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Canine Behavior/Sudden Aggression



My Maltese-King Charles Spaniel has always been in good behavior as my dad is a rather strict person when comes to discipline and naturally the whole family try to adopt his method of training Zoro. Zoro is not in anyway anti-social and in fact is VERY sociable with people.He loves human and loves strangers.

The problem started few weeks after he turned 3 years old (Note: this happen yesterday as I am writing this). Me and my family with an exception of my youngest sister left for vacation. My sister text us that he peed in the kitchen despite being potty train. When my sister wanted to scold him for his behavior, he barked and for the first time, growled towards her or anyone of us or even humans in general. The only time we ever heard him growl is towards the neighbor's over friendly dog when we get them together but is not out of dominance, but fear as Zoro kept hiding away from the other dog and underneath our legs.

My sister retaliate by standing still and glare back at Zoro. From what she told us, after few seconds of glaring, Zoro seems to know his mistake and approach my sister and lick her leg. When we came back, we hear another story. My sister told us for the past three times she walked him out, he refused to return back home. Once the neighbor had to carry my dog into the house and another time my sister was so frustrated she tied Zoro's leash outside and let him stay out for a couple of minutes as punishment before returning back and allow him to enter only then he agree to enter. My sister also says he showed sign of sexual interest towards other female dogs as well when in usual, he showed no interest to any dogs at all.

I don't think we have been 100% strict with him but we have some rules. First, he is not allowed upstairs and on the couch unless we allow them occasionally. He must obey our command to enter the house or into his cage and if not, we would just toss him in anyway. If he wants to walk at night, he have to ask by scratching the door. We don't normally ask him to wait during normal meals but occasionally with special meals (can food instead of kibbles) he have to play the waiting game, perform tricks before eating, we would pull away his food during eating and he have to wait for it to return or being pat on the head while he is eating. Even when he is tired or exhausted, he still have to entertain us when he call. We take him walk about 4 times a day and because he is small in size, we - well I, would chase him around the house to burn any excess energy.

This is pretty much the basic profile of my dog. I hope it is enough to  deduce what is going on with my dog. What I would like to know is how to prevent future growling. My family recommend neuter as we believe is mostly testosterone that kicks in. Anyways, I would like to know your opinion on this matter.

Thank you in advance

ANSWER: The dog must be neutered, immediately.

The aggression you describe is fear based.  He is house trained, he was demonstrating high anxiety at the sudden "loss" of important members of his social hierarchy.

STOP ASKING THIS DOG TO EARN HIS FOOD and STOP messing with his food.  He can be asked to "sit" and "wait" (ONLY providing he has been trained with POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT, NOTHING PUNISHING) and then given the OK and LEFT ALONE TO EAT.  

Certain testosterone related behaviors may remain (especially interest in females even though spayed) but his aggression is not testosterone related, it is related to what appears to me to be an overly strict living environment.  This isn't a Rottweiler!  This is a breed mix that should never show aggression (not to say both purebred varieties don't at times, due to owner related errors).  He does not require as strict an environment as does a breed or hybrid that is designed for protection, defense, guarding, etc.  

Dogs don't have to sleep in our beds or get up on our furniture (without invitation) to be happy and well adjusted.  What they do require is fair, positive training and a bit of understanding of their culture.

I suggest you go to  This is Dr. Ian Dunbar's site (he is a prominent British veterinary behaviorist living in the US).  There you will find many FREE videos on training using only positive reinforcement as well as articles addressing all sorts of issues, including growling, snapping, etc.  A dog growls to warn: a growl from a hybrid such as this is a sign that he is "cornered" and fearful.  You're not living with Cujo here.  I think the dog needs a lot more freedom (doing "tricks" can be fun but routinely being coerced into same is hell on earth) and a lot more affection.  But first, if the dog growls, stand your ground, break eye contact, do nothing until he stops and backs away, then ask for "sit", praise, walk away, and use followup feature to report when, why, how, etc.  This dog is in trouble and he shouldn't be.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Ms Connor.

