The Difficult Dog.

24_dog_zombie run awayYour dog lunges at passing dogs, snaps at approaching people, or growls when you least expect it. Maybe you think your dog is unpredictable – sometimes she’s okay with a person or another dog, sometimes she isn’t.

What you do know is that you don’t trust her to behave in a civilized manner, and want to do something about it. Can you? The answer is, maybe.

-Trish King, Director Behavior and Training, Marin Humane Society (

When your dog behaves in an unpredictable, difficult, or aggressive way it can make you feel as if you are being betrayed by your best friend. So, what do you do when your dog displays behaviors that make you uncomfortable at best, and scared of her at the worst?

First of all, don’t ignore it,  and don’t make excuses for it. You know your dog better than anyone else, so if something is off with your dog, get some help before the problem escalates to the point of being completely unmanageable, especially if your dog has a sudden onset of bad behavior for no apparent reason. A good place to start is with your veterinarian. For example, if your dog suddenly starts house soiling, have him checked for a urinary tract infection (UTI). Or, if your elderly dog starts pacing and knocking things over, especially when you are gone, don’t assume this dog has suddenly developed Separation Anxiety. It could be that your best buddy has developed vision or hearing problems or perhaps is showing signs of Canine Cognitive Disorder Syndrome (another symptom of which is house soiling). Detailed observations of his behavior will help your vet to diagnose the problem and get your pup the relief he needs. Moreover, the sooner you take care of a physical problem the less likely it will develop a lasting behavioral component as well.

(And, just for the record, UTIs can also cause problems with puppy house training. If your house training is not going well with a puppy, despite doing all the things your positive reinforcement trainer has suggested you do*, then have your puppy tested for a urinary tract infection (UTI) to rule out an organic cause to the problem.)

Another thing to consider when you have a sudden onset of cranky or aggressive behavior in your dog is whether or not your dog is in pain. My dog developed arthritis in his right elbow at the age of 2 and getting the pain under control helped to restore his happy nature. One thing I ask of owners whose dogs have behavior changes that seem to come on quickly or with our a clear reason, is to get the dog into the vet for a thorough physical exam to rule out any organic causes for the behavior changes (such as joint/spinal pain, allergies, ear infections, or other underlying causes of irritation, pain, or inflammation). You don’t want to jump into an extensive behavior modification program that can be time consuming, costly, and difficult to implement consistently by all members of the of the family, if it isn’t needed.

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close.

This puppy was quite fearful of new people and would stiffen and growl if you got too close.

There are many reasons other than physical problems which can cause your dog to demonstrate aggressive behavior. A few things to consider are:

  • Fear: is the most common cause of aggression in dogs. Dogs that are cautious as puppies may learn that aggressive behavior is the best way to keep scary things at bay.
  • Trauma: “One of the more common causes of fear-based aggression is a traumatic episode in early life… The younger the dog is when the trauma occurs, the more lasting the imprint of the event. Often, the dog learns not to trust dogs, people… or even you, since you have been unable to keep her safe.” – Trish King
  • Frustration: Dogs who lunge, growl, bark, etc., at the end of the leash, at a fence, or on a tie out are frustrated and may be fearful as well. They have learned that aggressive displays will scare away that which frustrates them.

If you see signs of aggression developing, especially in a puppy, don’t wait it out hoping that he will grow out of it. (See my blog, This is not the dog I wanted… A common adage among trainers is, “Dogs grow into aggression, not out of it.” The longer you wait to address a problem, the more difficult it will be to resolve and your chances for success will diminish. Don’t hesitate to call me and together we can move towards a solution.

A wonderful training book for any dog, but especially helpful for the difficult dog.

A wonderful training book for any dog, but especially helpful for the difficult dog.


* See my blogs on house training: To pee or not to pee…inside:, and Housetraining: how do I get Sparky to tell me he needs to go out?


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