The Perfect Storm

DOG_HUMAN_AGGRESSION_Featured“I can’t believe he snapped at that dog!”

“She nipped me. She’s never done that before!”

These exclamations come from owners of dogs who had never before acted in an aggressive manner. What caused these dogs to act out in such a way? Many things can cause dogs to become reactive, of course, but in these cases, it was a convergence of circumstances—the perfect storm.

There are myriad situations and factors that cause dogs stress. A visit to the veterinarian might leave a dog feeling less than playful. Having unfamiliar visitors in the house causes many dogs to feel nervous and out of sorts. Even missing the usual morning exercise routine can leave some pooches keyed up and a bit grumpy.

Consider the specific situations where your dog might display low-level aggressive behavior. For example, your dog tends to hover over a bully stick and growl when you come near, although he will not bite. Or, your dog gets a bit territorial toward your other dog while lying on your bed or on the couch, whereas relaxing on his own bed causes no issues.

Now imagine a day where a few of those circumstances come together. You have a vet appointment at 9 a.m., so your dog misses his morning exercise. The exam is a bit stressful, so he’s out of sorts when he returns home. His morning meal has been delayed. He eats, and then two hours later, you give your dog a bully stick. A few minutes later, you think, It might be nice for me to add a dab of peanut butter to it; after all, he’s had a rough day. You go to grab for the bully stick, and fast as lightning, teeth close around your hand. Under normal circumstances, your dog would never have bitten, but these weren’t normal circumstances.

Another scenario that might involve multiple, low-level, reactivity-provoking scenarios that converge might be a dog not feeling his best, combined with chewing a coveted item in an area where he is more likely to be territorial. In this type of situation he might go after the other dog in the house, when he normally never would, had all of these factors not been in perfect alignment.

Take some time to think about what the key components of the perfect storm might be for your dog, so you can avoid one. And the next time an incident occurs where you’d never have expected that type of aggressive behavior, think about whether it might be the result of a perfect storm. If it was, it will help for you to better understand why it happened, and not to suddenly regard your trusted fur kid as unpredictable or having turned into an aggressive dog.


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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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18 thoughts on “The Perfect Storm

  1. Sandi

    What if there is no perfect storm. He just nips and growls at new people. Never know when it'sgoning to happen

  2. Tanith

    I know after working a bit w/ a behaviorist that the signs can be VERY subtle, but how do you balance being observant and being "normal" (e.g. socially talking w/ others at the dog park or on a walk)?

  3. Wendy Dyet

    Thanks for that Victoria, have shared on facebook, explains so much to me and helps me understand my Rottie so much better...Bless You x

  4. j9padage

    I have the same situation as Sandi. My puppy mill breeder dog who we have had for 6 months is fine with us but will nip at strangers without warning. She will sniff them and be around them for a while but then she will lunge and bite!

  5. Caryn

    Sandi - I would probably have a vet visit in the near future to ensure there are no underlying health concerns causing him pain/discomfort...with that clear, I'd also keep a journal of the things that set him off. Also check his diet - is there enough fibre in his diet? Is he on a high quality food with low allergens/fillers (soy/wheat/corn)?

    Does he get corrected/punished for his warnings (growling, freezing, snarling, barking)? Punishing those will cause him to stop warning and just go for the bite... If he does warn, that's your cue to simply turn and walk away from the trigger so that he knows he can trust you and not force him

    Does he exhibit any calming signals or avoidance behaviours? Licking his lips, averting his eyes, yawning, turning his back to you or others, sniffing the ground, etc...when people approach him? Or does he immediately go on defense with a stiff body and a hard stare?

    Sounds like he is fearful of people and they are not greeting him properly. Try having people approach him slowly without eye contact; turn their bodies to the side and ignore him, drop a few treats on the ground and walk away. This will take off any pressure he feels when they approach and also create a new positive association with strangers.

