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Canine Behavior/Toy Poodle (1yo) Aggressively Bites


QUESTION: My female toy poodle, Vicky, of age 1yr 6months, has recently become very violent and aggressive. This behaviour, however, only occurs when we are trying to put doggy clothes on her, or if she's chewing something she's not supposed to and we're trying to take it away from her. The moment we try to take it away, she will growl very angrily and if our hands come close to her, she will bite, not in the nibbling way, but in a i-want-to-kill-you kinda bite. She once bit my brother until his fingers were bleeding. It is very heartbreaking because when she was younger, she would never do that to us.

When she was younger, she was also always alright in wearing doggy clothes and never bit us. When she first started showing signs of this, after turning 1years old, I have scolded and hit her with a doggy stick (the soft kind). And with every bite and aggressive behaviour from her, I would scold and hit her. Am I instilling more fear in her? How did she turn so aggressive, how can I go about training her to not feel frightened? How can I show her that we mean no harm? We love her very much, please help me.

ANSWER: ok, question.  You borrowed my favorite sweater.  I had in the past turned a blind eye to this sort of borrowing but that is MY favorite sweater, so I walk over to you, yell in your face, and hit you several times with my tennis racket.

Is this rational behavior, in your mind?  Am I being unfair?  Am I now trustworthy or do you think I'm a tad "off" and don't know when I might go "off" again?

This is what you have done.

You.  Not your dog.

STOP HITTING THIS DOG AND STOP YELLING AT HER.  You have now effectively destroyed ALL trust in her Humans and you have totally confused her, forcing her into defensive behavior (I wager she DID growl at first, NO dog goes straight to biting).  You certainly DO "mean her harm", you've proven that.  Your dog is now actively aggressive and has learned how to control you.  She is also enormously insecure, this is fear aggression.

If she is not spayed, HAVE HER SPAYED.  Do an estrogen titer first to be certain she is not close to an estrus cycle.

"She's chewing something she's not supposed to...."  She has NO IDEA what she is "supposed" to chew, she just knows that suddenly, for no reason (in her mind and in the dog culture), her Humans become very angry, maybe even chase her, and then scream at her and hit her.  How would you feel if (following the first paragraph) I began to hit you and scream at you whenever you walked past MY closet?  Your behavior is just as puzzling to a dog and she is in big trouble in your home.

First: why are things she is not "supposed to chew" lying around the house?  Pick up your laundry and put it where it belongs; don't leave expensive items lying around (cell phones, remote control devices, etc.)  This is a Toy Poodle, she can't jump up onto counters!  

Now:  please answer the following:
1.  What is she "stealing" and "chewing" that she "should not" be?
2.  Do you chase her to catch and chastise her
3.  After she bites, what DOES SHE DO (retreat, hide under tables, run away, etc.)
4.  What sort of REAL training have you done with this dog (that doesn't involve hitting and yelling)
5.  How many people has she actually bitten and under what circumstances
6.  Describe the bites: are they scratches, are there actual puncture wounds, has anyone needed to see the Doctor yet?

Until you have answered these, LEAVE THE DOG ALONE.  If she gets "something" she's not "supposed" to have, blame yourself for leaving it in her reach.  There is NO reason she has to wear "doggy clothing".  I don't think you have real winter in Malaysia (I could be wrong).  The dog is exhibiting FEAR because, in order to "dress" her, you have to catch, hold, contain, and she does not trust you.  FORGET the doggy clothing for now.

Use followup feature to answer the questions.  The dog's behavior WILL WORSEN and become potentially quite dangerous (a dog this size CAN sever an artery) if not treated and the treatment is not terribly complicated.

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

QUESTION: I had wanted to take her to be spayed, but the doctor told me to wait a little while more while she's older. I understand that yelling and hitting her is not encouraged and will not do it anymore. I thought by doing so, she would know that she has done something wrong. To answer your questions:

1. She tends to pick up leaves that have fallen from the plants in my house. From your answer, I now know that this isn't her fault and it is our own fault. Instead of scolding her, how can I tell her that it's not okay to bite the leaves?
2. yes, we do occasionally chase her around the house, but in a fun, exercising kind of way, not chase her and scolding her.
3. After she shows signs of aggression, she would just stay there motionless but with her back arched and you can tell that her whole body is stiff and tense.
4. I have potty trained her, and all the basic commands of sit, down, stay, go back to her bed, have her bring her ball/pillow to me.
5. She has only ever bitten my brother's finger. It only always happens when she senses something she doesn't like, i.e: getting yelled at or putting on clothes :( I think I see the problem. It's us. How do we rectify her trust issues with us now? I will stop putting clothes on her and stop yelling or hitting her. Is there anything else that I can do to control and lessen her aggression towards us?
6. Her bite can be a puncture wound if we don't react fast enough. Her worst bite has been to my brother's finger which ended up in a small puncture wound that led to bleeding. No doctor visit was required.

Please advise me on what should I do from now on. I will stop yelling and hitting my poor Vicky, now I know what she's feeling. Thank you so much!!

First: some house plants are deadly to pets.  PUT THE PLANTS WHERE SHE CANNOT REACH THEM and where their leaves do NOT fall onto the floor.  It's that easy.  She has "learned" that grabbing leaves gets your attention; unfortunately, your "chase" game (NEVER AGAIN "play" this "game") has taught her that she can outrun you....and if you're chasing her when she has a leaf, she has learned that you are ANGRY and she will be hurt if she is caught.  What's more important: the plants or the dog?

Second:  Chase (when a dog can outrun you) gives the dog a signal that she is high in social hierarchy; on the other hand, she is being treated as an omega: lowest in social hierarchy, when she is yelled at, hit, etc.  This is a very confused and terrified little dog.

Third:  If you did not use POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINING to teach this dog to "sit", "down", "stay", etc.  you must re-train using NEW WORDS.  You will find instructions on Dr. Ian Dunbar's site,  There you will also find an enormous amount of information on aggression, fear, etc. and how to correct it.

Fourth: USING ONLY positive reinforcement training, be sure your dog "sits" on cue (command) ten out of ten times (use high value food reward: string cheese bits, for example).  Once she does this, put her on Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF).  For one solid month, every single person in your household will ask the dog to "sit" before petting her, taking her in/out, feeding her, playing with her (NO violent games), etc.  This is a modified version of NILIF intended to do two things: restore her sense of security and trust with and in you; calm down your family members and make them THINK before interacting with the dog.  At the end of one month, use followup feature to report back.

Fifth:  FIND ANOTHER VETERINARIAN.  Your dog may have gone through a first estrus cycle (although the toy breeds often do not until they are 16 months or older).  She can be allowed one estrus cycle, it will help her to calm emotionally (progesterone) but she MUST THEN BE SPAYED: six weeks after onset of estrus.  She needs a titer (blood level test) for estrogen BEFORE being spayed.  If her estrogen is high, she may be approaching estrus and must be allowed to go through it.  Your veterinarian is, well, let me not print the word.

OK.  No more baby clothes; no more chasing; no more yelling; NO MORE HITTING; no more "games" that get her very excited.  If she has something she should not, distract her.  Purchase a stuffed animal with a squeaky in it; walk around with it, hug it, give it to her briefly with a "take it", praise, then say "give it".  Tug slightly, laughing and singing a little song.  If she refuses to "give it", WALK AWAY and do not interact with her until she has dropped it; pick it up, put it away.  This "take it/give it" game teaches her that surrender of an item can be fun and rewarding.  Should she get something she should not have, take out the stuffy, squeak it, have a little party with it, she will come to you for a chance at that squeaky.  Don't forget:  "sit" before all interaction, one month.

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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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