Why Your Terrier's Behavior Is Bold, Not Bad

Despite their reputation for behavior problems, terriers aren't instinctively aggressive. But they're extremely determined when they set their minds to a task.

Updated September 18, 2023
Jack Russell Terrier Bearing Its Teeth

There’s a common misconception that terrier breeds are instinctually aggressive, but is that really the case? Terriers, known for their high energy and spirited personalities, often get a bad rap for being bold and even feisty.

Many people mistake their persistence for aggression. In reality, terriers are generally more assertive than aggressive. Although terriers are known to experience other behavior problems, being aggressive isn’t a common one. 

Understanding Terrier History

In order to understand why terriers act a certain way, it's important to know what they were bred for. Most terrier breeds were originally bred for hunting and vermin control. They were trained to dig and go to ground to catch all sorts of critters like foxes, rats, and badgers. So, yes, they have a strong prey drive, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're aggressive towards people or other dogs. It means that if they see a rabbit, they might focus solely on the bunny running into the hole with a fierce determination to capture it. 

Assertive Not Aggressive

Jack Russell terrier

Terriers aren’t inherently aggressive. They’re just assertive, and there’s a big difference. These little guys have a ton of energy and a go-getter attitude. They’re little dogs with giant personalities. 

Originally bred for hunting, they’ve got this natural instinct to dig in — literally and figuratively. So when you see a terrier laser-focused on a toy or stubbornly ignoring your commands because they’re onto an interesting scent, that’s not aggression. That’s just a determined pup doing what terriers do best — being tenacious and passionate about whatever they’ve set their little doggy minds to.

Situational Behavior

Remember, a dog's behavior can also depend on the situation. Terriers might not get along with other dogs that challenge them or intrude on their territory, but many are sweethearts with their human families and friends. Knowing your dog's triggers can help you manage their reactions better. This doesn't just go for terriers. It's true for any dog, regardless of breed. 

The 'Aggressive' Label

Unfortunately, once a breed gets branded as aggressive, that reputation is hard to shake. And in the case of terriers, it's mostly undeserved. People who label them as aggressive are usually misinterpreting their high energy and strong will as hostility. However, if you do run into an aggressive terrier, or any aggressive dog regardless of the type, here's what to do.

  • Remain calm: Remain calm. Quick movements or loud noises can escalate the situation.
  • Avoid eye contact: An aggressive dog can interpret direct eye contact as a challenge. Look away to diffuse the tension.
  • Slowly back away: Don't turn your back on the dog, move slowly away. Quick movements can cause them to chase.
  • Don't run: Running can activate a dog's prey instinct and encourage them to chase and attack you.
  • Use objects as barriers: Put anything you can between you and the dog. This could be a bag, a bike, or any other object that can act as a shield.
  • Speak firmly and calmly: Use a firm, calm voice to give commands like no, sit, or stay.
  • Distraction: If you have any, throw some treats, a toy, or even a stick to divert the dog's attention away from you.
  • Stand still: As a last resort, stand very still with your hands at your sides, and look away. This can make you less interesting to a dog.
Quick Tip

Every situation is unique. Use your best judgment based on the specific circumstances you're facing.

Common Behavior Problems in Terriers

terrier running

Due to their natural instincts, like chasing and hunting down small pests, behaviors that might be considered useful for those tasks might not be quite as welcome in a household setting. Traits like barking at prey, digging in search of them, and having a high energy level are all well and good if that's the job you have in mind for your terrier. But these same traits can become issues if you're bringing a terrier into your home purely for companionship.

  • Excessive barking: Many terriers like to vocalize, which can become a problem if it turns into excessive barking. This is often an outlet for boredom or anxiety.
  • Digging: Terriers have a natural instinct to dig to find and eliminate vermin. This behavior can be destructive in a home garden setting.
  • Hyperactivity: Terriers are high-energy dogs and need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. Without it, they may display hyperactive behavior, which can be exhausting for owners.
  • Stubbornness: Terriers are intelligent but can also be very independent and stubborn, which can make training a challenge if you're not consistent.
  • Jumping: Due to their excitement and high energy, some terriers have a habit of jumping up on people as a form of greeting, something not everyone appreciates. 
  • Leash pulling: With their strong prey drive, many terriers are inclined to pull on the leash during walks, especially if they spot a squirrel.

How to Prevent Behavior Problems in Terriers

To prevent behavioral issues in terrier breeds, early socialization and consistent, positive reinforcement-based training are key. Expose your terrier to a variety of experiences, environments, and people at a young age to help them become well-rounded adult dogs. Terriers are energetic and intelligent dogs that require both physical exercise and mental stimulation to stay happy. Consider engaging in activities like agility training, puzzle toys, or frequent walks to satisfy these needs.

Address unwanted behaviors immediately, but always use positive reinforcement techniques instead of punishment. Strong leadership and routine can provide a sense of security for your terrier, reducing the likelihood of anxiety-related behavior. By addressing the undesired behavior early and staying consistent, your terrier will learn what's okay at home and what isn't. 

The Ultimate Answer

So, are terriers naturally aggressive? The answer is a definite no. They're energetic, strong-willed, and assertive. They aren't innately aggressive.

With the right training and adequate socialization, a terrier can be as loving and gentle as any other breed. If you run into any other behavior problems, then address them consistently and remember to be patient. 

Why Your Terrier's Behavior Is Bold, Not Bad