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Canine Behavior/Aggression when being told off



I have a two year old Bernese Mountain dog who becomes aggressive when he is told off. I recently told him off by telling him 'no' firmly and giving him a tap on his shoulder. Instantly, he starts growling and baring his teeth. Whenever i tell him to stop it, he just becomes worse with his growling and snaps the air in warning. With him being such a large dog, his behaviour can become scary.
He is a fearful dog anyway and is scared of most things. When he is told off, he also cowers and runs away. No one has every hurt him so i don't understand his behaviour. How can i deal with this without making the situation worse?

ANSWER: Thank you for your question. To respond to this properly, I'm going to come across as a bit blunt. Please understand that there's no judgment as it's not possible to know this information until you become educated. But it's best if I don't try to dance around the issue while trying to help you better understand.

So, here goes...

When your dog does something you'd rather he didn't, you need to remember that if he truly understood that it was "wrong" he wouldn't do it. Dogs don't have any more desire to get in trouble than we do. When you "tell him off" verbally and especially when you include a physical reprimand (tap on his shoulder), from his perspective, you are being quite suddenly very aggressive towards him. You are essentially assaulting him (as he sees it), and it's likely happening without good cause because he had not just confronted you in some way.

So, his response to growl and air snap are totally normal, and quite exceptional communication on his part. Growling, barking, snarling, air snaps are all good communication. They are what we call distance-increasing signals and they're designed to tell the recipient (in this case, you) to back up and get out of his personal space. They're designed to avoid conflict by saying "back off. I don't want to fight you, but I will if I have to."

So when you scold him and he growls and then you physically move closer and touch him while continuing to scold him, you are ignoring his initial warning/request (growl) which causes him to escalate to a clearer communication (air snap).

That he hasn't sunk his teeth into you speaks volumes. He has no real interest in causing you harm. He just wants some space and for you to relieve the social pressure you're putting on him. Also, he has excellent bite inhibition - the ability to control when and how hard he bites. So please keep that in mind. Your dog is communicating with you as clearly as possible. Now it's up to you to listen to him.

You also indicate that he's fearful - the he cowers and runs away and is scare of most things. This means that your scolding - even a firm "no" is emotionally equivalent to beating him up. Any negative attention is magnified in the eyes of the fearful individual. This means that you must work that much harder to moderate your tone of voice, volume, eye contact, etc. to help him feel safe and secure.

He's a big dog and he could cause serious harm if pushed far enough. All animals (humans included) have one of three instinctive responses to fear: Fight, FLight or FReeze. If the individual's first choice response fails to keep them safe, they will switch in a flash to an alternate response. In your dog's case, his instinct if FLIGHT (cower and run to hide). But if pushed too far, or cornered, if he feels trapped, he will then lash out, turning to FIGHT in an effort to get his need for a feeling of safety met.

He should never feel so threatened that he has to switch tactics and that falls to you, his caregiver, to ensure that nothing in his life is ever so threatening to him that he feels he must fight for his life.

You didn't indicate what he did that resulted in you feeling a need to 'tell him off.' So I don't know what we might have done instead. But if you'd like to reply with a couple examples of behaviors he's doing that upset you, I can guide you to help reduce that behavior and how better to respond if the behavior does occur so that you can help him learn an alternative behavior that you find more acceptable.

Generally, the only time there's every a reason to physically reprimand a dog at all is if that dog is in the process of mauling someone or something. Short of that, there's never a need to poke, hit, kick, yank on a collar, shove to the ground, etc, etc. I don't suggest that you've done most of these things, but since this is a public forum, I address it here for others who may be reading this response. Redirecting undesired behavior is all we need to do. It may require us to be somewhat clever in order to figure out how to successfully redirect the dog to a preferred behavior/activity. But if we find we're using scolding or physical reprimand that tells us we're simply not being clever enough and we should think a bit more on how we can achieve the results we'd like.

In your case, I want to warn you that continuing as you are right now will almost certainly lead to a larger, more direct response from your dog as he's telling you as clearly as he knows how that he's scared and to please give him space. If you continue to not listen to him, then he'll escalate in his efforts to help himself feel safer again.

As I said at the start, there is no judgment in any of my comments. I didn't always know this stuff and until you learn it, you can't possibly know it. Please use the followup button in this response to provide me a couple examples of behaviors that you typically scold and I'll help you find a way to adjust the conversation such that you get your needs met while helping your dog continue to feel safe.

