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Canine Behavior/Westie puppy possible aggression problems


Hello Jody!

My wife and I recently received a 9 week old West Highland Terrier. We've had her for about a month now, and we're having some training problems. The most concerning issue is that she seems to have some problems with aggression.

A typical scenario would be that it's about 7:00 PM and she's started to attack our feet. We'll move them out of the way, tell her no, offer toys as distractions, but nothing will stop her. As we continue to try to move our feet, she gets more and more would up until she's snarling, growling, and hissing at us. When she's in one of these moods, you can't touch her without her snapping at you, even if it's just to put her leash on to go potty.

She also has issues with biting in general. We're expecting that some of it is just standard puppy behavior that she'll grow out of as she gets older and spayed, but it tends to lead to her fits of rage one way or the other.

I can tell she's a reasonably intelligent dog, since she's learning commands just fine. She's just incredibly stubborn when it comes to behavior modification.

To correct the problem, we've tried a few different strategies. First, the vet suggested that we hold her down Dog-Whisperer style to "assert our dominance". We tried this once or twice, but we're pretty sure it's a terrible idea. She responded very negatively to it, and started behaving even worse. We stopped this immediately. We tried time-out by putting her in the bathroom with the light off alone. This worked for a while, but then she started to have a good time in the bathroom and didn't care at all. We've also tried distracting her with toys, treats, and commands. Usually if I get the treats out to do commands with her, she'll behave for the duration, but go right back to biting and snarling at us when we're done. We've tried a shake can as well, but she doesn't respond to it all. Yipping like a wounded puppy when she bites hasn't helped either.

She goes on two 30-minute walks a day, which mitigates the problem somewhat. It may be unrelated, but she doesn't seem to be making any progress in her potty training either...

Do you have any suggestions for us? We're going to take her to training classes as soon as she has her second round of shots, but I think most of that is going to be commands and general training. I'm worried about her long-term mental health. She has bitten us hard enough to draw blood, and I know that it'll get her put down when she's bigger unless we do something about it.

Thanks so much for the advice, and please feel free to ask us any further questions.



Thank you for your question.

Before I even get into the issues you brought up, I want to commend you for your very good instincts. Trust them. You're absolutely right that the "dominance" approach is not an ideal way to teach any dog, let alone a puppy. And as you saw, it backfires far more often than it successfully suppresses any undesired behaivor. This is true also of the time-outs and the shaker can. The very best way to educate a dog about the best way to behave is to teach her the one or two things that you DO WANT HER TO DO, rather than trying to correct, suppress or punish the dozens of behaviors you'd rather she not do. So, KUDOS to you and your wife for quickly recognizing that the recommendation for alpha-rolls and such was the wrong approach. And further kudos for reaching out and seeking a more effective alternative that will increase your bond with your new puppy, rather than strain that budding relationship!

I'm uncertain from your question if you got this puppy when she was 5 weeks old and is now 9 weeks, or if you got her at 9 weeks and is now 13 weeks old. This is somewhat important because those weeks 5-9 are very important educational weeks that should be spent with Mom and littermates as they learn a lot about controlling the force of their bite (bite inhibition), appropriate play and social skils that will be with them for life. So, if you got her as young as 5 weeks and she's just 9 weeks now, then you are going to have to do more of the work for teaching bite inhibition and social skills that you might have had to do if she'd stayed with her family until she was a bit older.

Either way, the first thing I'd like to address is the intense interaction you describe in your scenario. " . . . it's about 7pm and she's started to attack our feet. . . "
You described the behavior as 'rage'. Rage suggests malicious intent to cause harm. It's important to try to look at this issue from the puppy's perspective - keeping in mind that a 9-week old puppy (or even 13 weeks of she's that old already) is emotionally/intellectually equivalent to a human infant of roughly 6-9 months of age. What you're describing - as intense as it may seem - doesn't sound to me like a malicious intent to cause harm. It sounds like what I refer to as "puppy frenzy." The technical term is Frenetic Activity Period (or frapping for short). All puppies go through this twice per day - within the first 2 hours of being awake and again in the evening usually between dinner and bedtime. You may also see shorter bursts a few other times during the day. The very best way to manage the puppy frenzy is to get ahead of it. You know roughly what time of day she's going to get worked up, so if you can anticipate this and direct the energy expenditure starting 5-15 minutes BEFORE her frenzy onset, you can entertain/exercise her right through that period without it turning into a battle of whether or not you lose toes tonight before bed.