    If they approach quickly and try to pet him, he will snap out of fear in order to tell them to back off and be respectful of his space and fears.

    Do you have a positive trainer in your area? I'd seek help asap so that his fears can be worked on before someone gets bitten... Fearful dogs have the highest chance of biting and it's not even their fault...

    It doesn't make him a bad dog - he's just nervous. It's workable. 😉

  6. Crey

    That *is* a perfect storm circumstance, you just don't know all the pieces yet. Strangers are a big cause of reactivity. Probably 75% or more of the brewing storm.

  7. Chris

    Good info.

    Sandi, you just pointed out that you do know when it *could* happen: around new people. That should help you to be more observant in those situations, maybe even have him on leash, and keep sessions with new people short and positive. End the interaction before he has a chance to nip.
    Just my two cents.

  8. Brittany

    My dogs have done this before. Sometimes I don't know when they might nip at me or each other, but it usually occurs when the come back from the vet, or someone is really bothering them.

  9. Bridget

    I have had the perfect storm or in our case just a storm. My rescue GSD mix who will be 3 this month became a dog that was getting .. well a challenge for everyone. My first call was to the vet who recommended our local vet school... It has been a lot of work, and a lot of money. It has been worth every dime. I know I have manage this dog 100% of the time for her safety and the safety of others. It is my responsibility as a dog owner. It is not easy with this dog but it is worth it.

  10. Amanda Z.

    Really interesting entry! That is so similar to a humans response to a bad day. When it is pointed out, it is really easy to understand why "The Perfect Storm" would occur.

  11. Susan

    We are trying the positive response with our 1 year old beagle. The big problem with her is that she steals things or starts chewing on something she shouldn't and becomes very territorial of that item. If we accidentally get near her or try to take the item away from her (in a positive fashion by trying to trade for something she can have or bribing her) she gets very aggressive and snaps and has actually bitten us a couple of times. This is the biggest problem we have with her and don't know what to do.

  12. Michelle

    I have a mix (Maybe a pappillon, sheltie, terrier mix) that I rescued off the streets. She started off as a scared little (She was 8 lbs when we found her 1 month later she was at her normal weight of 11.5) biter. She was terrified of anything and everything. She tried to bite me when I tried to get her in the car but once she realized I was the safer option she kissed me). She did bite my boyfirend and when he just looked at her and said "ahh come on now you can do better than that" she jumped in his lap and slept for the 1st time. But after that point everything scarry she has tried to bite. She has slowly gotten better, we keep her on a leash and have used a forced down when she feels the need to try and bite people when they are in our home. What you do is put a leash on them. take the leash and stand on it leaving the dog no choice but to either lay down or stand there and fight with the leash (this is a fight with the leash and not you). This leaves them in a vunerable position and when done properly can show them that they can feel vunerable and still be alright" This has helped so much we only have to do this every once in awhile instead of everytime and she no longer will bite a stranger. Although if she growls and barks we remove her from the room and close the bedroom door only letting her out once she has calmed down. While all of this has been work she is well worth all of her weight in gold and loves us to the ends of the earth as we do her.
    Just watch out for your dogs signals. Take the time to learn them (hackels being up on our dog is never a signal because hers stay up all the time naturally).
    Next up.... trying to tackle chewing out of anxiety. If anybody has any hints on how to stop seperation anxiety based chewing, I would love input. 2 $500 visits to the ER later is a horrible thing for our little Shelby. Rugs, walls, everything but the couch( Thank God). Gets chewed up while we go to work. Never at night then it's just a paper napkin or paper. She even destroyed one of those toys that they market as indestructable on TV. She did this in a matter of hours. Had the 2 squeakers out of it and torn to shreds and the whole toy "Rocky Raccon" turned inside out from the tip of his nose to the bottom of his tail. I think this seperation anxiety based chewing is because she migt have been taken away from her mom too soon. But not sure.

