Retrievers, for the most part, make great family dogs. Their easy-going temperament means they don’t mind when kids run circles around them and climb on them. They are also smart, so they learn quickly and their strong willingness to please often makes retrievers a great addition to the family.
But some retriever puppies are a high-energy ball of fire, one that is difficult to train or even handle in daily life. And sometimes there will be signs of aggressive behavior that are concerning. However, there is a fine line between puppy play behavior and hyper and aggressive behavior. Some owners are reluctant to stop such behavior thinking that it is just puppy behavior and therefore the dog will outgrow it. When the pup doesn’t outgrow the behavior, owners begin to get concerned.
If you have a retriever puppy that is hyper or aggressive you might wonder what can be done and why they are acting that way. Here is some guidance on this topic.
What are normal puppy behaviors?
Puppy behaviors can be cute…until they aren’t. A 7-week-old puppy growling at you may be adorable, but a 7-month-old dog growling at you isn’t.
It is normal for very young puppies to nip at your hands and your feet. It is also normal for them to chew on things, jump on you and walk all over you. However, just because these are normal puppy behaviors doesn’t mean you should just ignore them and let your puppy do these things. In fact, if you correct these behaviors in your very young puppy, you most likely won’t have these issues with your older dog.
An 8-week-old puppy nipping at your hand might at first seem cute and sweet. But one bite from those exceedingly sharp puppy teeth and you might decide its not so cute. Those teeth can puncture your skin in a second and draw blood just as quickly.
So, while it may be normal for a puppy to nip at your hand or foot, it is not a behavior that you want to ignore.
Puppy play is naturally aggressive
When puppies playing with their litter mates, the play can be very aggressive. This is natural, as dogs, they are always figuring out their pack and where they fit into the pack. When you become your puppies pack, your puppy is going to want to figure out where he/she fits into the pack. However, like the mama dog doesn’t tolerate roughhousing, you, as the new mom or dad of the pack need to step in and draw the line on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
Recognizing puppy play
You can recognize when a retriever puppy is playing by the stance they take. If they are in a play stance, your puppy will put his/her head close to the ground while his/her rear end will be in the air (often with a wagging tail). They also may run around in circles, growling, or barking in high pitched barks, but when they do this their ears will be up, their tail wagging and they do not look threatening.
It is uncommon for puppies under 12 weeks of age to exhibit true aggression. True aggression involves a dog exhibiting prolonged growling with a stiff posture and baring of teeth. Their hackles (the hair on their back) will be raised and they will be poised in a threatening position with ears back. If you were to approach a dog in this position (which I do not recommend) they will often move toward you and try to bite or snap at you. This type of aggression is something to be fearful about and is not healthy. Isolate the dog as much as possible and consult a veterinary or other professional for help or advice.
What are signs of aggression in puppies
All puppies can act aggressively, but if you take steps to address the aggressive behaviors while your dog is a young puppy, you can make a huge difference on how or whether that aggression progresses.
When I speak of aggression, I am talking about a dog that growls, nips, or bites, bares his/her teeth, or barks at you. These are all forms of aggression and none of them should be tolerated, not as a puppy and certainly not as a dog.
There are also dominance behaviors that puppies exhibit that are often mistaken as aggression. Dominance behaviors are a puppy’s way of determining where he/she fits into the pack. They include things like jumping on people, stepping on people, pushing you around, forcing you to pet them and others. While these behaviors can be done aggressively, and should still be corrected immediately, they are not the same as aggression.
Definition of puppy
Because we often get clients that bring out their dogs that are close to a year old and refer to them as puppies, I want to define what I consider a puppy. A puppy is a dog under six months of age. Most retrievers are a good size by around six months. They will often continue to grow up until about a year and a half, but they have the bulk of their size by the time they are six months. And by six months, you need to have a handle on any aggressive behaviors, or you are going to struggle with eliminating them.
Is it normal for a puppy to be very aggressive?
It is normal for a puppy to test you with aggressive behaviors. But it is your responsibility to knock down the aggression and make sure that your puppy knows his/her place in the family. And to be clear, that place should be at the bottom of the pack, under all your family members.
I understand that your dog is a part of your family but allowing your dog to be in a position above any or all your family members is just asking for trouble. If you don’t believe this, take some time to learn about dog psychology. Treating your dog as a human and attributing your dog with human thoughts and reasoning is not fair to your dog or to your family. Love your dog, but make sure your dog is the lowest member of your pack and you will have a much easier time with obedience and basic good behavior.
How to stop my puppy’s aggressive behavior
So, if you are already knee deep in puppy aggression and maybe at whit’s end, here are some tips on how you can get control of your dogs’ aggression and make peace in the family again.
