Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Help, My Older Dog Is Attacking My Puppy!
Your older dog attacking your new puppy may have been the last thing you had on your mind. Perhaps you got the puppy to keep your dog company and to enjoy watching them romp around and play, or perhaps to help your older dog perk up, so to say, "rejuvenating" him a bit, bringing a fresh new lease of life.
Instead, your older dog seems to not want anything to do with the puppy and even growls when the puppy approaches. Now, thoughts about having made a big mistake cross your mind as you start having flashes of years of trouble ahead or even thoughts of re-homing your new puppy.
"What did I get into? Life was so calm before bringing this puppy into the home. Is my older dog meant to live as the 'only dog?' Why is my older dog so non-accepting of this puppy? What gives? And most of all, what can I do to stop my older dog from attacking my new puppy?"
These are all good questions that many owners of new puppies wonder about. As upsetting as this can feel, the truth is that older dogs often have a hard time adjusting to changes, and bringing a boisterous puppy into the household is not without stress.
Bringing a new dog into a household, where a resident dog has been living for many years as the "only dog" is stressful enough, but if the new dog in question happens to be a puppy, then the stress may be much higher.
Let's face it: The introduction of a boisterous puppy can be quite a stressful event, even if the resident dog is not very old. When dogs are stressed, they have a harder time coping with certain situations, so they'll be quick to lash out than when they are calmer.
Dogs like routines and get set in their ways and a new puppy can be felt as an interference. Unless you take several steps to introduce your new puppy to your older dog, chances are things may not go too well during the adjustment phase.
On top of the stress though, what are other possible reasons your older dog is having such a hard time getting along with the puppy? If you have watched your new puppy and older dogs' interactions carefully, you may have noticed certain patterns. Here are some common dynamics.
Too Much Energy
Puppies are full of energy and all they want to do is sleep, eat and play. Even the mother dog grew tired at some point and had her limits as her puppies started growing and tugging at her ears and tail or trying to nurse with their sharp teeth!
So your boisterous puppy may keep on trying to interact with your older dog when all your older dog may want to do is perhaps rest or enjoy some quiet petting time with you as you both watch the sunset. So if your older dog is growling when your puppy is trying to interact, it's likely his way or telling him to stop.
For sake of comparison, imagine having a toddler go visit grandma and him repeatedly doing things that annoy her. Sure, grandma may have a halo over her head, but her patience will surely have a limit!
In many cases, older dogs do grant puppies what's known as a puppy license, meaning that they let them get away with things they would never let adult dogs get away with, but not all adult dogs are willing to grant it.
Dogs who aren't very playful or social to start with, or dogs who are aging and have less mobility, will struggle if a puppy keeps on pestering them. They may try to move away, but the puppy keeps on going thinking it's all a fun game. Not the type of "retirement," older dogs were likely wishing for!
A Matter of Resource Guarding
Does your older dog attack your puppy when your puppy gets too close to his food, a favorite toy, a resting place or you? If so, your older dog may be resource guarding.
Resource guarding, as the name implies, takes place when a dog is protective of things they perceive as valuable. Freezing, growling and showing teeth are distance-increasing behaviors of dogs who are uncomfortable with another dog getting too close to their perceived belonging and it's their way of sending them away.
Adult dogs usually know better than to approach another dog who is eating, has a toy or is sleeping (unless he's looking for trouble), but puppies are socially-illiterate beings that need to learn more about body language, giving space and respecting social boundaries.
A Puppy License Expiring
As mentioned, in general, older dogs grant puppies a puppy license, but these licenses also tend to expire as the puppy matures. As puppies grow, they are expected to learn more about respecting certain boundaries and responding to certain social cues and postures.
However, it is also true that, as puppies grow and reach doggy adolescence (which, in most dogs starts around the age of six months), they can also turn into bullies and start engaging in pushy behaviors. More conflict down the road may be expected as they reach social maturity around the age of 12 to 36 months of age.
This may be especially true of female dogs. Many female dogs living in the same household start fighting around this time.
