Golden Retrievers are well-known for their friendly personalities, so you might be surprised to hear that Golden Retrievers can bite.
Of course, any dog can bite, even if they’re of a breed that’s usually affectionate and non-aggressive like Goldens.
So in this article, you will learn:
- What causes Golden Retrievers to bite
- Warning signs that your Golden might bite
- How to prevent your dog from biting
What Causes Golden Retrievers To Bite?
Before we jump into the reasons why Goldens might bite, let’s first talk about what we mean by biting.
Puppy nipping is playful or attention-seeking in nature, even though it doesn’t feel so fun on the human end of things.
We also aren’t talking about mouthiness where a Golden might, for example, gently hold your arm in their mouth.
Not all Goldens do this, but it’s common when they are excited or overstimulated.
Goldens are retrievers, and the instinct to hold things in their mouth is strong.
Sometimes that thing might be your hand, arm or sleeve.
We are talking about bites that stem from aggression, which can have different causes.
Additionally, it’s important to state that dogs of any age can bite aggressively.
It’s not common for young Golden Retriever puppies to bite aggressively, but it can and does happen.
Now let’s discuss the reasons that a Golden Retriever might bite.
If a Golden Retriever is in pain, they may be more likely to bite people or another dog.
For example, if they have an ear infection and you go to give them some ear scratches, they might growl, snap or even bite out of a reaction to the pain your touch created.
Even if your dog normally loves ear scratches, pain can trigger a dramatic change in their behavior.
In other instances, you may not even touch your dog, but they still might act aggressively out of pain.
Perhaps a Golden has joint pain from an orthopedic issue.
Chronic pain can result in behavior changes, including aggression.
Maybe you just sit on the couch near them, or your other dog walks past them and they growl, snap or bite.
An often overlooked source of pain is dental disease or an injured tooth, which can potentially cause an otherwise behaviorally normal Golden Retriever to act aggressively.
Any time a dog shows a sudden change in behavior, talk to your vet to rule out the possibility of pain.
Similar to pain, other health-related issues can be a contributing factor to aggressive behavior.
Conditions such as epilepsy, hypothyroidism, and more can lower a dog’s inhibition and make an aggressive bite more likely.
Some of these conditions can be passed down through genetics as well.
Again, if your dog develops aggression or bites, talk to your vet to first rule out any health problems.
While Golden Retrievers aren’t usually shy or nervous, there can still be moments where they might become fearful.
If a dog is experiencing intense fear, they might bite in an attempt to make the scary thing go away so that they can feel safer.
It could be that a dog had a traumatic experience, they are startled, or they simply get very scared.
For example, let’s say your Golden Retriever had to be restrained at the vet in order to have blood drawn, and they were highly distressed by that experience.
The next time you take them to the vet, they may act aggressively toward the vet, perhaps even biting, because they’re so fearful of being restrained and poked.
Here’s another example of fearfulness leading to a bite.
Your Golden loves adults but is wary of children because they haven’t spent much time around kids.
Your family is visiting, including your young niece, who is mesmerized by your Golden’s beautiful coat and adorable face.
When you’re not looking, your niece approaches your dog for some pets, but your dog retreats into a corner in an attempt to get away.
Your niece doesn’t understand that your dog is afraid, and continues to approach.
She reaches out her hand toward the dog’s head, and your dog is so freaked out that they snap or bite the child’s hand.
Fearfulness can also cause a dog to bite another dog or another animal.
Some Golden Retrievers might be more generally fearful, and for others the fearfulness is situational.
Either way, fearfulness can trigger a bite in some situations.
Resource guarding is when a dog reacts to a perceived threat to something they find valuable.
It could be a toy, a food bowl, a shoe, a piece of trash, or even a spot on the couch.
The dog might growl, snap or bite in an attempt to make the person or dog they feel is a threat go away.
Unfortunately, resource guarding isn’t uncommon within the Golden Retriever breed.
