Recognizing and Dealing with an Aggressive Puppy

So, you finally got that puppy you always wanted, but he growls and doesn’t like others touching his food or toys. This is quite a common puppy behavior called conflict aggression. Your doggy is trying to guard his things because he thinks he needs to. Miscommunication with a young canine can allow conflict aggression to continue, and addressing it incorrectly can only worsen the situation.


What is conflict aggression and how do I recognize it?

Conflict aggression is very common in puppies and adolescent dogs. It is more predominant in male dogs. The dog is possessive over food and toys because he is afraid they are going to be taken away. You might find it hard to understand why the dog becomes aggressive at these times yet seems submissive at others, such as when socializing with other dogs.

To determine if your pup displays conflict aggression, observe his behavior carefully. Watch him when someone or something encroaches on his possessions. He will snarl and growl immediately. Look at his body language. Are his ears and tail down when he reacts?


Why does conflict aggression occur?

Conflict aggression can come from an instinctive reaction to fear or the need for control. It is usually triggered by an event early in the puppy’s life (such as being pushed out of the way near the food bowl). Once the puppy learns that snarling and growling works to keep others away from his food and toys, he uses this aggression to avoid a repeat of the event that scared him.

The reason that conflict aggression is more prevalent in male dogs is testosterone. The testosterone levels in a male dog peak during adolescence, which often coincides with their displays of conflict aggression. In some instances, neutering is suggested as a measure to combat aggression, as it lowers the levels of testosterone in the body. When female dogs display conflict aggression, spaying is not always advised, as it can make them more aggressive.

Things to look out for

If you don’t address the conflict aggression your puppy shows, he will become more possessive of things over time. If you allow him on the couch or in your bed, he may come to regard these as his own and become aggressive if others (or even you) try to use them.


How to address conflict aggression

  1. If your pup is possessive of toys, remove them from the environment and let him ‘earn’ them back through positive behavior.
  2. Identify what triggers your pup’s episodes of conflict aggression and try to mitigate them.
  3. In extreme cases, confine the pup to a room or cut-off area for a timeout.
  4. Use an upbeat tone of voice when he is acting out. Ask him to play or go for a walk. You’ll see his aggression dissipate.

Whatever you do, don’t punish the dog physically. It will only increase his propensity for aggression.

If you don’t see an improvement, consult a veterinarian or animal behaviorist for advice.