You know you own a snippy dog when certain circumstances turn him into a grouchy snapping device. While in today's society any expression of aggressive behavior in dogs is hardly tolerated, in the doggie world it's just a normal way to communicate. Reduce your dog's snapping behavior by first acknowledging what really grinds his gears.
Stop by the Vet
Before assuming Scruffy is snappy because of a behavioral problem, stop by your vet. Some painful conditions may lower a dog's threshold for aggression, causing your pooch to be more on edge than he would normally be. For instance, the pain from hip dysplasia may cause an aggressive dog to worsen or a dog who has never been aggressive to show the first signs of aggression. Also consider that sometimes aggressive behaviors may be triggered by systemic disorders, such as hypothyroidism.
Not a Dominance Issue
With a clean bill of health, you may next wonder what's at the root of your dog's snapping behavior. Don't worry, your dog's threatening display is most likely not triggered by a need to rule the roost and take charge of your home and possessions. Contrary to what many people think, true dominance aggression is very rare, according to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Most likely, what looks like dominant behavior is actually triggered by fear or anxiety.
Identifying what triggers your dog's snipping behavior will help you take better control of the behavior. Is your dog snapping when he's grabbed by the collar, getting his nails trimmed, being cornered by a child or when people are looming over to pat him on the head? Most likely Scruffy is snapping to simply tell people to back off because he's not comfortable. In behavior terms, he's giving distance-increasing signals.
Watch the Body Language
Of course, it would be nice if Scruffy could give a vocal warning before turning into a Tasmanian devil. Watch for pre-bite signs of trouble, such as a stiffened body, direct stare, yawning, lip licking and showing the whites of the eyes. In some dogs these signs can be very subtle and easily missed. While reading your dog's body language is helpful so you can remove him from a potentially bad situation, not putting him in that situation in the first place works even better.
Correcting is Not the Answer
If Scruffy is snapping at people, you may feel tempted to correct him by tapping his mouth with a rolled newspaper, shaking his scruff or even using shock collars. However, attempting to punish a snippy dog not only won't solve the problem, but may actually make the behavior worse. Your dog's air snapping may therefore turn into actual biting. To prevent a vicious cycle of escalating aggression, consult with a dog behavior professional who uses positive, force-free methods.
Tackling the underlying cause of the snapping behavior through desensitization and counterconditioning can help. For instance, if your dog snaps when grabbed by the collar, with the aid of a professional, you would gradually and systematically desensitize him to accept slight collar touches while giving high-value treats. After several repetitions, your dog should learn that every time his collar is touched great things happen, so he may no longer feel like snapping defensively, but may actually look forward to it.
- Animal Behavior Network: Dogs Who Have Bitten Humans
- Live Science: Sudden Aggression in Dogs Often a Sign of Pain
- UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine: The Truth about Aggression and Dominance in Dogs
- Thinking Outside the Cage: Grouchy Canines: Dogs Who Growl or Snap
- Responsible Dog: Canine Communication
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.