The Impact of Stress/Fear
This may sound quite funny, but my adult female Rottweiler at the age of 2 developed some sort of phobia of puppies. As soon as puppies were approaching her, she would walk the other way trying to avoid them as much as possible. If the puppies cornered her, she would growl and threaten to bite.
I chalked it up to her personality: she was a very calm dog who had a hard time tolerating rude dogs who would "come on too strong" in their approach, jumping and wanting to meet face-on. The same goes for puppies.
Some dogs may be particularly intolerant of puppies and may get very stressed when exposed to them. Some dogs even fear them. It could be they weren't socialized much with dogs or they simply have lower tolerance levels for certain behaviors.
A dog who is stressed or fearful can bite and even severely injure a puppy. This is something to watch out for, which is why it's so important to always monitor all interactions and become your older dog's ambassador, protecting him from undesirable exposures.
If you are unsure whether your older dog and puppy have good chances of getting along, play it safe and have them evaluated by a dog behavior professional. He or she can make specific recommendations and if things may not work out, you may have to make an important decision as to whether you should re-home the pup or return him to the breeder.
Should Older Dogs Put Puppies in Their Place?
Many new puppy owners assume that it's the job of the older dog to put the puppy in his place and teach him manners, but not all dogs are cut for this job.
Sure, it's true that there are excellent teacher dogs out there, dogs who are able to correct the puppy without harming him physically and who won't do any damage at an emotional level, but in many cases, too much responsibility is placed on older dogs who are not suitable for the task.
This puts puppies at risk of being physically hurt or emotionally traumatized at a delicate stage of their lives when they need to learn to feel safe and confident.
New puppies are very energetic and playful. Play such as running, chasing, play biting and attacking can be annoying to an elderly dog. If the puppy will not respond to the threats and inhibited bites of the older dog, problems can result. These can range from overt aggression toward the puppy to hiding, anxiety, anorexia, housesoiling, vocalization and destruction by the older dog.
— Debra F. Horwitz, veterinary behaviorist
How Do I Get My Older Dog to Stop Attacking My New Puppy?
As seen, older dogs may have several reasons for attacking your new puppy. How to tackle this issue may vary based on a variety of factors. Of course, being that dogs are animals, there are never guarantees on how things will work out. There are however several management options and training options new puppy owners can rely on, so here are some general tips to ameliorate the situation.
Set Some Boundaries
If your puppy keeps pestering your older dog who has different energy levels, make sure to be an ambassador for your dog and provide some boundaries. You owe it to your adult dog to keep them feeling safe from the continuous intrusion.
Erect a baby gate or keep your puppy in a playpen with toys so that your older dog has a quiet place to retreat to that is puppy-free.
Drain Some Energy
Often squabbles between older dogs and puppies are due to the puppy pestering the older dog for play. It may therefore be a good idea to ensure your puppy gets ample opportunities to play with you, training and mental stimulation before being presented to your older dog.
Make it clear to your pup that he should seek you for play or should play with his toys (how about a stuffed Kong?) rather than bothering your older dog. This may pave the path to calmer behaviors.
However, make sure your puppy has had some rest as tired puppies can be particularly cranky and more likely to misbehave!
Manage the Environment
Often, the most efficient way to eliminate undesirable behaviors is to prevent their occurrence in the first place. So if your older dog growls when the puppy comes near his food or toys, feed them in separate areas and do not give toys when they are spending time together.
With nothing left to guard, management, therefore, prevents rehearsal of the problem behavior and works as well as a stress-reduction strategy.
Aim to Train Your Puppy
At the same time, it's also important to train your puppy in some basic manners to avoid any potential conflict between the two. Don't put your older dog in the position of having to constantly defend himself. You should ensure that your puppy listens to your older dog's requests to be left alone.
Train your puppy how to leave it, lie on a mat and come to you when called. Teaching a positive interrupter will also come in handy when you need him to back off from your older dog. Here are some guides on how to train these:
- How to train your dog to lie on a mat
- How to train your dog leave it
- How to train your dog to come when called
See the video below on how to train a positive interrupter. It's important to train this to a fluent level to the point that the response becomes so fluent that it's almost reflexive. The more you practice, the more it becomes fluent courtesy of neural memory.
