It's not the end of the world if your dog bites - bust you MUST take action.
By Pat Miller
There are few thing quite as disconcerting as having your own dog bite you. I can recall with crystal clarity the time our Scottie nailed me in a classic case of redirected aggression. He had taken an intense dislike to a Labrador Retriever who had entered the room, and when I touched him on his back to try to distract him, he whirled around and redirected his aroused stare, and his substantial Scottish Terrier teeth, at my hand.
Despite the horror stories of free-roaming Pitbulls mauling children as they walk to school, the majority of bites occur in the owner's home. The majority of bite victims are friends or member of the owner's family. Sixty-one percent of dog bites occur in the home or a familiar place, and 77 percent of bite victims are family members or friends, according to a web site run by attorney Kenneth Phillips, who specializes in dog bite cases www.dogbitelaw.com. A relatively small percentage of bites are inflicted by errant stray dogs. This means that most bites leave a shocked owner feeling betrayed by his loyal canine, and wondering whether he can ever trust his four-footed friend again.
Why dogs bite
All dogs can bite, and given differing circumstances, all dogs will. Although we humans regard any bite as aggression, for dogs, biting is a natural and normal means of canine communication and defense. It's actually surprising that our dogs don't bite us more often than they do!
Aggression is generally caused by stress, which can come from a variety of sources. Some dogs have high bite thresholds - it takes a lot of stressors to make them bite. Some have low thresholds - it doesn't take much to convince them to bite. A dog with a high bite threshold may seem like the best choice around kids. This is often true, but if noisy, active children are very stressful to the dog, even a high-threshold dog might bite them. Conversely, a dog who has a low bite threshold may be a find child's companion if children are not one of his stressors, and if he is kept in an environment that is free of the things that are stressors for him.
Pain, fear, anxiety, arousal - any kind of threat to the dog's well being can be considered a stressor. A timid dog whose space is trespassed upon will retreat, but if prevented from retreating, will bite out of fear. A mother with pups whose space is trespassed upon may feel threatened by the intrusion, and bite. A resource-guarder bites because he is offended (stressed) by his perception the the human might take a possession. The bite often resolves the situation for the dog and relieves his stress, which is why a dog may bite in one instant and seem fine the next. When the resource-guarder bites, the human (generally) withdraws; with the threat to his food bowl gone, the dog is perfectly calm and happy again.
Wounds to the human victim's skin often heal far more quickly than the breach in the relationship between dog and human. This is unfortunate, because the majority of bites are perfectly justified - from the dog's point of view - although often misunderstood by the human.
If humans better understand dogs, we would realize it's about behavior, not trust. Many biting dogs could easily remain in their homes and lead long and happy lives, with a low risk for a second bite, if their owners only understood how to identify and minimize their dogs' stressors.
The wrong thing to do
The most dangerous course of action - for the dog and the human - is also the one taken by most uninformed owners of dogs who bite. Many people react to their dog's bite by physically and sometimes severely punishing the dog into submission. Some dog trainers even recommend this method, to be employed at the dog's first sign of aggression. A warning growl or snarl is met wit a harsh verbal correction and a leash jerk, followed by more serious measures such as hanging or helicoptering if the dog continues to resist. While this method does manage to "whip" dome dogs "into shape," others will escalate their resistance, fighting back until dog, human, or both, are serious injured or even dead.
This method may also teach the dog not to give a warning prior to the bite. It certainly doesn't do anything to minimize the dog's stressors. If anything, it increases the stress, since the dog now associates a severe beating along with whatever negative feelings he has about the stressor.
Let's say, for example, a dog is not fond of children. A child approaches and the dog growls - his attempt to let us (and the child) know that her presence is stressful to him. We jerk on his leash and tell him to knock it off. He snaps at us in response to the jerk, so we punish him harder, until he stops fighting and submits. The end result is a dog who isn't any happier about being around small children, who has not learned that it isn't safe to growl. This dog is now more likely to bite a child next time he sees one, rather than growling to warn her away, since he has learned that his growling make us unreasonably aggressive. We may have suppressed the growl, but we haven't helped him feel any better about being around kids!