  13. Joe Fisher

    One of my dogs experienced a perfect storm also. I knew exactly why she did it, so the only person/dog I was angry at was myself for putting her in the situation.
    It was an outdoor concert, crowded, she was stressed
    She saw other dogs which really raises her stress level.
    She lunged, didn't bite me but my hand got in front of her mouth, so her teeth hit me.
    It was my own fault for putting her in that situation...

  14. Judy

    I wasn't bitten by my German Shepherd dog, but she snacked at me and caught the back of my pinkie finger. Kelsa absolutely adored having the very bottom of her jaw lightly scratched by my manicured nails, and I did it one night when the snack happened. Her head immediately went down and her ears went flat, and as a rescue dog, was clearly expecting some sort of horrible punishment.

    I suppose you could say a trip to the vet to have her bad tooth removed punishment, as she certainly didn't like it! All joking aside, I knew she had been so very badly treated, and not once did I blame her, even though I was only 13 years old and a tad frightened. I'm sure I made things worse for Kelsa by trying to stroke and pet her to reassure that she hadn't done anything wrong, but she started to cower from me and inch away, but she came around after 10 minutes or so. Next day mum took her to the vet and yup, tooth right at the back was broken and split, no doubt from when Kelsa had to eat bricks in order to survive...

  15. PremierDogs

    Great article - thank you! I recently consulted with the owners of a Dalmatian that, it appears, bit a woman in a 'perfect storm' situation like you describe. It should be noted that the dog appeared to be well-socialized and had no previous bite incidents. As the owners explained to me what happened, I asked them to recount whatever body language they could remember the dog displaying as the situation developed. From their explanation, it appears that the dog was providing indications of stress/anxiety but the warning signs were not understood by the humans involved. At the end of the day, and as I stress to all of my clients; becoming a student of dog body language can diffuse situations before they start..

  16. Sherry Schmidt

    I have a foster named "Buddy", when I have him beside me on the couch watching a movie I know he feels secure, he's being petted and loved, when another dog comes forward he gets aggressive with them, any other time I'm petting or cuddling them this doesn't happen. I know it's the location, big couch, dim lights, movie playing, Buddy half in my lap having his ears and tummy rubbed on and off. He's comfortable, it's a haven and he's protecting it. Rather than inviting trouble, I remove him, change the setting, lights up and movement, it creates a different mood and environment and he's totally fine. Just like us, if I've got my head resting in my husbands lap and he's combing my hair and we're watching TV and now he wants to get up and leave, I get a bit grumpy too. Our dogs teach us much if we're willing to learn. 🙂

  17. mikken

    Get her vision evaluated. She may not be seeing well in low light situations and feeling very vulnerable because of it. She's either not recognizing the smaller dog or she's defending herself because she can't see and is scared.

  18. Niftybergin .

    Many years ago I was at the dog park with my previous dog, a Siberian Husky named Bandit (who has crossed the Bridge). Bandit was off playing in the park, raising his head every so often to check for and lock eyes with me. Just keeping tabs. I was standing with a couple I knew and saw frequently at the park, who were owners of a Great Dane named Moose. After a short while, I decided it was time to leave and called Bandit to me, and he came running. What I didn't realize was that Moose, who, as a Dane, was protective and guardy by nature, was "working": He had drawn a circle of protection around his people, and because I was standing with them, that circle was extended to me as well. Bandit was fixed on me, I was fixed on Bandit...and Moose was fixed on Bandit. The moment Bandit crossed whatever invisible line Moose had erected, Moose went after him like a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound bullet. It scared my dog to death -- he had no idea why he was suddenly being targeted -- and he defended himself. We were able to separate the dogs quickly and before any physical damage had been done, and I realized almost immediately what had happened and how I had contributed to the incident. I felt so bad and so STUPID!! But Siberians don't have guardy instincts and I just wasn't acquainted with those behaviors and characteristics. It was a learning experience for me, but I always felt guilty for having put my dog in that situation.

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