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Dealing With An Aggressive Jack Russell

Jack Russells are typically big dogs in a little dog's body. With a terrier's notoriously strong will, high intelligence, and independence, these dogs need spirited, experienced and creative owners.

Types of Aggression

There are two ways in which a dog can demonstrate aggressive tendencies: aggression towards another dog, and aggression towards a human. Dog-on-dog aggression is reasonably simple in nature and stems from your Jack Russell's lack of fear, intense possessive tendencies (over you, a toy, his garden, the park, and so on) and characteristic "bantam syndrome" (strong desire to prove his strength and abilities to everyone bigger than him).

Aggression towards a human, on the other hand, is much more complex and forms the subject matter for the following article.


Aggression and dominance are closely interrelated in dogs. Your Jack Russell, despite natural tendencies towards bullying and bossing others around, will never act aggressively towards you unless you have permitted him (wittingly or unwittingly) to assume a dominant position over you in the household.

But Why Would He Think That?

Dogs are preprogrammed to function as pack animals. In the wild, the wolf pack - ancestors of your Jack Russell - required a system of social interaction to ensure that all pack members could communicate appropriately without causing accidental offence. The alpha wolf makes all the decisions and gets to boss everyone around. The 2 nd wolf gets to boss everyone around except the alpha, whom he shows deference to. The 3 rd wolf in line gets to boss everyone around except the 2 nd and alpha wolves.... all the way to the last wolf, who doesn't get to boss everyone around and is subordinate to all. This method of communication ensures that, when someone acts in a submissive or dominant manner, it sends a clear message to the intended recipient and everyone understands what it means - and can then act accordingly, with no shilly-shallying.

Your Jack Russell will think of himself as the alpha wolf unless you actively prove to him from a young age that you are the alpha and will brook no nonsense.

How Can I Be Sure?

Signs of dominance-related aggression include things like habitually entering doors before you, and snapping at you if you come near while he's eating, playing with a favored toy, or reclining on his favorite piece of furniture. He may also bully you for affection by nosing and pawing at you insistently and barking and whining when you're reading, on the phone, or otherwise occupied.

If your dog respected you and was aware that he comes below you in the pecking order, he would never act in this manner - so if he's doing any of those things, you may be certain that he considers himself above you in the chain of command.

How Do I Become the Boss Again?

Presumably, your Jack Russell is already showing signs of aggression and/or dominance, so it's really past the stage of preventative measures.

You need to take the reins back and become the authority figure in the house using a system of exchanges: you no longer do anything for him until he does something for you. This means, no dinner until he's demonstrated a sit-stay; make him sit and wait for you to enter doors in front of him; get him to lie down and be still before petting him; etc. Feel free to treat him (food treats work especially well on this breed) once he's acted well, but never before.

Dealing With Active Aggression

For behavior such as lunging, guarding (where you're not "allowed" on furniture, near his food bowl, or to touch a toy when he's playing with it) and snarling, you need to take quick steps before someone gets a nasty bite. You need to reinforce the advantages you have over him (size, for example) and make him do things.

  • If he won't allow you onto the couch/chair while he's on it, grab him by the collar and unceremoniously dump him onto the ground.
  • If he growls at you, snarl loudly and deeply at him - "NOOOOOO!" and shake him by the scruff of the neck.
  • If he's ignoring your commands or otherwise acting rudely, isolate him quickly. Shut him outside, in a kennel, or tether him in the yard. Don't let him back in until he's quiet and not protesting. Repeat as necessary: don't be afraid to isolate him for bad behavior.


If your Jack Russell snaps at you, this is a serious transgression and must be dealt with by a professional. A dog who deliberately tries to bite his owner (as in, not a jokey play-bite when wrestling) is making one thing very clear: he's the boss and he'll defend that position from you - and is prepared to hurt you in order to protect his position.

Don't think a near-miss is a mistake. A snap at you that misses your skin is a deliberate, final warning ("this is your last chance to back off"). The next one will likely break the skin, and will hurt considerably more!

You need to enlist the services of a trained, humane, experienced canine behavioral-modification specialist straight away before the matter worsens. Don't think it will get better on its own; there's no point hiding your head in the sand. There is a potentially very nasty situation on your hands and you definitely shouldn't be dealing with it without the assistance of a professional - you run the risk of actually worsening the matter unless you know from experience exactly what you're doing. Ask your vet to recommend a trainer experienced in canine aggression to you and contact them immediately.

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