Hello Chad, I wanted to talk to you about my dog who’s having some strange out of character behavior. She is a small stafford mixed with pit— she is a mama’s girl and is always by my side. She listens and is very sweet. She typically doesn’t care for other dogs, cats or other small animals, that is my reason for reaching out to you. 

Back in January our other dog passed away and we decided to get her a new friend so she wouldn’t be lonely. We got a pitbull puppy who was 9 weeks old. Recently we have noticed that she is growing fast and is quickly approaching our older dog’s height. Not sure if this makes her nervous or angry that this small puppy is now as big as her and maybe could challenge her for her alpha spot?? 

On the 5th, I was playing fetch with the puppy trying to wear her down a little as we had family over and she was a little too energetic. The older dog was outside but mostly left us alone. At one point she wanted to join in but I told her to leave it and she did b/c she usually listens to me. She is 9 and has had some surgeries done, so I don't play too much fetch with her b/c she starts to limp. Then she went after the puppy to attack. We got them away and the pup had minor puncture wounds in her front left forearm. I  figured she was not going for a kill, but just to injure and maybe show her dominance or that this is her house? So we kept the dogs separate for a while and slowly started letting them hang out. Then on the 10th, my husband got a little too relaxed and allowed for the doggy door to be left open, which meant that she had access to the back yard. The puppy was outside and started playing with something and the older dog ran out and attacked her. This was a really bad one b/c my husband was alone and he’s also recovering from an injury so he’s not walking well. He had to get help from our neighbor to separate them. She ended up breaking the puppy’s front right forearm, she is now in the emergency hospital. I  wanted to reach out and see if there is a way to help her? This is really out of character for her and now I feel I can't even trust her. I’ve never had to go to a behaviorist. So please let me know if this is a situation you feel like you could help us with, we’re very much interested in finding a way to have harmony in the home again. Thank you,




The Short Answer: Please don’t be discouraged by my answer, because your case may not be as serious, but in this particular case, the puppy needs to be removed from that house immediately. To be clear, I’ve helped in many cases where older dogs are mean to puppies at first and it was totally resolvable. However, in this case, the degree of injury already inflicted and future risk to the puppy is over the top. There are also a lot of red flags in the email, as well as the phone conversation we had, that lead me to believe this case would be an almost guaranteed failure. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in miracles, I am just not willing to risk a puppy's life hoping for one. 


The Medium Answer: After rehoming the puppy; train the older dog to a high level of obedience and begin muzzle conditioning immediately. Socialize the dog with a variety of other dogs, to the extent that it can be done safely. Do not attempt to do this on your own, you will need the assistance of a competent, experienced, hands-on, in-person, balanced trainer. Be prepared to put in a lot of time, effort and money. Do not even consider adding a new dog to the mix until you have accomplished these things. 


The Long Answer: The concepts and tips below are for readers who are dealing with a similar situation but where the aggression is much less violent and where there is much greater hope for success on the part of the humans involved. If you are not sure of the seriousness of your situation, please contact me or find a trainer that you trust in your area. If you think you may have a salvageable situation or are simply interested in learning more about dog aggression rehab, please read on.


Possibilities vs Probabilities: I am a huge advocate for behavioral rehabilitation of aggressive dogs. I truly believe that anything is possible. I believe in miracles. However, I am also a realist, I am aware that miracles cannot be relied upon and I have come to realize that there is a huge gap between what is possible and what is probable


I have worked with nearly 5,000 pet dogs and their owners. Many of those were “aggressive” dogs. Quite a few had been recommended for euthanasia by vets, breeders, rescue organizations, behaviorists and professional dog trainers. A lot of these “hopeless” cases were “rehabilitated” shockingly easily, often in days or a single lesson. Sometimes I have had amazing results in a matter of minutes. I have had clients say “It’s a miracle” with tears of joy in their eyes as they see their dog playing with other dogs or being petted by strangers for the first time…but it was not really a miracle and not all cases are that easy. 


The “miracle” behind these success stories, besides an understanding of balanced dog training, is that most dogs are simply not vicious. In fact, most “aggressive dogs” are just lashing out because of fear or frustration and are actually not aggressive at all, not by my standards anyhow. We really need to have some sort of industry standard for defining aggression or the various degrees of behaviors that people tend to call aggression. 


On the other hand, there are those less common but extreme aggression cases, such as the one that started this article, and those are not going to be fast and easy turnarounds. Dealing with dogs that can and will cause serious injuries to people, dogs and other animals is risky business. This will be a major project, there are no guarantees of success and a reality check is in order. This is where we go from possibilities to probabilities. There may be exceptions, miracles do happen, they are possible, they are just not probable


Reality Check: I have found that very few dog owners have what it takes to deal with rehabilitating dogs with extreme aggression. I have also found that we need to be very clear about how we define “rehabilitation” in these cases because some people seem to think you can give their dog a personality transplant, which is impossible. In other words, there are almost always limitations to what people can and will invest in terms of time, money and energy and there are limitations to what can be achieved no matter how committed you are or how good your trainer is. 