When I have raised puppies, I usually direct the evening activity like this:
Dinner is fed out either as treats for training or through a food-dispensing toy such as a Tricky Treat Ball, a Kong Wobbler or a food-stuffed Kong or even an interactive puzzle toy that you must reload after she accesses the treats from all the compartments (in these cases, "treats" refers to her regular kibble).

Doing such brain acctivities as those described above is an excellent way to manage those massive bursts of energy because brain exercise is actually more tiring than physical exercise. Similar to humans - it's easy to play video games all day and then still be ready to party all night, but study calculus for an hour and you need 5 hours of nap time to recover.

After dinner is game time. I might take the puppy for a walk or I'll play Tug or Fetch or some other interactive physical exercise that focuses on a toy rather than me. When my puppies are young and still working on their bite inhibition, I'll use LONG toys (at leat 18 inches long) or large toys that I can bury my hand in to help protect my hand from sharp puppy teeth. I'll also don gloves to protect my skin in case of tooth contact despite the long/large toy.

NOTE: puppy teeth are like little razor blades. They are super sharp, but puppy jaws are generally not strong enough to puncture us or draw blood. The skin breaks with puppies usually happens because we instinctively pull our hand (or other body part) away from the puppy's mouth when we feel the sharp of the teeth. If we can think quick enough to hold still and NOT pull away from the biting puppy, you'll almost never break the skin or draw blood. It can be difficult to do, but from personal experience I know it is possible and it ends up hurting a lot less when I just hold still and respond as described below.

During games of Tug you are not only burning energy, but also teaching the puppy about the rules of the game and important social skills. The rules for tug are simple:
1. Let her win at least 50% of the time  - this keeps her interested in engaging with you.

2. If you feel teeth - even incidental contact that doesn't hurt - drop the toy and be irritated. I usually say, "Ow. I don't play like that." and fold my arms up. I might even walk away for 20 seconds and then return and start the game again as if nothing happened. Dogs don't hold grudges, so you don't want to continue the scolding. Simply acknowledging that it hurt and ending the game for a long enough time to make it clear that you've stopped playing, but not so long that she gets distracted and forgets that she was playing with you (20 seconds is good), is the best way to teach her to pay attention to where her teeth are in relation to your hands while playing Tug.

3. Build training/impulse control into the game. I play Tug and sometimes I let the dog win by dropping the toy but staying fully engaged. I look at the dog, talk to the dog and say things like, "Oh no! I dropped the toy. Whatever will I do now???" in a silly voice. I may even trot away from the dog to encourage the dog to chase me with the toy in her mouth - this teaches her to come to me even with good things in her mouth. At other times, I'll tell the dog to Drop It (after teaching that skill separately), then ask for a Sit (eventually the dog will learn the rules and will sit automatically). I teach the dog to WAIT while I put the toy on the floor, ask for a Focus (look me in the eye - skill taught separately), then tell the dog to Get It and Bring It. See video below:

In the video I don't demonstrate the part where I let the dog win as I was trying to demo the obedience skills I build into the game. But it's still a useful example of how to really allow the dog to "go nuts" and also practice impulse control and settling behavior and practice those basic obedience skills during a game  - using the game itself as reward for complying with the commands rather than food.

Fetch is another great game you can use to burn physical energy that is focused on a toy rather than you. Also, you can utilize a flirt pole to direct that chase/catch/kill behavior. A flirt pole is a long pole with a toy tied to the end. I made mine by getting a horse whip from a local feed store and then used twine to securely tie a stuffing-free toy to the end. I like the horse whip because it's flexible. Here's a video of my older dog playing with it - it's his very favorite game. And just like Tug, you can build in obedience skills/impulse control into the game - allowing her to blow some of that energy while also learning to regain her composure.