How to stop puppy growling
Growling is often the first step for dog aggression. You might see it if you reach down to take away your dog’s food while he/she is still eating. Or, if you try and take a toy away from your dog. Some people see it start when they put their dog into his/her crate, although this is a more serious condition.
No matter how or when you see the aggression start, it is important to nip it in the bud right away. A sharp NO command sometimes is all that is needed, especially if it is well-timed with the first sign of the growl or nip. Other times you may need to grab your dogs muzzle and squeeze. If these corrections do not seem to be helping, I would immediately crate my dog if it growled at me. Basically, putting him/her on a timeout. Be sure you do not let your dog out of the crate while he is exhibiting a growling behavior. Only let him out if he is behaving appropriately.
If your dog growls when you reach for his/her food while eating, I would work on this specific behavior. I would routinely reach down and remove my dog’s food while he is eating. This effectively shows your dog that you are in control, not him/her.
Don’t avoid the problem behaviors, use them to make good lessons about how growling is not acceptable.
How to stop puppy nipping or biting
A dog that nips or bites you often started as a very young puppy. Unfortunately, many people think it’s kind of cute, but this behavior is a very dangerous one to allow to continue. We teach our puppies at 8-weeks-old that biting and nipping people is not allowed. And at this very young age, they learn it very quickly.
If your puppy bites or nips at you, quickly grab your pup’s muzzle and squeeze saying NO BITE. Your pup may cry out or squirm, but that is fine. In fact, you need to be quite stern to make an impression. If simply grabbing the muzzle is not causing your puppy to change his/her behavior, then make this small adjustment. When you grab your pups muzzle, fold in his/her gums so that they are over his/her teeth and then squeeze. Yes, essentially you are making your puppy bite themselves and saying NO BITE as you do it. If you are firm and consistent in this correction, you will stop your dog’s biting and nipping behavior. If it continues, you are not being firm or consistent enough.
How to stop puppy growling while tugging
During play, it is not uncommon for retriever puppies to growl and tug at toys, blankets, even your pant leg. This behavior is usually just playful and natural. However, I would still try to end this behavior as soon as possible. While almost harmless at first, this behavior can escalate quickly as your dog grows bigger and stronger.
You can end this behavior first by not participating in it. If you start tugging with a toy with your puppy, you are going to encourage the behavior. Another reason we don’t want a puppy to play tug of war, especially if your puppy is destined for hunting or competition, is that this tugging behavior can carry over to the field and you can find yourself in a tug of war to get the bird from your dog!
The second step is to discourage the behavior with a sharp NO command. If your puppy is holding tight to something and won’t let go, stick your finger inside your dog’s mouth, behind the item he is biting and stick your finger down his throat. Alternately, you can push the toy further into his/her mouth. Either way, he/she will gag and give you the item. It can help if you say GIVE when you take the item. This will start to teach him the GIVE command that will be helpful later if you are a hunter.
How to stop puppy baring his teeth
A puppy or dog that bares his teeth to you is threatening to bite you. Even if the puppy goes no further than to bare the teeth and growl, you need to end this behavior. This behavior is far more dangerous than the puppy that nips at your hand. The nips may be done in play, since that is how puppies play with one another, but baring of teeth and growling is different. And you must handle it differently.
I would start with a sharp NO command and grabbing your puppy’s scruff (the hair and skin at the top of your dog’s neck between the ears and shoulders) and shaking him/her. I am not talking about lifting your dog off the floor with the shake, but if your puppy is very young, that may indeed be a great correction.
Have you ever witnessed a mama dog correct her puppies? The mama dog will grab her puppy by the scruff of the neck and shake him/her and then drop them to the ground. This is not a violent thing, just a natural correction for a puppy. The puppies rarely cry out or whimper when given this correction, they just walk away and understand that the behavior they were exhibiting is not acceptable.
If your dog continues to bare his teeth even after this correction, you may have a bigger problem on your hands, and I would proceed carefully. True dog aggression is no joking matter. Dogs with aggression problems can snap at any time and go from baring their teeth to full out attacks. Seek veterinary help and advice if your dog’s aggression seems to be progressing or growing.
How to stop my puppy’s hyper behavior?
Hyper behavior is different from aggression. A hyper dog has a lot of energy and may not know how to control or channel that energy. Often hyper behavior is a genetic trait. It is passed down through the genes of the mother and/or father. In this sense, it is not something that you can eliminate. But you can take steps to make it more manageable.
Dogs that are hyper need more exercise than dogs that are more docile in nature. If your dog is hyper and is not getting enough exercise, the hype behavior is going to drive the dog to other behaviors that you may not enjoy such as chewing up your dining room table leg or your favorite pair of shoes.
