My dog would never bite anyone… would she?

Dogs are intelligent creatures. They vary as much as we do in personality and temperament, they have complex emotional lives, and they have limits to what they can tolerate. Both humans and dogs are hardwired for aggression and will demonstrate this potential when put in the right situation or exposed to the right triggers. However, there are some differences between species. When humans react aggressively due to anger, fear, frustration, or anxiety, we will often attempt to de-escalate the situation through talking and body language, and only when those techniques fail will we either leave the situation, or escalate our reaction to yelling and hitting–or, in some cases, shooting, if a gun is available and we are scared or angry enough.

Dogs will also try to de-escalate conflict through posturing and body language (lip licks, yawns, sniffing the ground, shaking off, head turns, turning away etc.), but if pushed hard enough, rather than hitting and yelling (which are not options for dogs–although they might bark), they will escalate to their final warnings of growl and snap, and eventually bite. If we can’t read their signals, if we push on in spite of their communications of fear, frustration or anger, or if their signals of growling and snapping have been harshly corrected and erased in the past, a bite will ensue. This is true for all dogs, as even the sweetest and mellowest of dogs will bite when they are placed in bad situations and there’s no way out.

Here are three different examples:

  1. Our golden retriever, Lola, was a very sweet girl. She was eight years old, smart, compassionate, gentle, and had never shown an ounce of aggression to anyone. She did, however, love to eat rotting clumps of grass in the summer. She recognized these clumps from a distance, and for her, “leave it” meant “eat faster!” All eighty pounds of her would launch toward the clumps, and she would drag me over, grab a mouthful, and try to swallow it before I could take it away (which, in retrospect, is a sign of resource guarding). When she was about five years old, she had become very ill from eating cut grass, and since then, I had removed the clumps from her mouth whenever possible. And then one day, instead of passively letting me remove it, she repositioned her teeth while my fingers were inside her mouth, and her molars clamped down on my thumb. She slowly tightened her grip, and she had very powerful jaws. I tried to stay calm and asked her to “give” and to “drop it.” I tried to exchange my thumb for the handful of cookies I had in my pocket. By this time, I was in severe pain, and I was sure she was going to crush my thumb beyond repair. Finally, she released it before she crushed the bone. My nail was punctured and the end of my thumb was bruised and painful for a couple of weeks, but she let go before it was too late. I’m sure she knew what she was doing. She’d simply a had enough of me removing her valuable resource and told me, firmly, to stop. I never removed anything from her mouth again.
  2. I had a friend who had raised her dog, Sandy, from puppyhood. Sandy was a sweet, friendly dog, who had helped to raise two children without any sign of aggression. One Thanksgiving, in an outpouring of affection, my friend straddled Sandy while he was eating dinner, wrapped her arms around his chest, and lifted him off the ground. When my friend tried to plant a kiss on his head, Sandy whipped his head around and bit my friend on the face. She required several stitches. If my friend had tried to get her dog to bite her, she couldn’t have done a better job. What did she do wrong?
    • She interfered with Sandy while he was eating.
    • She straddled and stood over him (an intimidating position for her dog).
    • She wrapped her arms around Sandy–dogs often don’t like to be hugged. Hugging is a primate behavior, and feels confining to the dog.
    • She lifted him off the ground making Sandy feel vulnerable and trapped.
    • Dogs are natural resource guarders, some much more so than others. Sandy was reacting to all of the factors mentioned above, but having his dinner interfered with was most likely the defining trigger.
  3. Another friend, Jane, related a different Thanksgiving story to me. She and her husband had invited friends over for dinner and the friends brought along their toddler. Jane had a very lovely, gentle black lab called Ginger, and the toddler went to play with her–without supervision. The child’s idea of playing was to poke at Ginger’s eyes, and the dog, unable to escape, and in a final effort to protect herself, bit the child on the head, requiring several stitches. The child ended up in the ER and Ginger had to go into quarantine for two weeks at the local shelter. What went wrong?
    • Dogs who are not socialized with children as puppies should be carefully protected from children.
    • Dogs who have not been socialized with children are often scared of kids because of their voices, their movement, their smell, and their unpredictability.
    • Even if dogs have been well socialized with children as I believe Ginger had, children can mistreat dogs without meaning to, and dogs have no reason to trust children they don’t know.
    • Children under the age of five should never be left unsupervised with dogs whether the dogs have been socialized to children in puppyhood or not. Young children have no concept of canine body language nor compassion for the dog, and can inadvertently frighten or provoke the dog.

