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Predatory Aggression

How to Recognize and Manage Puppy Play Aggression


Predatory Aggression

Puppy play can potentially turn into aggression when it's aimed at smaller critters, so supervision is key.

Image © TBones Green Acres/Flickr

All dogs including your puppy display predatory aggression, a normal instinct that involves stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and eating and is mimicked during play. In most domestic dogs, these behaviors have been modified to a level that stops short of doing damage to other animals.

In play aggression, the context changes. Dogs tell each other it’s all fun and games by using certain body gestures for canine communication, termed “meta signals” which change the meaning of the behavior that follows, so that growls, chasing, and soft-bite mouthing are meant in play. Common meta signals signals that say, “Let’s play!” include the play bow (tail/butt up, front end down).

When your puppy or dog indulges in play aggression, watch for triggers and teach the proper limits. Punishment such as hitting, thumping the nose, scruff shakes, ramming your fist into the dog’s mouth, or harsh alpha rolls make play aggression problems worse or create other sorts of aggression.

Play Aggression Triggers

Movement and sound triggers the behavior. Joggers, bicyclist, playing children, and moving cars stimulate the prey drive, as do high-pitched cries of other animals like kittens, smaller puppies, babies and young children. A sudden silence (as happens when a prey animal “freezes”) also provokes attack.

Predatory aggressive dogs don’t use meta signals. They’re deadly serious, and extremely dangerous. Predatory behavior is found in dogs of any age or sex, and dogs that show an extremely unwavering focus directed toward movements and vocalizations of a baby or other pet (some dogs drool!) should be suspect and watched closely. They may go through the whole predatory sequence or stop at any stage.

Manage The Aggression

Prognosis is variable. Often, predatory aggressiveness toward younger pets or babies diminishes as the targeted youngsters grow up. In the meantime, take precautions to keep everyone safe from doggy teeth, and help teach your pup to control natural impulses.

  • Identify all the triggers that prompt predatory aggression and avoid them, except during training sessions when you have control.
  • Work on obedience training, so your dog has automatic default commands he’ll do at the drop of a hat, or toss of a treat. “SIT” or “DOWN” work well, and can help distract him from instinctive predatory aggression, as well as get him to think about what he’s doing.
  • Use desensitization and counter conditioning to change the puppy’s response to triggers, by using a HAPPY word he can’t resist that improves his attitude. For instance, say “ball” or “Frisbee,” “cookie” or “ride” to get your pup thinking about something else and to prompt a behavior that gives is brain a U-turn away from chasing.
  • Ask an accomplice to ride a bike or jog past the house, and use your HAPPY word every time to interrupt the predatory response. Before long, the dog will see the “prey” target, then switch attention to you for the cue word and reward.
  • Stop games when the puppy goes too far and play turns into aggression. Walk away, or give the dog a time out in a room alone for five minutes to teach him that crossing the line makes all the fun go away.

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