Think “Fluffy” could be a biter?

Let’s look at this from a different angle for a moment. Dogs are much like us in that they have good days and bad days. Have you had a really stressful day and when you get home a family member demands your attention the minute you walk in the door and you “snap” at them. I can’t tell you how many times I get a call from a client saying “He just doesn’t like some people” or “He was fine before he bit him”. I say– that all the signs were there in the dogs’ body language and they went unnoticed because the owners didn’t know what to look for.

All dogs are capable of biting whether or not they are timid, reactive, and assertive or even the friendliest dog on the planet. If the stressors are there any dog can and will bite.

The key to preventing dogs from biting is exposure to everything and anything you can think of and knowing the warning signs of a stressed dog. Do you know when your dog is relaxed and happy? Do you know when your dog is getting overwhelmed or stressed? If not, then you must learn the body language signals and know when they change one way or the other.

Here’s a short clip of a fearful or timid dog and ask yourself it the conditions were right could this dog bite?

A dog that bites even for the first time is under accumulated stress and this accumulation of stressors can cause any dog to bite. A fear biter is a dog that has been under-socialized or abused. A protest biter is a dog that fears someone or something is threatening his territory or threatening to take away his toy or food or has been abused. Neglect is a form of abuse. When a dog is exposed to these stressors and you are not aware that the dog is stressed, (aware of the dogs body language) the dog can bite.

Dogs have different degrees of tolerance to stressors or triggers. Some dogs are stressed around too many dogs, some are stressed at the groomer or vet, some dogs get triggered when they hear certain noises, some are fearful around small children or men with hats on or someone walking with crutches or riding in the car. Every dog has a different level of tolerance for any number of triggers and accurately identifying these stressors is important in knowing how to work with your dog to effectively modify their behavior. When these stressors accumulate over time and go unmanaged, your dog can get into trouble and become a biter.

I want to share a story about a dog I worked with recently. The call I got was that the dog was out of control around other dogs while walking on leash. When I came to the home to meet the dog I had the owners have their dog on leash outside their home while I walked up with my dog. We had never met before so my dog would be a strange dog to this dog. My dog is a very confident non-threatening dog so as we approached my client with her dog on leash, nothing happened. Their dog was not out of control but stood calmly with a little anxiety waiting for us to approach, which we did confidently, right up to them. The owner said “Wow, she’s never been so calm, normally she would have been barking and lunging and running forward then back behind me and forward again” I knew what was really going on. Their dog sensed my dogs and my confidence as we approached them and the owner was also confident in just having me there knowing that I would handle anything that could go wrong. What does this mean? The dog was paying attention to my dogs and my body language and energy and didn’t feel threatened in any way. The dog didn’t feel her owners normal sense of urgency around her potential “out of control” behavior so the dog matched all of our calm energy and remained calm. This didn’t surprise me but the owner was sure surprised. At this point I put my dog back in the car and went inside the owners home with the dog. This was a 14-month-old dog who when we got inside and the leash was taken off, ran for cover into a corner in the kitchen. This is not normal behavior for a young dog, so I walked towards her and she began to bark and growl at me while huddling in the corner. I asked the owners if this was normal behavior with company coming into the home to which they said “We rarely have company and when we do she’s afraid of them and goes and hides.” Upon further questioning I found out that this dog was the victim of unintentional neglect. Both parents were working with 4 children under the age of 11 (all boys) and no one with the time to do what was needed to have the dog become the well-adjusted dog she should have been at this age. She was a Portuguese Water Dog who needs plenty of exercise, training and socialization with dogs and people, consequently became fearful of both. Because of this lack of training, socialization and exercise she had a lot of pent up energy and was unmanageable in the home with this many children and got either tethered to a cable or locked in a crate much of the time. This was a set up for failure on many counts. This young unintentionally neglected dog was showing all the signs of stress on leash with people and dogs yet since the owners didn’t know that these were warning signs they didn’t know that she could become a biter as she grew into an adult dog. It never occurred to them that this sweet shy puppy would or could ever turn into a biter. The truth is this is a perfect set up for a bite.

If we look at this particular dogs stressors or triggers: new people in the home, dogs on leash, strangers walking by the home, strangers wanting to greet her while on leash, someone approaching her while tied up—this accumulation of stressors in a designated time period without any stress relief can be the cause of a bite. Dogs never bite without warning. The signs of walking away, retreating to a corner, walking behind you when someone approaches, barking and lunging at dogs while on leash are all warning signals that went unheeded.

If you have a dog that you are concerned about its biting, please call me or hire a qualified behavioral specialist if you are not in my area, who can help you identify these warning signals and begin new strategies to set you and your dog on the right path into being the loving dog she really wants to be. Without your help your dog has no choice but to protect herself from her fears.