Tips to keep your dog from biting

  • Never assume that your dog will “never” bite. In the right situation, it is possible.
  • If you have a fearful or easily aroused/reactive dog, the chances are higher that your dog won’t require as much of a trigger to bite. Remember, biting is a normal reaction (though a last resort) to frustration, anger, or a perceived threat. We always considered Vera, our reactive German shepherd, to be a bite risk, so we never gave her an opportunity and carefully planned every interaction she had with people. She was never allowed near children.
  • If you have a puppy, socialize him well with people of all ages, dogs of all types, cats, horses, and anything else you think he might be exposed to in his life. See my blog on “Puppies during the Pandemic
  • Learn to understand canine body language so that you’ll be able to pick up on the subtle signs of stress in your dog. Here is a link to a downloadable poster on basic body language in dogs.
  • Always treat your dog with respect.
  • Don’t do things to intentionally provoke your dog, such as encouraging him to get so excited that he nips, growls excessively, bites at clothes, or body slams.
  • Protect him from children.
    • If you have children, have strict rules for their behavior around your dog–no poking, hitting, yelling, pulling fur, ears or tail, getting near him when he’s eating, surprising him when he’s sleeping, teasing him with food or toys, or taking toys away from him. If your child plays ball with your dog, have him use two balls–throw one, and when your dog brings the first ball back, toss the second ball and pick up the first ball ready to throw again so the child never needs to take the ball away from the dog.
    • Children sometimes get a thrill out of bossing the dog around, which is unfair to the dog, and dangerous for the child.
    • Always have a safe, quiet place for your dog to escape to, and have that area off-limits to the kids.
  • Do not mess with your dog’s food bowl.
    • If your dog freezes, flattens his ears on his head, growls, or eats faster when anyone is near his food bowl, hire a trainer to help you with this problem.
    • If you have a dog who has no problem with people being near his food, add a delicious treat to his bowl from time to time to maintain his trust–that your presence near his bowl means good things will happen.
    • Don’t stick your hands in his food or take his food away. Wait until he is finished eating to remove his bowl. It’s only being fair–and polite.
    • Raising a puppy to eat in a social part of the household such as the kitchen is a good thing. It normalizes activity around food, and will desensitize the dog to having people in close proximity to people.
  • Don’t take things away from your dog without trading a high value treat for his toy.
    • You can practice this with a toy of low value. Give him a high-value treat in exchange for his toy. When he finishes his treat, give him back his toy. Repeat a few times and leave him with the toy. This will build his trust of you taking things away from him in case of an emergency.
    • If your dog isn’t willing to give up a toy for a treat–if he stops chewing when you approach, shows the whites of his eyes (whale eye), growls, flattens his ears on his head, eats faster, or moves away from you, hire a professional trainer to work on resource guarding.
  • Don’t break up a dog fight by grabbing your dog’s collar–you run a good chance of being severely bitten by your dog or the other dog. Here are some things you can try:
    • If your dog has a leash on, you can try to pull your dog away by the leash.
    • Make a loud noise such as clashing two pans together (though who has two pans on a walk?) or blasting an air horn (we always carried one of these when we had Vera, our reactive dog, to keep loose dogs away–one quick blast will stop a dog 50-100 ft away. You do need to make sure it’s pointed away from your dog, and desensitize your dog to the sound before using it in an emergency),
    • Grab both dogs by the hips and pull them a good distance away from each other–though you need two people to do this. Be careful the dogs don’t break away and attack each other again.