The prevalence might be connected to the breed’s strong retrieving instinct and desire to have things in their mouth.
There may be a genetic component to resource guarding, but it can also be a learned behavior.
A dog might resource guard if you reach to take something away from them, or if another dog tries to steal it.
Some dogs might even resource guard if you, or another animal, simply walks toward them or by them while they have something they feel is valuable.
Resource guarding can become dangerous, so it’s best to get professional help with this issue to prevent biting and keep everyone in your home safe.
While many Golden Retrievers enjoy interacting with new people and dogs, some might react aggressively if a person or animal enters their “territory.”
This might be your home, yard, or vehicle.
Depending on the intensity of the dog’s territorial feelings, their behavior could escalate to a bite.
Some Goldens might be totally fine meeting other dogs, away from home, for example, but as soon as they come onto your (and their) property, they act aggressively.
In general, Golden Retrievers aren’t known as the best guard dogs, as their typically friendly nature makes them very welcoming of strangers.
But that doesn’t mean that some Goldens can’t be territorial.
Just like humans, dogs can have conflicts within their social relationships with one another.
And if that conflict escalates, it can result in a bite.
There can be many reasons for social conflict.
For example, perhaps a dog is somewhat socially unaware.
They are over-excited when around other dogs and continually try to engage a Golden Retriever by jumping on their back.
The Golden is giving all the signals they can that they don’t want to play and would prefer to be left alone.
But this other dog is persistent and though they are playful, it’s pretty rude behavior.
The Golden may growl, snap or even bite the other dog if their more subtle communication is ignored.
Similar to social conflict, some aggression may be motivated by competition for mating.
Same-sex aggression is when female dogs show aggression toward other females, and males show aggression toward other males.
This can happen even if a dog is spayed or neutered.
For some male Goldens, this type of aggression may show itself only if they are around a female in heat.
And for some females, they may show aggression toward other dogs when they are in heat.
But for other dogs, both male and female, the aggression might be triggered regardless of the heat cycle.
The presence of another dog of the same sex alone is enough to trigger aggression.
Redirection can happen if you try to intervene when your dog is acting aggressively toward another dog or person.
You might try to pull them away, and they whip around and bite you.
The aggression that was aimed at the other dog or person gets redirected onto you.
Again, Goldens are generally friendly with people and dogs, so redirection isn’t too common.
But it can happen if your Golden reacts aggressively toward others.
This is often an overlooked source of aggression and biting, but it can happen with Golden Retrievers.
If a dog is sufficiently frustrated, they may react with a bite.
For example, it’s common for Golden Retrievers to become excited when they see a person or other dog.
They might want to go say hi, but they can’t because they’re on leash.
A frustrated dog may turn and bite the person holding the leash, which would be redirection.
Or if you were walking multiple dogs, the frustrated dog may redirect a bite onto one of those dogs.
A frustrated dog can become a bite risk, depending on the situation.
Sometimes female Golden Retrievers may become aggressive toward people or other dogs after giving birth.
The hormones her body produces after having puppies can prompt her to growl, snap or even bite in an attempt to protect her puppies.
Often, this behavior diminishes as the puppies grow up a bit and aren’t quite so small and vulnerable.
However, there are some female dogs in which aggression persists.
This can create issues, as young Golden Retriever puppies need socialization with new people and dogs.
This isn’t common in Golden Retrievers, but it’s still a possibility.
Predatory aggression happens when a dog’s prey drive is triggered by a moving animal, such as a small dog, cat or child.
What may begin as a game of chase can escalate to a serious bite if the prey drive kicks in.
The instincts take over and the dog goes into predation mode.
Golden Retrievers usually have pretty low prey drive, so the risk of predatory aggression is low, but not impossible.
A dog’s genetics play a big role in what their temperament and behavior is like.
While behavior is also influenced by their learning history and environment, behavior like fearfulness, resource guarding, aggression and more can be passed down through DNA.