Thanks for your feedback and my family and I are probably neutering it. Anyways, I would like to say that maybe I have given you a false image of how we treat Zorro as many people would end up saying we are pampering the dog instead treating him strict, I just highlight on how we avoid getting him dominant.

Regarding the food thing, we don't normally mess with him or play the waiting game at all. We just settle it down and leave if it is kibbles, and he eat kibbles almost all the time as we were told it is the healthiest. Only once in a blue moon when he gets wet food, we were taught to provide a stricter rule and tricks are usually just handshakes, patting him or just try to mess the food a little to test if he would get aggressive over food. After every meal he would get free treats without performing tricks and treats varied to dog biscuits, dog meat sticks to frozen tomatoes. We also don't demand tricks that often and only occasionally (about once a month)to see if he remembers them. The only often trick he use is to pick up stuff when something drop, which is more of a simple job rather than a trick. He is mostly indoor but when he is outside, we would call him into the house and he have to come in or we would carry him in anyway. As for cages for certain situation, is the same thing.

The leash thing was a first time thing done by my sister as Zorro is quite heavy despite his size and my petite sister couldn't lift it in by her own. Another strict thing we do is tough love when he becomes picky over certain kibbles (especially on salmon but due to his sensitive skin, vets and groomers recommend us salmon kibbles, so we have to give him anyways), especially the healthy ones and this is after we resort to begging and feeding and failed (this is why we use the free treats after meal to prompt him to eat). But he would eventually give in when he becomes too hungry.

He have most time to himself since everyone is mostly busy with work or study and would either just sleep for an hour or two or disturb whoever or simply sit by our side. Is just that when we call him, we expect him to obey and come to our side. He was bitten by a German Shepard before so (no injuries) he doesn't like long walks and would double back after a certain distance, which is why to compensate it, we would walk him more times a day and chase him around (his favorite game)

Anyway, I am writing this not to ask any question but I just hope you don't get too bad of us for mistreating our dog. I am not sure if I write in the comment page will you be able to see this.

Anyways, thanks a lot again. Your tips are definitely useful especially on what to do when he growl again


PS: Zorro seems back to normal. He had to block the path to the kitchen though when we are not at home as he would still pee there. But other than that, he shows no sign of aggression to us or my sister since that one time.

Some problems with how this dog is being lived with in that he's getting double messages: free everything, then not so free.  Also, being cajoled to eat something he doesn't like (as your post implies) by "begging" translates to the dog that it is not actually his food, it is yours, and that if he waits it out he will eventually get something better (thereby training you).

Dominance is not a problem in this particular hybrid.  I wouldn't even consider it a word to be used in relation to this dog.  Very  very rare is "dominance aggression".  In the hundreds of cases of dog to human aggression I've seen, a mere handful were true "dominance" (or what is called rank opportunism) and always the result of owner mishandling, improper training, etc.

A dog is a dog.  It has its own culture.  It has inherited certain tendencies but everything (in Humans as well) can be pared down to 50% nature, 50% nurture (a broad interpretation, sometimes narrowed).  The dog requires: calm, consistent environment; no punishment or coercion or fear in its training or habituation to a household or situation; freedom to eat unmolested and, if the dog chooses not to eat (I know from personal experience that all this expensive "healthy" food doesn't seem to go over too well with dogs!), it will not starve, eventually it will eat, without any begging or intervention.

Something occurred between your sister and this dog that elicited a fear warning (growl).  You must determine what that was, how and when it occurred, and never, ever repeat the circumstance.  We want our dogs to succeed and we reward them when they do; we ignore them when they don't (i.e., urinating inappropriately because important family members have "disappeared"). And, as every individual in ever species is a TRUE individual, each dog has its own reactions and predilections so it is our job, as a (hopefully) intellectually "superior" species, to determine what those are and what might have happened to make things go "wrong".  Any further questions, use followup.  Let me repeat: you're not living with Cujo.  Relax.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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