Features July 2014 Issue

5 Things To Do If Your Dog Snaps at a Guest

If you’ve never had to deal with that alarming moment when your beloved dog snaps at a guest in your home, you are fortunate. I hope you never do. But just in case, it’s good to know that, first, you’re not alone – lots of dogs have snapped at guests in their homes (or worse!). Second, it’s not the end of the world; it doesn’t mean you need to euthanize your dog and it doesn’t mean your dog will inevitably maul someone. It is, however, an important heads-up for you. How you handle the situation can often determine if your dog’s aggression toward visitors escalates or diminishes. So if it happens, here’s what you need to do:

dog ready to snap

Any dog can be caught off guard and snap. But if he has done it more than once, you need to take immediate steps to protect your dog and guests from one another.

1. Calmly remove your dog from the situation.

No scolding, no yelling, and no physical punishment. Gently take hold of her collar, lead her to a quiet room away from the action, and leave her there with a bowl of water and a chew toy. Your visitor may expect you to punish your dog, even “alpha roll” her, if he’s watched a certain television show. Don’t let your guest pressure you into doing something you know is wrong and that you will regret later. Your dog is your dog!

2. Calmly apologize to your guest.

Of course you will make sure your guest wasn’t injured (“snap” implies no actual contact). But then it will suffice to say, calmly, “I am sorry Missy snapped at you.” Your guest doesn’t need an anxious, shrill litany of “Omigosh Missy has never, ever done anything like that before! I am so, so sorry she did that to you! I can’t imagine what got into her! I hope we don’t have to get rid of her!” Histrionics will inflame the situation and can turn a minor incident into a major event.

3. Ask questions about the incident.

If this is new behavior on Missy’s part, you want to identify what might have happened so you can take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (If it is not new behavior, shame on you for allowing it to happen again!) Quietly ask your guest some version of these questions in a non-accusing manner:

- Can you tell me what happened?
- What were you doing when she snapped at you?
- What was she doing just before she snapped at you?
- Did you see any signs that she wasn’t comfortable with you?

4. Make notes of the dog snapping.

As soon as you are able, write down everything you can think of about the incident. Describe the person she snapped at in detail – age, gender, race, size, unusual features (beard, glasses, etc.), what the person was wearing, if there was anything in his hands, and yes, what he was doing.

Include information about where the incident happened, the weather, and any unusual occurrences in the dog’s world over the previous two days (for example, she killed a bunny yesterday in the yard, there was a thunderstorm last night, she didn’t eat her breakfast this morning). Because stress is cumulative and aggression is caused by stress, this may help you come to understand why this out-of-character behavior happened. If additional incidents do occur in the future, you will have a good record to share with the behavior professional you enlist to help you.

5. Closely monitor your dog’s behavior around future guests and other humans in any context.

Watch carefully for signs that she is stressed, including the dog lowering her body and tail, turning her head, averting her eyes, pinning her ears back, panting, licking her lips, avoiding contact, rolling over, and more. (For more information about recognizing signs of stress in dogs, see “Listen by Looking,” WDJ August 2011.) Manage her carefully to avoid putting other guests at risk. Remove her to a safe place if she appears anything but relaxed and happy with visitors. If you continue to see signs of stress or distress around visitors, keep taking detailed notes, and seek the assistance of a positive behavior professional who can help you help her become safer and more comfortable with humans.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Pat is also the author of many books on positive training. 

Comments (2)

This is a good article but it doesn't say what you should do from a legal standpoint . Especially what to do to save the dogs life. Here is an article that says what you should do. Google "what to do if your dog bites someone" on the pet helpful website. I tried to post the link but external links are not allowed.

If you're out and about when your dog bites someone, put the dog in the house in a crate.

Help the person that has been bitten and drive them to the doctor if they need to go, but DON'T say that the bite was your dogs fault.

If the police show up, just tell them the situation is being dealt with. They cannot enter your house without a warrant and they cannot seize the dog! If they continue to harass you, tell them to talk to your lawyer. This step is very important as dogs that have been seized by police are euthanized.

Obviously there are additional steps in the article such as hiring a trainer with a lot of experience in dog bites and fear-based aggression. And obviously you do not want a trainer that uses punishment like Cesar Milan and similar types because it's ineffective in the long run and it makes aggression and fear worse.

Also, if the police ever come to your house for any reason, tell them you have to put the dog away and then put the dog away in a crate before you open the door to talk to the police. Too many dogs have been accidentally shot for no crime other than barking and scaring the police officers. Better safe than sorry.

Posted by: Beckys11 | December 28, 2017 7:55 PM    Report this comment

I have a super-submissive 12 yoa German Shepherd. She can be protective if I am upset or feeling defensive, but overall is very even tempered with all ages. She was abused as a puppy before I got her.

Her typical response to anyone petting her, except for me, is to lay her ears back and lower her head, this has gone on for 12 years and does not indicate any discomfort from her, just submissiveness. She goes to people to be petted with head down and ears back, but she goes to them.

Last weekend we had a 17 month old in the house, after about 12 hours with the 2 of them interacting my Nanuke entered the house and lay down on her bed 3 minutes ahead of me. The child followed with his mother and grandparents. When I entered all I heard was something about her ears being back. They were all freaked out, my mother was in the house and saw the entire incident. The report was that Nanuke was laying on her bed, and the boy walked towards the bed the grandfather said "oh my god her ears are back" and they jerked him up. Don't know where they had been all day but every time he came to her bed to pet her she put her head down with ears back, I had supervised every one of their interactions for 12 hours. The little guy wasn't afraid, as soon as I came in they put him down and he was right back on her bed petting her, with my supervision of course.

I know all dogs bite, she has teeth. But she is not going to hurt a child, she would cry and cringe before she would put teeth on him even if he hurt her. She is well protected and knows someone will help her out of any situation.

I have started trying to train the visitors in my house to respect her as much as I am expected to respect them in my house. Until this past weekend it had worked perfectly and I anticipate it continuing to work.

I have separated her from people, and allowed her to go out or into the garage at her indication of discomfort but typically she wants to be on her bed in the living room watching everyone. I expect her to behave, but I never forget that people are unpredictable and can cause problems for her. I think I trust her actions/reactions much more than I trust those of the visitors to my house. We have all ages, birth to 90's, mentally handicapped, physically handicapped, etc in and out and she handles it all with grace. I believe part of this is because she is basically with me as much as a service dog is with their handler and knows how to behave in these situations.

Good ideas though on remove, gather information, then decide on a plan of action.

Posted by: Recekayla | August 6, 2014 11:24 PM    Report this comment

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