For example: Some dogs just don’t like other dogs or at least not dogs that they don’t know very well or there may just be certain dogs that they don’t get along with or they don’t tolerate puppies or whatever. You can’t turn these dogs into happy-go-lucky dogs that love every dog they meet and tolerate every obnoxious young dog at the dog park that jumps on them, barks at them, tries to hump them, etc. When we are talking about dogs that have caused hospitalization or death, they will always need to be controlled and managed because once they lose their cool they will cause harm again. You can train seriously aggressive dogs to be manageable and obedient but they will simply never be trusted to be at liberty in certain situations. Even when it seems like you can trust them, you can’t. You can never let your guard down. Most people cannot realistically make the sort of commitment to deal with a dog like this.


Fortunately, very few dogs fall into the category of extreme aggression, so chances are very good that whatever you are dealing with is totally fixable. Even the extreme cases are often not that difficult to live with. Like the dog in our question, she sounds like a sweet dog, they have had her for nine years without any problems, she was fine with the dog she was raised with, they simply need to rehome the puppy and let her live out her life in a single dog home. On the other hand, if they insist on keeping the puppy, now we are talking about a tall order with a very low probability of success. 


Know Thyself: How committed are you to making this work? What is your personal history on following through on your commitments? Be honest, how much are you willing to change your lifestyle? How much are you willing to change your beliefs and the way you interact with dogs? How much are you willing to spend on training? If you are not up for completing the task, don’t start it. Rehome the puppy while they are still young and cute and haven’t been psychologically damaged from repeated attacks by the older dog. If you are committed, please read on.  


Know Thy Dog: How aggressive is your dog? How big is your dog? How powerful is your dog? How much danger is the new puppy in? The dog in our question is a staffy-pit mix, this is a very powerful breed. She got a hold of the puppy and wouldn’t let go. The man couldn’t stop her. It required help from the neighbor to get the dog off of the puppy and she bit the puppy so hard that it broke her leg! This is extreme and if it continues she will probably kill the puppy. If you are dealing with something like that, please stop reading and go find a home for the puppy immediately. Otherwise, let’s continue: 


Management: Management has to do with putting up safeguards so that everything is controlled and goes as planned. Having the dogs on leash for controlled interactions is management. Keeping the dogs separated with doors, gates and crates is management. Putting a muzzle on the dog is management. Management is the key to success in any dog training and behavior modification program and ultra-strict management is absolutely critical when dealing with aggressive dogs that do harm. Unfortunately, when it comes to pet dog owners, management is virtually guaranteed to fail. The email we are discussing is a perfect example; they knew their puppy was in danger, yet they couldn’t even make it five days without a management failure. What are the chances that there won’t be another management failure in that house? They would probably need to make a 180 in the way they live their lives. What about you? Can you maintain an airtight management system? This takes us back to the Know Thyself segment.  


Dominance: In the question she ponders, “Not sure if this makes her nervous or angry that this small puppy is now as big as her and maybe could challenge her for her alpha spot??” The concepts of dominance hierarchies in dogs is a heated topic with no standard definition of terms. However, it is widely accepted that dominance is a form of ritualized aggression that helps to maintain peace and avoid serious fights and injuries within the pack. It is also widely accepted that dominance has to do with controlling resources. Therefore, we can say with certainty that going for the legs is not dominance. That was absolutely done with the intent to injure, maim and eliminate the competition. If it had gone on the puppy would have almost certainly been killed. In this case, you are dealing with a violent and maliciously aggressive dog…at least when it comes to this particular puppy. Is it possible that the dog will be fine with a different puppy or with an older dog? Sure, it’s possible but we are talking about a nine year old pit with no socialization, so it’s highly unlikely. This dog would need to be on leash and muzzle for quite a while, perhaps permanently, which takes us back to the issue of Management and how likely it is to have a failure. 


Human Leadership: If we are going to talk in terms of a dominance hierarchy, it is essential that the humans are at the top. The humans should be dominant over the dogs. The dogs should see the humans as authority figures and look to them for guidance. The humans should be providing structure, guidance and exercise for the dogs. The humans lead, the dogs follow, that’s how it SHOULD be. The more dogs you have, the more important this becomes. The more powerful the breed, the more important this becomes. The more intense or aggressive the dog, the more important this becomes. 


Establishing and enforcing some basic rules and commands would be a good start for establishing leadership. Even if you can’t keep the puppy, you can get off to a new start with your old dog and maybe add a puppy later. Try these: 

  • Sit and wait to be released at feeding time. 2 x day, do not free feed. 
  • Wait at doors, no barging through doorways without permission. 
  • Learn how to pop the leash correctly and consistently maintain a loose leash
  • Teach the dog to heel properly and down-stay for long durations 
  • Teach “Leave It”
  • Teach controlled games of tug and fetch
  • Play Hard To Get – never give your dog any uninvited attention, give attention by invite only.