You can offer lower key activity that is more brain exercise - such as nose work games (note: this would be a way to give dinner, not in addition to dinner). This is a great way to provide breakfast or dinner as well. Here are 3 videos that demonstrate how to teach the dog to play the game and how you can increase the difficulty as the dog becomes skilled at the game.

Also, here's a video that demonstrates how to teach a puppy to engage with a Kong toy to build persistence to get the food out.

And an example of how to stuff a Kong for those who are a bit more advanced

I have always found that yelping only gets the dog riled up even more. I've found the most effective method for me has been to be thoroughly offended by the dog's behavior. I try to not rip my hand (or foot or whatever) away from the dog so as to avoid breaking my skin. But while holding still, I say in my most irritated/offended voice, "Owww!!!!!" and then as soon as I can get my hand free, I disengage completely from the dog. I pull my hands to my chest and turn my attention away (usually I look up at the ceiling or turn my back). After about 20 seconds, I'll engage the dog again in a calmer/quieter energy and with a toy or other activity that will distract from me as the target of choice. If the dog bites again, I just repeat the process. Taking precautions to protect myself with gloves and long sleeves (or socks and long pants) if necessary, but with consistency the puppy will learn fairly quickly that the fun ends of their teeth touch you.

It's necessary that every single person who engages with the puppy follows this rule. If anyone allows her to bite and the game continues, then she will continue to try biting during the game. Even incidental contact that doesn't actually hurt must end the game so thaat she learns the connection that her teeth making contact with you ends the game.

The key here, though, is that you don't actually want to teach her to NEVER put her teeth on you. Instead what you want to do is teach her HOW to put her teeth on you. To that end, the flip side of the above rule during the game is during quiet time. When I'm cuddling a quiet puppy, I'll present my hand. If she's very gentle, I will thank her and tell her that I like that behavior. If she begins to bite harder, or if her bite lingers (not becaues she's falling asleep, but because she's testing how much she can bite), I will simply respond as during a game, but at a lower volume and energy as I don't want to rile her up, but I do need to make clear that very gentle is acceptable and anything more than very gentle is not acceptable. Pay attention. If she is falling asleep, she may begin to linger as if your hand were a pacifier. This is not something to correct, I'd simply remove my hand from her mouth at that point.

Once she's clearly doing really well during a game, you can begin to test her a bit by making your hand available during games. If she avoids it - GREAT!!!! If  it's just incidental contact, or even full contact, but she's clearly inhibiting the force of her bite, that is most definitely praise-worthy. But don't start to test her until you are 99% certain that she'll pass the test. If she bites too hard during one of these tests, just respond as described above and don't test her again until you feel more confident that she'll pass the test.

At just 9 (or is it 13?) weeks old, she's only just learning to recognize that the sensation she feels "down there" means something is going to come out of her. At this stage, potty training is entirely about the humans having her in the right place at the right time so she has many more successes than failures, and to minimze the potential for failures by supervising closerly and confining her when you cannot supervise her with all of your attention.

Ian Dunbar (world renowned veterinary behaviorist and founder of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers - APDT) has a great book called After You Get Your Puppy , it will walk you through error-proof potty training, as well as what to do with the biting behavior. I think it may even have some advice for the frenzy behavior ways you might manage it.

In the end, my best words for you are this: Your puppy isn't doing any abnormal behaviors. In fact, everything that has you concerned is entirely normal puppy behavior. Now is the time to teach her the habits, manners and skills that you want her to have for her whole life. Make sure any training classes you take are force-free and do not use aversive techniques or equipment (avoid any class in which they recommend or insist you use a choke chain or prong/pinch collar or electronic/shock/vibration collar). Stick with classes that encourage body harness and reward-based training (rewards can be food, toys, games, affection - anything that your puppy loves).

Finally, I think puppies are as cute as they are precisely because they are as much of a challenge as they are. If they weren't also cute, we wouldn't keep them around. And if you can surivive puppy hood with your girl, you are guaranteed a bond and a relationship that will so surpass any of these challenges that you'll forget they were even challenging! :-)

Good luck! Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.

Los Angeles Behviorist  

Canine Behavior

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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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