How to Stop an Aggressive, Biting Dog

Question from Dan:

Xavier is a 1 year old white French Bulldog whom we’ve raised since he was 12 weeks old. We have three children ages 14, 12, and seven, and everyone in our family loves Xavier and he loves us. He cuddles with us on the couch, is playful and happy around the house, barely barks, and has become our “fourth child.” Whenever we take him for a walk or have guests at our house, people always stop to pet and dote on him because he is so cute. We have a few serious issues that recently caused us to consider trying to find a new home for Xavier.

 A few weeks ago he bit our 90 year old grandmother’s finger when she bent down to say hi to him. She hadn’t seen him in a few months and thought He would recognize her, but he snapped when she approached and nearly took her finger off. He’s also nipped at our kids friends, breaking skin with one of them when he snapped at her in the car.  We have kids running in and out of our house all the time and we are now nervous about having Xavier around them.

 Xavier also displays other aggressive behavior. When he finds a ball or plastic cup in the house he plays with it aggressively and sometimes sprays inside the house. If he’s playing with a ball and it rolls under a table where he can’t get to it, he’ll bark incessantly until someone dislodge is at 4. When he meets other dogs, he freezes and then jumps at them. When we try to take him for a walk, he stubbornly resists until we stand behind him and nudge him forward into a Cadence. 

Xavier  also suffers from intense food allergies. He scratches himself to the point of bleeding ( we clothe him and shirts to protect him from himself),  constantly gets rashes under his arms and has gone through three rounds of antibiotics for various illnesses. If a piece of food falls on the floor and he even said, he will throw up a few hours later. We have tried many different foods and currently we are feeding him a sweet potato every morning. He also has a short trachea and frequently throws up his food, chokes and gags a lot, and won’t eat unless he’s hand-fed.

 Xavier is our only dog right now. We had a black lab for 14 years who passed away three years ago. We’ve thought about getting a female French Bulldog to keep Xavier company during the day, but we’re not sure if this will help or hurt the situation.

 We are admittedly indulgent parents, and we suspect that some of Xavier’s issues are the result of giving him too much attention. We are starting to think that we need to be more firm -e.g.,  instructing strangers to ignore him, pulling him away from other dogs before he snaps at them, taking balls and plastic cups away from him, and stop hand feeding him. Our dog trainer has been helping us with this, but we’re thinking that we should go even further.

 We agree with Cesar’s philosophy but we are struggling to incorporate it into our Behavior with Xavier. We’re looking for validation that these are the right actions to take, and any other advice that you might share with us in the context of the situation. 

Advice from Cheri Lucas: 

Dear Dan and Allison, 

Raising your three young children must be a tremendously rewarding and challenging experience.   as one of three girls myself, I know my parents raised us to be balanced adults by providing us with structure and guidance tempered with love and encouragement.

 Raising a puppy properly requires many of the same skills you’ve cultivated when raising your children. Like any good relationship, balance is always a component. No relationship can exist on Love Alone, regardless of popular music lyrics that tell us “Love is all you need.”   in reality, when a spouse or child behavior husband come disrespectful or inappropriate, the situation isn’t turned around with more love. In fact, fixing a dysfunctional relationship requires laying down laws and insisting on adherence to rules.

 Xavier has life includes affection, snuggling on the sofa,  and being lavished with attention for the sole reason that he’s adorable. It sounds as if these rewards are not only on earned, but still provided to Xavier despite the fact that his behavior has been less than Stellar. In fact, Xavier faces an uncertain future with your family if The Unwanted Behavior continues. Aggression towards children and your elderly grandmother, as well as other dogs, must be addressed immediately with a solid plan that each family member is committed to.

 Before we tackle strategy for rehabilitating Xavier, it’s important that you and your family understand the basic concepts of dog psychology. In a nutshell, dogs are  pack animals that operate their lives within the context of the pack. A pack consists of leaders and followers. In order for a dog to join a human family successfully as a domesticated pack member, the humans in the whole must lead and the dog must follow. Dogs aren’t concerned with the position that they have in the pack – their only desire is at the pack run smoothly 

Not only is your current relationship with a Xavier to find by unlearned affection, but there’s also an absence of rules, boundaries and limitations. Dogs don’t see excessive affection is love – they see it as soft, weak energy.  Leadership can only be accomplished with a calm assertive energy, not lovable, soft energy. From Xavier is perspective, no one in your home is practicing leadership, so the position has defaulted to him. Since no dog is equipped to handle a position of authority over a human household, the result is a confused dog whose Behavior has spiraled out of control.

