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Threatening and Aggressive Behavior Towards Family Members

Before assuming this is a behavior problem, have your dog examined by your veterinarian. Anything that is making your dog uncomfortable or irritable, such as an abscessed tooth or ear infection, can lower his threshold for threats and aggression. So can certain medications and other medical problems.

One common reason dogs are threatening and aggressive to people in the family, especially children, is because they are afraid. Dogs who’ve been fine with babies often develop problems when the child begins to crawl and invade your dog’s personal space.

You may notice your dog trying to avoid your child when possible. Problems arise when you dog can’t do this, for whatever reason, and threatens or bites your child so your child will leave him alone.

Dogs can also be afraid of adults in the family, often when they are know they are going to be “disciplined”. Many bites have happened when owners grab for their dog’s collar, confront the dog after he’s taken something from the trash, or try to drag the dog over to show him a “mess” made earlier.

Do not believe the popular media and television trainers that your dog’s behavior is all about “dominance”. There are dogs that will challenge their owners for possession of space, toys, or food. These dogs may be displaying elements of “dominance” aggression. However, many of these problems are mis-categorized as dominance related when they are actually the result of fear. Learning to carefully read your dog’s body language using our DVD described below will help you understand the difference.

Most dogs (there are notable exceptions) don’t want to injure people, but want to warn them to go away or stop what they are doing. Aggression – biting and other behaviors that harm – is different from threatening behaviors – growling, lunging, snapping without injury, etc.

Some dogs who snap, growl, and show other threatening behaviors never bite. Others do. You should assume your dog will, and seek help before this happens.

Your immediate goal is to keep people in your family, especially children, safe from your dog. Until you get help, avoid situations in which your dog is likely to bite. Don’t rationalize this problem as your dog having a bad day, or perhaps he was startled.

If your dog is displaying aggression toward your child, you should take an objective look at the relationship your child has with your dog. Dogs are not designed to be children’s personal play toys and tolerate anything the child wants to do to them. Riding the dog like a horse, trying to hug or kiss the dog when the dog clearly isn’t comfortable with these interactions, will likely result in a bite. Your dog needs a safe place to get away from your children when he wants to.

Your dog is more dangerous if he is inconsistent in his behavior. For example, sometimes he may allow family members to take toys away and sometimes he won’t. Just because he is “OK” one time, do NOT allow this to lull you into a false sense of security that he’s “over” his problem. He is not. If he’s growled or snapped even once, unless you take steps to change his behavior, he will do it again.

We do not recommend confrontational techniques such as leash and collar corrections, alpha rolls and scruff shakes. Your dog will not learn to be tolerant of family members using these procedures, and they put you at great risk of being bitten.

Threats and aggression are serious problems. You will likely need to seek additional professional help in addition to what you find here at Helping Fido. Be sure and read our Guidelines for Finding a Dog Trainer or Behavior Consultant. Private “obedience” lessons will not help this problem. Your dog may sit, lie down and come when called quite readily and still growl at people or try to bite them.


First, it will help you if you understand canine aggressive behavior from a scientific viewpoint. Start by reading our Collection of Articles on Canine Aggression. This CD contains over 30 articles we’ve written about many aspects of aggressive behavior. The more you know about aggression, the better equipped you are to implement behavior modification techniques to change it.

To understand more about social relationships between dogs and people and why your Fido’s threatening or aggressive behavior is unlikely to be due to “dominance”, listen to Dr. Hetts’ interview with Dr. John Wright on “Roles, Rules, and Relationships”. Dr. Wright’s dissertation research was on social roles in dogs and he is a well respected researcher and educator in the field of applied animal behavior.

To effectively work with and manage your dog’s threatening and aggressive behavior, you must be well versed in canine communication signals. There is no better way to learn how to ‘read’ your dog and be better able to recognize aroused and anxious behavior signs that precede a bite or snap than our Canine Body Postures DVD. Used in many professional training programs.

If the problem involves your dog and your child, we recommend Ms. Pia Silvani’s and Ms. Lynn Eckhardt’s book Raising Kids and Dogs Together"

If you know the specific situations in which your dog is likely to growl or snap, you should try a Calming Cap™. Essentially a comfortable hood that filters your dog’s vision, it will help your Fido be less reactive to those situations in which he responds aggressively, and will make it much easier for you to manage his behavior as well as have a better “starting point” for behavior modification. The Calming Cap™ can be worn under a muzzle.

Your biggest responsibility is to prevent your dog from hurting someone. If necessary, muzzle your Fido if he must be in a situation where he might bite. We recommend wire basket muzzles from NEVER leave a dog alone while muzzled.

Animal Behavior Associates - Helping Fido
4994 S. Independence Way
Littleton, CO 80123

Phone: 303-932-9095
Fax: 303-932-2298