If you’re getting a puppy from a breeder, you’ll want to ask questions to find out what the temperament of the parents and other relatives are like.
Ask if you can visit the parents so you can have firsthand experience of their personalities.
And ask if the breeder can put you in touch with people who have purchased puppies from them before so you can find out what their pups are like too.
Avoid getting a puppy from a puppy mill or breeder who keeps their dogs in a kennel and not in the house, as you have no way of knowing what those dogs are like living in a home environment or when out on a walk in a neighborhood.
Those dogs could have serious behavior issues that could be passed onto your puppy, but no one would know because they aren’t living with the dogs.
Warning Signs That a Golden Retriever Might Bite
Sometimes after a bite happens, people will say that it came out of nowhere.
But if you know what to look for, there are warning signs that indicate a dog may escalate to aggressive behavior, including biting.
Once you are aware, you can take action to prevent your dog from biting, which we will discuss next.
Awareness is the first step, so let’s go over some of the key warning signs.
Getting a Golden Retriever puppy? Get the 30-day game plan to raise them into the dog you’ve always dream of with the Golden Retriever Puppy Handbook here
Dog Body Language
Dogs communicate how they are feeling through body language.
They don’t speak human language, which is obvious.
Yet often we don’t understand or listen to what they are communicating with their bodies.
Sometimes when we don’t recognize their body language as a sign of aggression, it can get us into trouble with a potential bite.
Here are some key dog body language signals to look out for:
Signs of stress
- Looking away
- Panting (when not hot or thirsty)
- Ears back
- Furrowed brow
- Tongue flick (as if licking their lips)
- Moving slowly, slinking around
- Yawning (when not tired)
- Hypervigilance, scanning the environment
- Refusing food (when they normally will eat)
- Moving away from person, dog, object etc.
- Pacing back and forth
- Sniffing the ground
- Scratching their body
- Shaking off (as if wet)
- Tucked tail
Signs of aggression
- High and stiff tail (sometimes wagging, sometimes still)
- Raised hackles (that’s the fur on top of their shoulders and rump)
- Forward leaning posture
- Stiff Body
- Ears up and forward
- Hard stare
- Baring teeth
Dogs will often use more subtle indications that they are uncomfortable, stressed or afraid in an attempt to diffuse the situation without escalating to aggression.
And if those signals are ignored, they will start using bigger, more obvious communication.
This is why people will say that a bite came out of nowhere.
They miss the many subtle ways that a dog is asking a person, dog, or other animal to move away.
Then the dog feels so stressed or agitated that they growl, snap, or bite.
All body language has to be considered as a whole picture within that specific context.
For example, some Goldens may growl while playing tug-o-war with a rope toy, but it’s purely playful.
If you look at their other body language, you can assess that they are enjoying the game and not at risk of biting.
While sniffing the ground may be a sign of stress, dogs sniff the ground all the time for other reasons too.
But if you observe that your Golden Retriever is looking away, licking their lips with their ears back and sniffing the ground like there’s suddenly something very interesting to check out, then it’s likely they are stressed out.
How to Prevent Your Golden Retriever from Biting
Listen to Dog Body Language
Now that you understand some of the key body language signs to watch out for, you can take action when you notice them.
If you see your dog showing indications of stress, help them feel better.
This usually means helping your dog get more distance from the situation that is triggering them by guiding your dog away, or asking others to move away.
It may also mean avoiding those situations altogether.
When we ignore a dog’s body language and continue to stress them out, whether intentionally or unintentionally, a bite becomes more likely.
A threshold is a point at which a trigger becomes intense enough to create a reaction.
For example, your dog might be fine with people unless they are within five feet, and then they begin to bark and lunge.
Or your Golden is okay when other dogs walk by unless that dog is barking.
Then they start to growl and snarl.
