You are here:

Canine Behavior/Dog biting family members


QUESTION: We adopted a 10 month old lab  2 moths ago. The rescue organization told us she had been slated to be euthanized at a previous shelter because she was 'mouthy' and therefor was categorized as being un-adoptable. Over all she spent at least 5 months in shelter. The rescue assured us she had no aggression issues, she was just a play biter, but she was only with them for 2 weeks. So, we took her home. She does tend to nip and bite when playing, but we keep her focused on the toys and her play biting has lessened.
The problem is, her over all biting has increased! When we walk her on leash she sometimes stops, starts growling at me, then jumps up and starts punching me with her paws and biting my hands and arms! Some times she even takes a snap at my face! He bites are hard, but have not broke the skin, I have bruises from her paws and nails.
At home she also has moments where she will growl and pounce attack and bite me. She is in obedience classes, and during classes she has moments where she will launch at me with snarls and bites. The class instructor comes over and sprays her in the face with vinegar water, or gives her a sharp leash correction. This stops the behavior for a few minutes. The instructors have told me to put a prong collar on her, and that she needs to learn respect.
I was told to pop her in her crate at home when she does this, but when I try she does a fast play bow at me, and then takes off running! Then when I do catch her she bites and nips my hands and arms like crazy while I try to get her to put her into her crate.
I am not sure what to do, the trainer at the obedience class thinks I need to be more heavy handed with her, but that doesn't seem to be working, and may even be making it worse. I am not sure she is biting out of frustration aggression, play, or if she is just crazy. Often it seems to come out of no where, but sometimes might be because she wants to play, and I am busy, or because I want her to do something and she has passed the limit of her ability to concentrate. But like I said, sometimes just no obvious reason.
On advice from the vet she has getting a great deal of exercise right from day one. She is hiked on leash in the woods for 2 hours in the morning, some play during the day, and an hour long leashed neighborhood walk in the evening. Everyday, rain or shine.
We need to get this behavior under control, but I have no idea what to do.
Please help :(

ANSWER: This dog is demonstrating some sort of fear aggression on leash.  GET OUT OF THAT OBEDIENCE CLASS RIGHT NOW.  "Correction" and pronged collar?  This stuff was left in the dust ten years ago.  Spray with vinegar?  That was left in the dust fifteen years ago.  NO MORE OBEDIENCE CLASSES.

Your dog is clear and present danger and it won't get better by itself, nor can I fix it in a text box since I would have to SEE and assess this dog and spend at least one full hour with you and other family members, observing and questioning you.

As much as I hate to say this, I see your options as only two:

1.  Return the dog; next time you want a dog, be sure it is with a bona fide rescue organization and has been in a foster home for at least two months, and interview the dog carefully to assess its temperament and behavior:

2.  Find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) in your area by calling the veterinary school in that area or from the following sites (NO DOG TRAINERS, NO MAKE BELIEVE BEHAVIORISTS, ONLY THOSE WITH EDUCATIONAL CREDENTIALS AND SERIOUS REFERENCES):

Is the dog capable of rehabilitation?  Yes.  This leash aggression and your "trainer's" inappropriate response has now generalized to indoor, off leash "nipping, scratching".  The dog offers a play bow and runs AND THEN YOU CHASE HER, thereby rewarding it.  Will it take time and a lot of work?  Yes.  Will it cost Money????  Oh yes.

It's your choice.  I hate to consign a young dog that has had (most likely) no socialization, improper and outdated training, and is in the hands of a normal dog owner who wants a normal dog, to death by surrender (or, to be passed on to someone else).  But this is not "Lassie" and it never will be.  I know you have the "Heart", now do you have the "wallet"?  God bless you, I wish you well.  If you choose a CAAB, use followup feature to update me on progress.  Never go near that "obedience trainer" again.