Some reading that may prove very helpful to you:

On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals , Turid Rugaas. I recommend this book to every client I have.

The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer their Fears , Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.

Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Aggression and Frustration in Dogs , Grisha Stewart.

The second two books will walk you through some protocols to help your dog begin to overcome some of his fears. As you help him overcome his fears, you'll bolster his confidence. And with increased confidence you'll find that his threshold for 'scary stuff' such as being scolded will increase - though that's not a license to scold him...

We can teach him a cue that is meant to interrupt a behavior that he doesn't find frightening, but that does communicate to him that he should do something else. In my house I have a couple phrases that I use that tell me dogs I don't like a choice they've made (or are about to make). I will tell them "Try again" or sometimes with my younger one, I tell him "make a different choice." In both cases, I say it as if I'm talking to a child/toddler. It's not mean or threatening, it's merely a suggestion. The key is that as soon as they do change their behavior, you have to praise the heck out of them.

example: My little one was on the couch, begging from my father. I told him, "Make a different choice." He looked at me for a moment and then moved to the ottoman. I told him, "Yeaaaa!!!! You are such a good boy! What a good choice that was!!!!" and then gave him a toy or started a game with him. This was the first time I'd ever used that phrase and so it was important to let him know that he'd done something right. And since that one time, he will do something else every time I say that phrase. I don't care what he does, so long as it's not what he was just doing. He can lie down, get a chew toy, get a tug toy, play with his "brother" take himself outside, etc. Whatever he desires, so long as it's not whatever he was doing when I told him, "Make a different choice." You can choose to be more specific and tell your dog what to do such as "get a toy" or "Quiet time" so long as you're very clear with him exactly what you mean by such a phrase. But the first order of business will be to help him feel less frightened of the world around him.

I look forward to your reply with examples of problem behaviors so that I can guide you in how best to redirect him and/or avoid those behavior issues to begin with.

Los Angeles Behaviorist

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

QUESTION: Thank you, that was very interesting to read.
He's rarely told off and for something minor, he's just ignored for a while which is always enough. The incident i mentioned happened recently. He had gone over the wall, over a road and into a field that we do not own. Thankfully as we live in the countryside, the road isn't always busy but there are often cars driving too fast and it's a blind bend so if he was on the road, they may not see him.
I fear that if i had ignored him, he would just go and do it again, putting himself at more risk. He didn't know he had done wrong until i had told him 'no'.

I wrote a whole response to your followup question, but apparently I failed to submit it properly. Ugh.

OK, take 2...

Thank you for the followup and explanation of the situation where you felt compelled to reprimand your dog. I completely understand your emotional reaction when he crossed a road with a blind curve. I can actually relate to that situation. My two boys have a routine and are extremely consistent when we return from an outing by car. I let the larger dog out and tell him "go INSIDE" in a cheery voice and he runs to the front door and waits while I get the little one out. I set the little one down and tell him the same thing and he trots to the front door and waits. Occasionally my larger dog will wait by the back of the car for the little on and they trot to the door together. The older one (6 years) has been great at this skill for more than 4 years. The younger one (2) has been excellent with it for at least 1 year.

A few weeks ago, we returned from an outing and I did my part - let the larger dog out, told him "Inside", put the little on on the ground and told him as well. I got my stuff out of the car, closed the door and turned around to see both dogs trotting down the driveway! That's the opposite direction of where they were supposed to go and something that neither has ever done before. I set my stuff down, took both their leashes and the treat pouch that was still attached to my waist. I got to the street and called - no response. I got to the corner (we live on a cul-de-sac and the cross street has a blind curve approaching our road) and called again - no response. I looked around and finally saw they were across the street (the cross street with the blind curve!) at a neighbor's house. I walked across the street and while staying about 5-8 feet away from them, I called the nearer to me, "Hagrid, Whatcha doing? Come." I said this in a cheery voice. He looked at me. I showed him that he could earn some string cheese and as he began to walk toward me, I backed up 4 or 5 steps to make him have to move toward me even more. Once he was near me, I asked for a Sit, attached his leash and then gave him a bite of string cheese. By this time, the other dog, Chewie, noticed there was training happening and came over to join in. I asked him for a Sit, leashed him and then gave him a bite of string cheese for cooperating. As we walked home, I talked to them in a cheery voice saying things like, "I see you felt a need for an adventure. Well, that was just silly. Let's go home and get some ice cubes" (they like ice cubes).