A growl is a good thing. It tells us that our dog is nearing his bite threshold, and gives us the opportunity to identify and remove the stressor. Snarls and air-snaps are two steps closer to the threshold - our dog's last ditch attempts to warn off the stressor before he is forced to commit the ultimate offense: The actual bite.
If your dog growls or snaps frequently, you need to take notice. He is telling you that there are lots of stressors pushing him toward his bite threshold. If you don't take action, chances are good that he will eventually bite. Dogs who bite tend to have short lifespans.
If your dog bites
If your dog bites, you have at lease four options, you can:
Of course, selecting this option means a reduced quality of life - no more walks in the park, on or off the leash; no more rides in the car; and no more spending hours on his own in the fresh air and sunshine in the fenced backyard.
Most owners, however, need the (sometimes costly) help of an experienced, positive behavior counselor or behaviorist to help then succeed. The behavior professional will help identify your dog's stressors, and set up a program to use desensitization and counter-conditioning to convince him that the things he now perceives ad "bad" (stressors) are really "good". If he changes his perception, they will no longer cause him stress, and they won't push him over his bite threshold.
This doesn't happen overnight. The longer your dog has practiced his aggression responses, the longer it takes to modify them. The more committed you are to working with him, the more opportunities he will have to reprogram his responses and the faster it will happen. Meanwhile, he must be crated or kenneled while visitors or grandkids are at the house, and not taken for walks, car rides, nor left to his own devices in the backyard.
If you rehome him yourself, you risk having the dog fall into the hands of someone who will punish him severely for biting, or otherwise not treat him well. You may even continue to bear some liability, moral if not also legal, should the dog do serious damage to someone at his new home.
There are millions of dogs looking for home who haven't bitten anyone. You love your dog and are trying to rehome him. What are your chances of finding someone to adopt him who is willing to take the risk of bringing home a biting dog?
If you can manage and modify, and still maintain your own quality of life as well as his, by all means, that is the best choice. But if not, remember that aggression is caused by stress, and stress is not an enjoyable state of being. If the dog is so stressed that you can't succeed in managing and modifying his behavior and he is a high risk for biting someone else, he can't be living a very enjoyable life. Nor can you? As difficult as the decision may be, it is sometimes the right and responsible one for the protection of all of your loved ones, including the dog.
What you should never do is close your eyes and hope and pray that he doesn't bite again. You are responsible for protecting your family as well as other members of your community. Denial will only result in more bites.
Most biters can be improved
The good news is that relatively few dogs are beyond help. If you make a commitment to helping your dog feel more comfortable with the world, there's a good chance you will succeed. You will understand why he has bitten in the past, and be able to avoid his stressors while you work to convince him that what are now stressors for him are actually good things.
Like my own encounter with my Scottie's capable canines, you will realize that the bite wasn't personal, but simply the end result of a chain of events that were beyond your dog's control. What a proud day for you both, when you can take him out in public with confidence, knowing that he is as safe as any dog can be in the face of the unknown elements of the real world.
Modify aggressive behavior
Aggression is a classically conditioned response. Your dog does not generally take a seat and ponder whether he is going to bite the next time you try to clip his nails or remove him from the bed. When a stressor occurs, it triggers an involuntary reaction - the dog's grain screams, "Nail clipping - BAD!" and the dog bites. If you want the dog to stop from biting when you clip his nails, you have to change his brain's reaction to "Nail clipping - GOOD!"
You will use food, a very powerful positive reinforcer, to change the way your dog's brain responds to a stressor, using "desensitization and counter-conditioning" (D&CC). Here is one possible program for a dog who bites during nail trimming as an example. You can change the steps to fit any situation that typically causes your dog to bite.
NOTE: Because the risks associated with a failed program for aggression are high, I strongly recommend that you work with a competent positive behavior professional to implement a D&CC program. The following program is not intended to take the place of professional guidance.
Article taken from The Whole Dog Journal - A monthly guide to natural dog care and training - April 2002
Pat Miller; WDJ's Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Cdertified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the President of the Board of Directors of The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training.