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

QUESTION: Sadly I do not have the money to invest in this dog, and if I did there are no options to get her to a behaviorist. The nearest one is over 4 hours from me. The rescue sent us home with this dog because the first dog they let us have was aggressive towards my teenage son. The rescue was so full we could not bring the first dog back without taking a dog home with us to free up a kennel.
Canada it seems is the wild west of animal trainers, anyone can hang out a sign and call themselves a trainer. The place she was going was considered the 'premier' training school in my town, with rave reviews. It did not become apparent they were not a positive reinforcement program until we started classes.
As bad as this dog is with us, she is a total sweetheart to my son, and seems to also respond well when she meets strangers. So I guess we are going to have to try and go it alone.
If there are any online resources or books you could recommend that would be helpful.

OK let's work on this dog.  Learn all about "bite inhibition:

This dog may not be actively aggressive, it may be confused, highly anxious, poorly socialized, badly trained, bad "past life" experience, fear of leash from inappropriate "correction" or the snare pole used to catch dogs at at large.   STOP over exercising: I don't know who this Vet is but I can tell you a young dog of this breed type may have hidden orthopedic issues and over exercising might be causing pain (and this would result in on leash aggression to some extent).

Further work on bite inhibition involves teaching a dog to "take it, leave it":

You describe the dog as randomly growling at you in your home.  I can't see anything from here but first rule of thumb: if you can identify what YOU are DOING when the dog starts to growl (should there be a specific circumstance)  STOP.  Second rule:  dog growls, stand your ground, to not go forward, break eye contact, wait for dog to stop, ask for "sit" (trained with positive reinforcement only), praise immediately, pop tiny treat in dog's mouth, stand your ground until dog calmly walks away.  DO NOT react to the growl by backing up.

Is your dog "crazy"....there are many biological causes for high anxiety and hyperactivity.  Unfortunately with no veterinary history, we don't know if this dog contracted Distemper or even Parvo at a young (neonate) age.  Both of those are survivable (in a small percentage of dogs) and both leave neurological damage.  We are going to have to move forward on the assumption that the dog is highly confused by mixed signals and reacting to some conditioned response acquired before she came into your home.  Tips on how to manage a difficult dog:

Next:  while you are studying above and putting it into practice, I want you to purchase Dr. Ian Dunbar's video seminar on positive reinforcement training:

I want you to also post a sign somewhere that says:

This means: you reward what you WANT, you ignore or (punish, which means social rejection for a few minutes) what you do NOT want.  Keep the goal in mind at all times.

It might be necessary for you to walk this dog using a head collar.  IF THIS APPEARS to be the case, repost and I will teach you how to teach the dog to respond to the head collar.  It should never be used to lead the dog by the nose, but rather as a secondary restraint with light leash attached along with (and I suggest you purchase one) a strong martingale collar (NO CHOKER COLLARS)

Because this dog, AS YOU REPORT, offers a "play bow" often when appearing nippy, growling, etc., she just might have all her signals mixed from having not been able to learn from litter mates or dam.  I would not, therefor, put her on the full Nothing In Life Is Free program UNLESS the growling is accompanied by raised hackles, ears fully forward and tail up and over, or ears pinned back and tail between legs.  DO NOT FEAR THE DOG.  She will *know* this spontaneously.  Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF) is explained below:

::::::::::::::::::::::::::: start source, Debra Horwitz, DVM :::::::::::::::::::