Jealousy, Resentment and Competition: By the second sentence of the question we read,she is a mama’s girl and is always by my side, she listens and is very sweet.” That statement hints that the dog is probably a little bit spoiled and coddled…or at least she was until this new puppy came along. She is most likely used to being the center of “Mom’s” attention and probably isn’t too fond of the new pup getting a lot of attention. Not only that but the puppy is getting to play exciting games that are being withheld from the older dog due to injuries. This creates an overstimulating situation combined with competition, jealousy and resentment. There would need to be super high levels of control in place to pull this off, which takes us back to the Leadership issue. It would be better to avoid having the dogs together in situations that create competition until you have the skills to play games with both dogs together. Now we are back to Management, which failed because somebody left the doggie door open. It's not easy, your management has to be airtight.


Pain or Medical Condition: On the phone she asked me,Could it be that the older dog is in pain or has a brain tumor?” She probably does have some pain, since she’s had some surgeries, but the puppy was not even near her in either of the attacks. She went out of her way and without any warning, without any display of dominance,  and attacked the puppy with intent to harm. It doesn’t sound like a brain malfunction of any sort to me. She is not being aggressive towards any of the humans or other animals in the family. She is not going into random states of rage. It is a targeted attack by an unsocialized pit that “typically doesn’t care for other dogs, cats or other small animals” and is being subjected to an overstimulating, competitive situation with a new puppy. Looking through that lens, this is a totally predictable behavior. That said, if your dog is showing a sudden onset of uncharacteristic behavior you should definitely go see your vet. 


Genetics: Understanding the genetic traits of your dog’s breed is important. Breed dictates more than just cuteness, it dictates size, strength, speed, energy levels, endurance, health and temperament. It is not doggie racism to talk about breed traits, it is simply a fact that humans have bred dogs to enhance or decrease various traits, including aggression. For example: Any breed can be aggressive but some are more likely to be aggressive and some can do a lot more damage than others when they do act aggressively. So, breed matters and the responsibility you have to train, socialize and establish leadership goes way up with powerful breeds that have a history of being used for guarding, protecting and fighting…German shepherds, rottweilers, pit bulls, dobermans, etc. 


In the email that started this article, she has pit bulls, or staffordshire terriers, which are very similar. These breeds are not huge, but they are very powerful and have been bred for aggression towards other animals, including dogs. They have been bred to have grit or gameness. They are often referred to as being “battle bred” or the “gladiators” of the dog world and they are the most common breed used for illegal dog fighting. They are also one of the most common and beloved dogs found in rescues. They can be super sweet and goofy. They are known for being good with kids and rarely have aggression towards people. They can fight a dog to the death but they can also be couch potatoes, so they don’t require huge amounts of exercise compared to other power breeds such as shepherds or malinois. It’s a combination of traits that often surprises people. Nonetheless, if you have a pit, or any power breed, you should really do some research and go the extra mile when it comes to exercising, training and socializing. 


Adolescence: Puppies don’t stay puppies for long. By six month old they have adult teeth. By eight months old they are becoming sexually mature. Sometimes older dogs will tolerate a young pup, or “give them a puppy pass” as some people call it, but as the pup matures the older dogs tend to become less tolerant. This is commonly when you might start to see more competitive behavior, dominance or, as is the case here, out and out attacks on the youngster. The pit puppy in this case was around 6 or 7 months old, right on track for what I just described.  


Fulfillment: Fulfilling the needs of whatever dog you have is a critical component in managing, avoiding or rehabilitating dog aggression. This goes back to Genetics and Leadership. Genetics dictate the needs your dog has and leadership is about leading your dog to a fulfilling life. Leading is not dominating, leading is initiating. A good leader may be dominant, but they also lead in a way that inspires following. Lead your dog to plenty of fun and fulfilling activities on a daily basis and your relationship will thrive, your dog’s behavior will improve and any remaining issues will be much easier to manage. 




If you have a situation where the older dog is not getting along with the puppy and you are worried about an attack or if you have already had an attack, you need to look into the mirror and review some of the questions from this article. How bad is it? Are you really up for doing what needs to be done? Is this a salvageable situation or not? If you feel like you are up for a challenge, then please seek some professional help. Be prepared to try multiple trainers because very few are qualified to help with such a situation. Whatever you do, the most important thing is to make sure the puppy is safe. That means management, management, management. On a final note; feel free to contact me and remember that there is no shame in sending the puppy to a good home where they will be safe from a dog attack. Sometimes we need to meet the needs of the dog we already have before adding a new pack member. 





Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant and Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

Check out for more free articles, videos and sign up for the weekly newsletter.

Subscribe to Thriving Canine YouTube Channel 

Apply for membership of the THRIVING CANINE UNIVERSITY Facebook group. (please read the rules before joining)