Stop rewarding hyper behavior
Another thing to be aware of is that you may be worsening your dog’s hyper behavior by rewarding it, unknowingly. For instance, if your dog is hyper and is jumping up and down all the time, and you not only allow the jumping but pet him or her and give praise while your dog is jumping, then you are unknowingly rewarding the jumping behavior. Rather, have your dog sit and while he/she is sitting still give your dog petting and praise for the good behavior.
Give your puppy time to mature
Retrievers are often full of energy while they are young, well some a bit longer, but tend to slow down as they mature. Unfortunately, retrievers often don’t mature until they are at least two years old and some older. But as they mature they do usually slow down and become a bit less energetic.
Highly energetic dogs can benefit greatly from structured training programs. Programs such as the ones we offer here at Otter Tail Kennels, can teach an energetic dog control and channel their energy into hunting or retrieving which can make home life more manageable.
There are even some things you can do at home to get more control of your energetic dog.
I know this sounds boring, and for you it is. But for an energetic dog that does not like sitting at all, having them sit for 30 seconds, or a minute or two can be very challenging. They will need many reminders at first, but over time they will learn to settle and sit calmly. You can slowly increase the amount of time. This simple obedience drill will help your dog learn control.
Teach and enforce Kennel command
If your dog is driving your crazy, send him/her to their crate or kennel. Teach your dog the kennel command so that when you say Kennel, they run into their crate and stay there until you release them. This basically sends your dog on a time out and forces them to practice control and settle.
Final thoughts on why my puppy is so hyper and aggressive
For dogs under 6 months of age, much hyper and aggressive behavior is simply puppy play. But that doesn’t mean that you should just green light it and allow it to continue. You must teach your puppy boundaries and the earlier you teach them the better. Be consistent in your corrections and persistent, and over time you will reap the benefits.
Remember, if you want your retriever to grow and progress in his/her hunting this year but doing the training yourself sounds overwhelming or maybe your schedule is just too busy to get it done, I’m here to help! You can email me (email@example.com) or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.
Until next time happy retrieving.
Thank you for this article. I am desperate. I have bites up and down my forearm and feet and he bit me on the face today. Charlie is a 12 week old Labrador Retriever who we rescued from a puppy mill. Obviously I need to use the firm methods you advise to get this under control. Thank you.
Steve and Jody
I am so glad that you found value in this post! It is important that you be firm and consistent in your correction of biting and jumping behaviors. These are often overlooked as “cute” behaviors when the puppy is young but can quickly become dangerous and hurtful behaviors. I also have a post specifically on biting. Here is a link to that post. https://ottertailkennels.com/biting-puppy/
Hi I’ve just read your article it’s great and we have tried all the things you suggest. Our retriever is 5 months old and we are forever saying, stop, no and doing time outs, she bites us on the feet and arms it’s quite painful. We put her outside, but when we bring her inside she continues to bite, her tail is wagging the whole time, she thinks it’s play but we are getting a bit worried as to how to deal with it
Steve and Jody
I am going to give you some hard advice. If your dog is still biting you at 5 months of age, you have been allowing it for far too long. Never have I suggested time-outs for a dog. That is not how you correct the behavior you are describing. Biting is something you need to correct with a very firm correction. You need to grab her muzzle, fold her gums (the skin that hangs from her upper or lower mouth) onto her teeth, and squeeze her muzzle commanding NO BITE. You need to make her feel the pain of biting by making her bite herself.
Dogs are not people. You cannot reason with a dog, their brains are not able to think like that. You need to be very firm and make it clear that the behavior they are doing is not okay. This may require some force, especially since you have allowed this to go on so long. You can also refer to my article on stopping biting, https://ottertailkennels.com/biting-puppy/
Of course your dog is wagging her tail the whole time she is biting you. It is a game to her and you have not communicated to her that the game is unacceptable. If you give her a strong correction with a strong command, her ears should go back and her tail should go between her legs. That will show that she understands that you are the boss. Don’t worry. She will still love you. Puppies rebound quickly, but you must take control and be the parent. And it will likely require you to do this several times before she gets the message.
Hope this helps.
Curt and Tina
Thanks for your insight on puppy behavior! I have a question, how would you handle a 12 week old golden retriever that bites, lays on, takes their toys/items they have, away? We also have him jumping up on our older shepherd, and he is showing his teeth at the puppy as well as growling, but he doesn’t get it he keeps jumping.
Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated!
Steve and Jody
Hi Curt and Tina, I am a little confused by your question. Is the puppy biting you or your other dog? If it is your other dog, I suggest you just let the dogs figure it out. They will determine who is the alpha dog and then they will learn to get along. Dogs will be dogs and you cannot control all aspects of a dog to dog relationship. Give them time to work it out on their own.
If the puppy is annoying your other dog incessantly, then I would separate them for a while. Put one in a crate or kennel, or in a different room if you don’t have a crate available.
If the puppy is biting you or another human, that is a totally different problem. And I would give different advice.
Hope this helps.