Changing the Owner-Pet Relationship
Debra Horwitz, DVM, Diplomate ACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations
St. Louis, Missouri
When an owner is having problems with their pet, there are both owner driven factors and pet driven factors that are contributory. Some animals with problem behaviors are normal but have learned that certain behaviors are tolerated and beneficial for them. Other animals may be abnormal and respond to owner interaction in a different manner than expected1. In some situations the owner is interacting with the pet in an inappropriate manner that although unintended may prolong, worsen, or facilitate the problem behavior. The pet on the other hand, is often unaware of what the owner considers proper behavior and therefore is choosing behaviors that it feels are the most appropriate responses. What commonly occurs is miscommunication between the owner and their pet. The owner is using a human form of communication, reasoning and language, something most pets do not understand in the same manner as intended by their owners. The pet however, is communicating in the manner most appropriate for its species, and therefore often misunderstood by the human. The first step in behavior therapy is changing the pet-owner relationship and creating clear rules and expectations. This must be done in a manner that is understood by the pet. The goal of changing how owners and their pets communicate is to create an environment where it is easier for the owner to control the pet and thus elicit good behavior. This step is most useful in treating behavior problems in companion dogs.
The Theory
The theory involved in changing the pet owner relationship is that cross species communication often results in misunderstandings and thus problem behaviors. Therefore, clearer communication is needed. Owners frequently misunderstand a dog's expectations in social communication and group living. Communication is a behavior that has a goal and a function. Communication is an action that takes place between a sender and a receiver. 2 For communication to be functional, the receiver must understand the message. The information that is transferred between sender and receiver can have 4 possible outcomes: 1.) benefit the sender and receiver, 2.) benefit the sender and manipulate the receiver, 3.) disadvantage the sender and benefit the receiver (eavesdropping), 4.) disadvantage the sender and the receiver (spite).2 Although owners often feel that the fourth option spite is taking place, most likely what is occurring is a miscommunication between species. Without clear communication problems can arise. The goal is to give the pet clear signals of what is expected so that behavior can begin to change and conform to owner's expectations. By bundling a series of learning and control tasks together, the owner can create an environment for clearer communication.
When owners seek help with their problem dog, the problem may be labeled a "dominance" or leadership problem, which can be a simplification of the issue. Practitioners of applied animal behavior interpret dominance hierarchies, ranking and how they interact in the human-dog relationship many different ways and may use varying criteria to define dominance 3, 4, 5. The concept of dominant and subordinate relationships between animals was developed from observation of animals (wolves, baboons, chickens) living in social groups. 6 Social hierarchies arranged around dominant and subordinate relationships decrease the conflict associated with the allocation of critical resources, i.e. food, shelter, mates and territory7. When living in social groups, canids will establish dominance hierarchies that may dictate access to certain resources such as food, resting places, favored possessions, territory and mates but may or may not involve aggression 8. These social relationships can be extended to the human members of the household9. However, a case could be made that dominance behavior may occur without aggression and instead be about control of the outcome. In domestic canid groupings, overt aggression is rare and deference common8. Owners often inadvertently reinforce a dominant outcome for the dog by deferring to the dog's demands. This sets the dog up as the one in charge, and each interaction that ends with deference to the dog reinforces that assumption. So perhaps the issue is not always one of "dominance" as much as one of control. The animal has learned that certain behaviors result in certain outcomes, which are favorable to the dog. In addition, often a behavior occurs because it can, in other words, the owners do not prevent the dog from engaging in a certain behavior and that in and of itself can be reinforcing. Some dogs that control their environment may do so because it is important to them to be in control. Others may control because they can but yet are anxious about the outcome. Changing the pet-owner relationship focuses on "control" of the dog, which often prohibits the dog from engaging in behaviors that "control" the environment and thus the owner. This alone can have an effect on the expression of problem behaviors.
The Program
None of the elements in this program are new. They have been used before and discussed many places in the applied animal behavior literature. The goal of this program is to place them together and counsel the owner on how and why changing the pet-owner relationship is beneficial to them and their pet. Initially, the owner is educated about canid social structure. Second, the owner is told how dogs communicate and what dominance and subordinance mean to dogs. Third, how animals learn is briefly explained to the owner. Finally, owners are told of how increasing their control over their dog is a positive action that can make their dog more relaxed and compliant in the long term.
The first step is a program that requires the dog to comply with an owner command to obtain anything the dog wants. This has been called numerous things since its inception. ("Nothing in life is free" by Dr. Victoria Voith10 and "No such thing as a free lunch" and "Learn to earn" by William E. Campbell11) In essence, the dog is required to follow an owner command, such as "sit" to obtain anything that the dog wants. This could be access to the outdoors to eliminate, food, petting, a ball the list is endless. The goal is for the dog to "earn" everything they desire by deferring to the owner. Deference is accomplished when the dog follows the command to sit or down. If the dog performs the command prior to being asked, it must do something else. This is critical. Unless the owner gives a command and then the dog complies, the dog is still controlling the situation and deference has not occurred. The goal is for the owner to have control. Although many owners have been told that they should control their dog, usually they are counseled to use physical control methods. While an owner can have control by trying to physically control a dog this can be difficult and potentially dangerous. Instead, in this program the owner uses their ability to physically control the environment and the resources to control the dog. By using benign control of resources and deference for access, the owners place themselves in a "dominant" position. It is not necessary for the owner to physically control the dog, merely to control access to things the dog wants. If the dog will not obey the command, the resource is withheld. In essence the dog is offered a choice-do you want the resource enough to comply or not. For some dogs the answer is yes, for others the answer may be no. Once the dog has learned to comply, if they defer by waiting quietly, the resource may be given.