Create Positive Associations
Your older dog may benefit from behavior modification which entails creating positive associations with the puppy. For instance, if your older dog doesn't want the puppy near when you are petting him, you can do the following exercise under the guidance of a dog behavior professional.
Have a helper hold your puppy on a leash and practice walking the puppy nearby while you are petting your older dog.
Every time your helper moves with the puppy towards you and your older dog, praise and feed your older dog high-value treats. When your helper moves the puppy away, you would stop praising and feeding treats.
The goal here is to clarify that great things happen contingent upon the puppy approaching. From dreading your puppy near, you want your older dog to look forward to it. This technique is based on Jean Donaldson's Open/Bar Closed/Bar method.
Do the same with other scenarios your older dog may struggle with. For instance, if your older dog is a bit nervous when your puppy runs around, feed your older dog tasty treats. Aim for a conditioned emotional response, whereupon seeing your puppy run, your older dog looks forward to the treats.
Don't feel like doling out treats? Invest in a Manner's Minder to do all the work for you at the push of a button!
In both examples, it's important to ensure your older dog isn't overwhelmed and stays under threshold.
Better Table-side Manners
Giving distance between dogs when eating is important to ensure there are no risks of disputes over food. However, this doesn't always help. It may happen that one dog finishes eating first and goes to bother the other dog.
In such cases, it may help to supervise the dogs eating and create a routine where the dog who finishes eating first comes to you for a few extra treats or pieces of kibble. After a few repetitions, the dog who finishes first should automatically come over to you for treats after dinner instead of attempting to steal the other dogs' food.
Encourage Bonding Activities
There are activities that can be particularly bonding between two dogs. One of them is walking. If your puppy has finished all his vaccine boosters and the vet gives you the green light, take both puppy and older dog on walks (one handler per dog) or even fun hikes.
Car rides (where both dogs are restrained by a harness) can also be a bonding activity as both dogs get to enjoy time together but without getting in trouble.
Consult With a Pro
Any time you notice aggression among dogs in the household, it's important to enlist the help of a professional. This is to ensure the correct implementation of behavior modification and for a matter of safety. Every time dogs have minor disputes or serious fights, there are risks of injuries to both dogs and their owners (through a re-directed bite).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 09, 2020:
It always scared me when an older dog and a puppy come together. Be it on the road or at home. I just couldn't handle that moment of what would happen, I am glad I know what to do in the future. Informative and well written.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 08, 2020:
We used to take in stray dogs and try and locate their owners. We would visit the local vet offices, put up signs, and call all of the shelters. We quit doing that when one of our older dogs bit a puppy. No damage was done other than scaring the puppy to death! We decided that we had to turn that job over to other people in the neighborhood.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 08, 2020:
We introduced a puppy to our older dog in a couple of instances. Our one older girl was a great teacher dog. The other older girl was more of a boss dog. But eventually they all were inseparable pals.
I don't think people realize that they upset the alpha/resident dog situation when they introduce a puppy. They don't understand that it's like making a senior citizen raise a baby. And the older dog didn't have a choice in the matter. Ugh! If I was an older dog, I wouldn't want a puppy in my space either.
Our older dogs are also a little wary of puppies and adolescent (even worse!) dogs. So I'm very cautious when neighbors want to introduce their little darlings to my seniors.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2020:
Hi Sp Greaney, I agree fully with you. It's the owner's ultimate responsibility to ensure that their dogs get along and taking steps to protect each other.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2020:
Hi FluorishAnyway, hormonal changes during heat cycles, pregnancy and breeding rights have been know to be exacerbating factors when two female dogs share the household. There may be other factors at play such as competition over resources and owner attention, but of course, this doesn't apply to all female dogs as there are many who live along greatly with no problems.
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 07, 2020:
Just wondering why (as you mentioned) the female dogs of a certain age are more prone to disagreeing within households?
Sp Greaney from Ireland on September 07, 2020:
I never realised that some dogs might just be afraid or against interacting with puppies. That's very interesting.
I think the onus should always be on the pet owner to ensure that both the dog and the puppy learn to respect each other and live cohesively.