Note, I was very put out inside. I was stunned and almost offended that they did this at all as it was so out of character, and they could have been hurt or killed if a car was coming! But, they were fine and the more important lesson for them is not that Mama gets mad when they go on adventures, but rather that Mama makes it worthwhile to cooperate when she asks. So yes, I did use a bit of a lure because I didn't want to start a game of chase. But I made them earn it before I handed it over.

When we work on recalls (COME!), the single most important lesson you are teaching your dog is that coming close to you is the very best thing each and every time. You have to be the most exciting and rewarding thing in the environment. This means you have to be more exciting/rewarding than the bush they're sniffing, or the hole in the ground or the squirrel they see at a distance. The best way to do this is to be happy and cheery every time they come, and to make it like winning the lottery. We do that by cheering for him as he heads in your direction, praising the heck out of him, giving pets and scritches (if he likes that) and having a "treat party". A treat party is handing, dropping and/or tossing treats for at least 10-20 seconds. You can hand or drop treats one at a time in quick succession. You can toss or scatter treats on the ground so he has to use his nose to find them all - all the while telling him what a wonderful dog he is and how proud you are that he came when you called.

I tell clients all the time, if your dog is killing the neighbor's cat and covered in blood and you call him to you and he comes running (with or without the cat) - cheer him on and make it like winning the lottery! He responded and complied under a very distracting and highly aroused state. That's a major accomplishment on your part! You can deal with the cat later, but for that moment, it's praise and treat party all the way!

So, my lesson with my dogs that day was that I needed to work more on recalls in my immediate neighborhood. We rarely walk right here. I take them where they can be leash free. And they do fantastic recalls from more than 100 feet away on those walks. But down the street from my house, they have no practice. So that's my failure. And the result is that the 40-foot lead goes on and we practice recalls on my street, around the corner on that cross street, and traffic permitting, I even set them up on the opposite side of the street and practice across-the-street recalls. I also include practicing STAY across the street so if I have to tell them to stay put for traffic from across the street they can comply and not charge in front of a car at just the wrong moment.

In your case, I would recommend a couple of things.

First - MANAGEMENT . I would implement a rule that he's never in the yard unattended so that someone is there to redirect him away from the wall if he looks like he's thinking about jumping over again. Even better would be to either extend the height of the wall so it's too tall, or perhaps install some Coyote Rollers. This is a product that is essentially poles on spinners that attach to the top of walls and fences. They spin with even a light touch and so the dog can't make purchase and thus can't jump over.

If you're crafty, you can probably make something equivalent by picking up some metal pipe and some PVC pipe (3 times the diameter of the metal pipe)and brackets and use that to create a topper that doesn't allow for your dog to make purchase on the top of the wall.

Second - TRAINING . I'd get a long lead (40-50 foot) and practice recalls (COME!). It should be like winning the lottery every time he gets to you. When you say, "Fido, COME!" in a happy voice, as he starts to move in your direction, cheer him on. And walk backward several steps as he's running toward you. Moving away from him will increase his drive to catch up. Once he's reached you, big happy praise. Tell him he's a rock star and the most awesome dog you've ever known! While you're doing that, pet him (if he likes pets during high energy activity) and have a treat party as described above.

Start by practicing in your yard. Then out on the road on the side where your house is. Then practice across the street. Even if that field is privately owned, use it! Speak to the owner if you can and explain the situation. Assure them that you'll pick up any droppings your dog makes and they won't even know he's been in there. Practice in the field a LOT. In fact, the more you practice in that field, the less exciting the field will be because he's used to it. And, the more you're practicing, the more activity - both physical and mental - he's getting and so when he's home he'll be more tired and less bored and thus less inclined to escape looking for something fun to do.

If you can find someone to help you, set yourself up on your side of the road and have your dog and a helper on the other side. The helper should be positioned behind your dog and far enough away that he feels he's 'off leash.' The leash should be loose and slack. But, close enough to the end that if he lunges toward the road, he'll be stopped at least a full foot before he ever steps into the road (safety first!). Then practice STAY while you're across the street from him. And practice recalls (COME!) from across the street (traffic permitting) so that you can condition him to respond should he ever get in that situation again.

Good luck. Please let me know if there's anything else I can help you with, or update me when you've had a chance to practice or create a managed environment.

Los Angeles Behaviorist  

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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