It’s important to understand your dog’s thresholds when it comes to things that might trigger stress or aggressive behavior.
This way you can take steps to ensure they stay below their threshold.
The more a dog is pushed over threshold, the more likely they are to react in the future.
Advocate For Your Dog
Sometimes your dog will need you to be their advocate so they can feel safe and comfortable.
Dogs don’t use human language and so often their body language is ignored or misunderstood.
They need you to speak and act on their behalf as they navigate our human world.
You might need to tell well-meaning people that they cannot pet your dog.
You may need to cross the street to avoid an oncoming dog that is likely to invade your pup’s personal space.
It might mean finding a new vet who is willing to work with you to make vet procedures a more positive experience.
You may put your dog in a room with a delicious bone while your nephews are visiting so your dog isn’t stressed out all afternoon.
Of course, the world can be unpredictable and things can happen despite our best efforts, but you can really help out your dog by stepping up as their advocate.
Socialize Your Puppy
Puppy socialization can help buffer against fearfulness and aggression.
The best time to socialize your puppy is before 16 weeks of age, as what they experience during that phase sets a precedent for the rest of their life.
Proper socialization can build a puppy’s confidence and help them feel at ease with all the things they will encounter throughout their lifetime.
Puppies that are undersocialized are more likely to be fearful, which can make your life very hard.
Socialization goes beyond just meeting other people and dogs, and includes sights, sounds, environments and experiences.
For Golden Retrievers, it’s also important to balance meeting other people and dogs with simply observing people and dogs.
If the majority of a young puppy’s experiences with people and dogs involve up-close meet-and-greets and playtimes, then they will come to expect that every time they see a person or dog.
And it can be very frustrating for them when they are not allowed to say hello, and in some cases this can grow into reactivity or even frustration-based aggression.
The majority of the dogs and people your Golden sees as an adult dog will just be passing by and are not an opportunity for interaction.
This is why it’s critical that your puppy also has plenty of exposure to observing people and dogs.
Avoid putting your puppy in scary or stressful situations, as those experiences can create long-lasting negative associations and fears.
Try to make experiences positive so that your puppy is well-adjusted both at home and out in the world.
Socialization is not a guarantee that a puppy won’t develop behavior issues as they mature, as there are other factors such as genetics that influence behavior.
But it can go a long way to bring out the best in your puppy and prevent potential problems.
Get Professional Help
If your dog is showing aggressive behavior, it’s best to get professional assistance so that you, your dog, and your community stay safe.
Don’t wait for your dog to land a bite before you reach out for help.
Even if your dog isn’t showing aggression, but is displaying signs of fear, stress, or frustration, it’s a good idea to get help, to avoid things snowballing into a more serious situation.
And if you have a fearful Golden Retriever puppy, you’ll also want to work with a professional sooner rather than later.
Talk to your vet so you can rule out any medical or physical causes for the behavior.
Get in touch with a certified dog behavior consultant who can work one-on-one with you and your dog.
Always work with a professional who utilizes positive reinforcement training methods, as aversive methods that utilize punishment or pain can make issues worse.
You may also find it helpful to work with a veterinary behaviorist, as sometimes medication can be a valuable tool when it comes to behavior issues.
Uncommon But Not Impossible
Golden Retrievers are such popular dogs largely because of their typically easygoing, friendly dispositions, and are not known as an aggressive breed.
However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for a Golden Retriever to be aggressive or even bite.
It’s important to look at every dog as a unique individual and not assume that because a dog is a Golden Retriever they aren’t capable of biting.
If this article was helpful, you might also like this one about how to stop Golden Retriever barking.
P.S. Getting a Golden Retriever puppy? Check out the Golden Retriever Puppy Handbook here.
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About the author:
Alisa Healy is a professional dog trainer in the Chicago suburbs, with a wide range of training experience from shelters to in-home training to dog sports. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and is passionate about helping people and dogs live fulfilling, harmonious lives together.