The second step is control of attention. Many dogs with problem behaviors engage in numerous attention seeking behaviors. These include nudging the owner, pushing, leaning, barking, whining, pacing, scratching the owner, bringing toys and climbing on the owners lap to get attention. The attention can even be "negative" attention such as pushing the dog away or yelling at it; the desired response is an interaction. Some dogs use attention seeking behavior to control the owner, while other may have underlying anxieties which stimulate them to constantly seek information about their environment and social status12. In either case, the owners are told that they must ignore all attention seeking behaviors. If the dog approaches them for attention, they must ignore the dog. If the dog persists, then they must leave the room. Again, their response is to be benign. They are not to allow the dog to engage them in any interaction. However, this is not a prescription for ignoring the dog. They can give the dog attention, but with certain rules.
 They are only to give attention to the dog on their initiative.
 The attention should be given when the dog is calm and quiet.
 The goal is to reward calm, quiet, good behavior with positive owner-pet interaction.
They can call the dog over, request that the dog sit or lie down and then pet the dog. However, it is also critical that they end the interaction and send the dog away. If the problem is aggression, the type and amount of interaction are structured and detailed for the owner. This program of controlling attention has been used in other treatment plans for various behavior problems. 13, 14, 15 These rules also extend to how they are to play with their pet. The owner is instructed to only play with the pet when they initiate the playtime and end the game when they are done. The owner is encouraged to play games such as fetch, or engage in a walk with the dog if they can control the pace of the walk.
Finally, the dog is taught to sit/stay or down/stay on a verbal command. Eventually the dog should be able to sit while the owner leaves the room, returns and releases the dog. Once the dog can do this well, the owner is to introduce a verbal phrase to signal relaxation such as "chill", "relax" or "easy". Again the goal is to teach the dog to take contextual cues from the owner. When given the "chill" command, the dog is to be watching the owner with a calm, relaxed facial expression and body posture. If the owner tells the dog to "chill" the dog learns that this means to focus on my owner and wait for the next command. To facilitate learning this task, food rewards are used. This task is useful as a basis for counterconditioning, which is often used in behavior modification programs for other problem behaviors.7, 16, 17, 18 This program has also been called "Protocol for relaxation: behavior modification tier 1" by Karen Overall. 19
The techniques described have been combined various ways in treatment protocols for separation anxiety, dominance aggression, fear aggression and compulsive behaviors7, 12,13,14.
Potential problems and pitfalls
This plan is not without its problems. Many owners have difficulty ignoring the attention seeking behaviors. What they like about their pet is the persistence and the perceived "need" the pet has for them. These owners are unaware of how their actions are reinforcing behaviors that they do not like or may be contributing to the problem behavior. It is imperative that the concept of control be explained to the owner and how their behavior can change the problem behavior exhibited by their pet. In addition, it is important that the owner not feel as though they are neglecting their pet. Therefore, they must be given guidelines for appropriate interactions. This can include a list of appropriate games, walks, and number of times that they can call the dog and pet it. Each case will be different and have different needs to encourage compliance. If aggression is the major problem then the owners must also be given instructions for safety around their pet and avoidance of further injury.
Another problem area can occur 10-14 days into the program. Many animals will initially respond well to the new rules for interaction. However, once they realize that the rules have changed, some dogs will increase their efforts to get the owner to interact in the old manner. This usually results in the dog engaging in attention seeking behaviors at even a higher level than previously exhibited. This is an extinction burst. If owners are warned about this phenomenon, they are prepared and ready to continue the program and wait out the pet. Many dogs will then return to compliant behavior if the owner persists with the plan.
This is not meant to be a stand alone treatment plan for any and all behavior problems. Neither does it replace the need for complete behavioral histories and diagnosis of behavior problems. Nearly all dog owners are given this plan as an adjunct to a more complete behavior modification program designed to treat their specific problem(s). In each case this plan can act as a framework for beginning to change problem behaviors. Each environment and problem will be different and require modifications to this plan as well as a more in-depth behavioral treatment plan. However, what often is surprising is that many dogs improve greatly as judged by owner reports with only these three steps. What this plan seems to accomplish is to allow owners to change the way they interact with their pet with easy to follow and understand steps. Once owners see that they have the ability to control their pet, and in many cases still have a satisfying relationship, they are often empowered to continue to shape behaviors in more positive directions.
Changing the pet-owner interaction is the first step in behavior therapy. It allows owners to be in control of their pet and its behavior in a benign way. When done correctly it empowers the owner to change their pet's behavior. This will often encourage them to go further and work on specific problems. When explained correctly owners gain a better understanding of canine communication and learning and can use this information in all their interactions with their pet.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: end source :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