 Now here’s the good news! Xavier is behavior will change if you’re willing to position yourself as pack leader. You must be one hundred percent convinced that Xavier not only needs to relinquish his role as an authority figure in your home, but that he’s begging you to take it! Taking the “burden” of feeling he has to control your home away from Xavier will be the single most loving thing you can do for him. 

 I’ve created a customized strategy to begin Xavier is Rehabilitation. You and your family already have a high level of commitment to Xavier. Make sure before you embark on this plan that you’re all in agreement with this new course of action. Remember, Xavier needs to be rehabilitated, and you need to be trained!

  • Dog needs to live on YOUR terms.

 From this point on, Xavier needs to live in your home on YOUR terms, not his. You won’t be taking anything away from his; you’ll just be changing who’s in charge. 

  • Create a “boot camp” environment for Xavier.

When people go to rehab for inappropriate behavior, they temporarily lose certain privileges. This is not done to punish them, but to create a more simple, structured existence so they can focus on their recovery. This strategy works for trouble dogs as well.

  • Redefine dog “affection.”

 Dogs don’t practice hugging and kissing in their natural world –  that’s a human practice.  Dogs LOVE To walk, and if you’re doing it properly, it’s an activity that also empowers you with your dog. So, next time you have the urge to pet Xavier, take him on a walk instead and think of this as his time for affection.

  • Don’t try to force Xavier to meet other dogs.

Meeting face-to-face is not the appropriate way for dogs to be introduced. Instead, find a balance dog in your neighborhood and walk beside that dog with Xavier. This is the natural way for a dog to become acquainted with another dog –  migrating in the same direction as a pack.

  • Institute rules and boundaries in your home.

 Designate areas for Xavier and areas for your family. For example: your sofa is off limits for Xavier right now. Your family may find this adjustment hard for them, but Xavier will adjust to the change just fine.

  • Consider using a crate for your dog.

 Xavier should have a crate for times that he can’t be watched, and possibly for sleeping. Again, the crate is not used for punishment –  it’s the equivalent of a modern-day Den. It can provide safety and structure for Xavier and allow him to have some quiet time away from stress and kids.

  • Pick up toys and high-value chew bones for now.

 We need to remove any objects that trigger his aggression until he learns that the toys are yours, and can be played with on your terms only. Dogs often convince themselves that they’re powerful by creating a collection of “stuff.”  The more they own, the more unmanageable they become.

  • No acknowledgement of pushy behavior from your dog. 

 Don’t acknowledge any pushy behavior from Xavier. If he nudges you for attention, ignore him. In essence, he’s giving you a “command” and you are “obeying” him when you respond with affection.

  • Monitor your dog’s time with your children.

 Closely monitor your children’s time with Xavier.  Don’t allow them to play tug games, or chase games with them at this point. This type of excited play can often trigger the prey Instinct in animals. Games can be a part of your life later on, once Xavier’s behavior has improved.

  • Begin a new bedtime family tradition.

 Read “Be the Pack Leader” by Cesar Millan. This book is my all-time favorite for teaching humans how to develop their leadership skills with dogs.

  • Start thinking of Xavier as a dog. 

 Although you refer to Xavier as your fourth child, start thinking of him as what he is –  a dog. Xavier is as happy to be a dog, as you are to be a human. We can’t fulfil our dog’s needs as a dog if we think of him as a human.

  • Hold off on adopting a female dog. 

 Now is not the time to consider getting another dog. We need to rehabilitate Xavier first before bringing in a new member of the pack.

Most importantly, stay positive and focused on the endgame. Envision exactly the type of behavior you want from Xavier and never lose sight of that. Take baby steps for now. They will eventually lead you where you want to be –  in a home with a calm, balanced dog living with a family of Pack Leaders!