snapping or biting at family members?

Until you can begin working with a professional, it is important to temporarily keep your dog closely managed at home. You may need to use baby gates, a leash and harness, a crate or kennel, or other means to keep your dog well-managed and safe while you work through the first steps of getting help. All snaps and bites should be considered serious and professional assistance is needed.

Start by consulting your veterinarian for a medical examination, especially if this is a new behavior or sudden change, to rule out underlying medical conditions. Any health concerns should be remedied as quickly as possible.

Until you can begin working with your veterinarian, follow these steps to keep you and your family members safe:

Do protect your dog from known triggers. For example, most dogs do not like to be hugged or grasped around the head or body. Make sure not to allow anyone to interact with your dog in ways that make them uncomfortable. Monitor your dog’s body language closely and prevent problematic interactions using good communication, leashes, gates, and kennels as needed.

Do not punish growling. Growling is a valuable early warning system before a bite. It may even give everyone an opportunity to avoid a bite. Punishing growling can result in dogs who are still in distress, but move straight to biting without a growl in the future.

Do not attempt to physically overpower your dog. If your dog is stressed and aroused enough to bite, do not engage in a physical altercation. Safely disengage as quickly as possible and put a door, gate, or other barrier between your dog and people.

Do not provoke your dog. Particularly with small dogs, it can be tempting to provoke a growl or snap. There are thousands of videos on the internet showing people intentionally provoking growling, snapping, or biting from dogs. Remember that a dog showing this level of aggression is under stress and in distress. Never intentionally provoke a threat display or response from a dog.

Do stop using punishment-based or aversive training methods. Research has shown that these methods correlate with a higher risk of owner-directed aggression. “Dominance training,” rolling or pinning a dog on its side or back until it “submits,” staring into the dog’s eyes, striking or kicking, and the use of choke, prong, and shock collars all fall into this category.

Do continue to reward desirable behaviors and interactions. Even if there is conflict between you and your dog, continue to reward all desired behaviors. Responses to known cues (sit, down, go to your bed, off the couch, come when called), sitting to greet, and resting calmly in the home should all be rewarded with something the dog likes. Actively watch for things your dog does that you wish he would do more often. Be sure to provide a high-value reward every time he does these behaviors.

How will a veterinarian treat my dog’s aggression?

Your veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist to whom they refer you, will perform a risk assessment early in the process. Some factors included in the risk assessment will be:

  • How severe is the bite? (There is a standardized numeric scale that will be used.)
  • How many bites have occurred?
  • What are the circumstances surrounding the bite? Are they predictable?
  • How frequent is the behavior?
  • How predictable and/or avoidable are the triggers?
  • How long has the behavior been occurring?
  • How large is the dog?
  • What is the family’s ability to respond to and modify the behavior with proper coaching?

After the risk assessment, the veterinarian will discuss treatment options with your family. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing, treating, or reversing aggression toward family members. In some situations, the solution can be as simple as ceasing interactions the dog finds frightening and behavior modification to improve the dog’s comfort with certain things. In other cases, there may be a serious or severe bite or bites and the situation may become rapidly unsafe for everyone involved. Your dog’s treatment may include management to prevent conflicts from occurring, behavior modification to address the underlying causes of the behavior, and possibly resources such as basket muzzle training, confinement training, and medications as appropriate.

What is the prognosis for family-directed aggression?

Many dogs can show a dramatic reduction in aggression using these treatment strategies, but these changes will not mean a “cure” of the aggression. Your dog’s aggressive behavior will always require some degree of management and maintenance. Not every family and every dog can overcome family-directed aggression and, in some cases, euthanasia is the most appropriate treatment.

Can I rehome my aggressive dog?

Placing a dog with a known history of bites directed toward humans should only be done with full disclosure, if at all. Most responsible breeders and reputable rescues or shelters will accept a dog back into their care if necessary, and this avenue should be explored rather than owners trying to rehome the dog on their own.