This is A LOT of material and will take immediate attention, crash course on your part and all adults in your household.  Everyone must be "with the program".  The dog can never be allowed to become overexcited.  PUT A HOUSE TAB ON HER (lightweight leash) only when you are at home.  If dog becomes overexcited, pick up tab, begin to circle left, circle right, figure eight, sing a little song, stop, ask for "sit", praise, drop tab.  If dog really gets out of control and begins jumping up, using teeth, pick up tab, put dog immediately behind closed door, count to ten, open door and walk away.  IGNORE unwanted solicitation of attention by redirecting (circling changes brain waves and engages cognition) or isolating (for ten to thirty seconds, no more).  REFUSE to interact with dog unless she "works" first (NILIF).

This is a lot to manage and it will take several weeks.  Start NOW.  Use NILIF today.  Buy house tab tomorrow and Martingale collar with very strong, heavy (horse tack) leather leash so she cannot bite through it.  Soak the leather leash (a foot from connector to collar) in Red Hot Sauce overnight so it is absorbed into the leather.  This will immediately stop the dog from attempting to chew on the leash or "go up" the leash at you.

If the aggression worsens, use followup immediately.  My thoughts are: you are not properly equipped (who would be, other than those who handle difficult dogs) for this; the dog has had a questionable background; the rescue facility is a wash (you NEVER force ANYONE to take another dog if they surrender one: in fact, you deny them another dog!)  So far, her "obedience" training is punishing, non-rewarding in any way, and may have affected her trust in you (not to mention other "handlers" -- people on the street with dogs or approaching people -- due to the number of other dogs in class, their owners and the "trainer").  Therefor, it will take time and patience but I think there is hope for the dog.  IF THE DOG ever approaches with a serious aggression position (as described above), or IF THE DOG ever draws blood (deliberately) notify me immediately.  With a good CAAB, she would turn around in a couple of months.  Whether or not you can succeed is up to you.  If you cannot, then the ultimate decision must be made.

Canine Behavior

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


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.

©2017 All rights reserved.