How often have you heard he bit me for no reason? Dogs rarely bite for no reason, and they usually providing a warning before they bite. The problem is most people miss the warning signs and don’t know how to identify the trigger. Most bites are perfectly justified – from the dog’s point of view – although often misunderstood by the human. If humans had a better understanding of dogs, we would realize that 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 the stressors experienced by their dogs.
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 bit 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 fine 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 feels threatened by his perception that the human might take his possession. The bite often resolves the situation for the dog and relieves his stress, which is why a dog may bite in one instance and seem fine the next. When the resource guarder bites, the human usually withdraws; with the threat to his food or toy gone, the dog is perfectly calm and happy again.
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 – a dog’s last-ditch attempt to ward 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.
Having those interacting with your dog do so in good ways will reduce the risk of a dog bite. Understanding stress signals in dogs and being willing to advocate for your dog’s behavioral needs will reduce the risk of a bite.
Dogs are dogs. They will bite if they feel the need to. We need to work to prevent bites, address concerns sooner rather than later and be willing to make that hard decision when we are faced with a seriously biting animal.
Level 1: Obnoxious or aggressive behavior but no skin contact by teeth. This is the so-called snap. Don’t kid yourself. A snap is an intended “air bite” from a dog who did not intend to connect. He didn’t just “miss.” He is giving you a warning signal that you need to identify his stressors and either desensitize him or manage his behavior to avoid exposing him to the things that cause him undue stress.
Level 2: Skin contact by teeth but no skin-puncture. However, maybe skin nicks (less than one-tenth of an inch deep) and slight bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of teeth against the skin, but no vertical punctures. This is from a dog who wanted to bite but didn’t break the skin, and a warning that the dog is serious. It’s a very good idea to remove the dog’s stressors at this point before he graduates to the next level.
Over 99% of dog incidents involve Levels 1 and 2. The dog is certainly not dangerous and more likely to be fearful, rambunctious, or out of control. The prognosis at these levels is very good. The problem can be resolved quickly with basic training including classical conditioning, repetitive Retreat N’ Treat, Come/Sit/Food Reward and Backup/Approach/Food Reward sequences, progressive desensitization handling exercises, plus numerous bite-inhibition exercises and games. The dog should only be hand-fed until the issue is resolved. Feeding from a bowl wastes potential food rewards.
Level 3: One to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. There may be lacerations in a single direction, caused by the victim pulling their hand away, the owner pulling the dog away, or gravity (ex. a little dog jumps, bites, and drops to the floor).
The prognosis at this level is fair to good, provided that you have owner compliance. However, the training is both time-consuming and not without danger. Rigorous bite-inhibition exercises are essential.
Level 4: One to four punctures from a single bite with at least one puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. May also have deep bruising around the wound (dog held on for N seconds and bore down) or lacerations in both directions (dog held on and shook its head from side to side).
At this level the dog has insufficient bite inhibition and is very dangerous. Prognosis is poor because of the difficulty and danger of trying to teach bit inhibition to and adult hard-biting dog and because absolute owner-compliance is rare. Dogs that have level 4 bites should only be handled by owners and trainers with extensive experience dealing with this level of biting. Everyone involved must take full responsibility and understand that:
- The dog is a Level 4 biter and is likely to cause an equivalent amount of damage WHEN it bites again (which it most probably will) and should therefore, be confined to the home at all times and only allowed contact with adult owners.
- Whenever children or guests visit the house, the dog should be confined to a single locked-room or roofed, chain-link run with the only keys kept on a chain around the neck of each adult owner (to prevent children or guests from entering the dog’s confinement area).
- The dog is muzzled before leaving the house and only leaves the house for visits to a veterinary clinic.
- The incidents have all been reported to the relevant authorities – animal control or the police.
Level 5: Multiple-bite incident with at least two Level 4 bites or multiple-attack incident with at least one Level 4 bite in each.
Level 6: Victim dead.
At Levels 5 and 6, the dog is extremely dangerous and simply not safe around people. The quality of life for a dog at this level is very poor and euthanasia needs to be seriously considered. This is never a happy outcome. It is important to 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 at high risk for biting someone else, he can’t be living in 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 your loved ones, including the dog. You should never close your eyes and hope that he doesn’t bite again. You are responsible for protecting your famly as well as other members of your community. Denial will only result in more bites.