I had been playing with the 120-pound, confident, intact male Rottweiler for more than 45 minutes. He sat next to me and leaned happily against my leg. Without thinking, I bent down and reached across the back of his neck to scratch behind his ear.
In a split second his eyes went cold and I felt, rather than heard, the rumble of a growl from deep within his throat. I whirled away from his massive jaws just in time to catch the bite in the padded shoulder of my jacket, rather than my face. I stood perfectly still, heart thudding, legs weak, waiting to see what he would do next. He sat back down, smiled a big Rottweiler grin and wagged his stump of a tail.
“No hard feelings,” he was saying, “as long as you mind your place.”
As a professional dog trainer, I should have known better. I had offended his sensibilities as a dominant male by having the audacity to reach over the back of his neck, a serious challenge in dogspeak. Only luck and quick reactions saved me from being badly bitten in the face. A child, a senior, any unsuspecting person in this situation could easily have ended up at the nearest emergency room, headed for the plastic surgeon’s knife. Or dead. Between 1980 and 1996, 304 people died from dog attacks in this country, an average of 19 dog-related fatalities per year.
Remember, biting is a natural, normal dog behavior. All dogs can bite. Many of them do. All dogs are potential biters. This is why it is so prevalent.
Statistically, dog bites are the number one health problem for children in this country, outpacing measles, mumps, and whooping cough combined, according to Jeffrey Sacks, MD, of the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. The CDC estimates that some 4.7 million persons were bitten by dogs in 1996. Of these, approximately 830,000 of the bites required medical attention, up from 585,000 in 1986.
Children are the most common dog bite victims, due to their size, vulnerability, and tendency to move quickly and make strange noises, especially when excited or frightened. In another chilling example, a 1994 survey of 3,238 Pennsylvania school children determined that by the 12th grade, 46 percent of students had been bitten by a dog.
A great deal has been written about how to avoid being bitten, and there are education programs in schools across the country to teach children how to be safe around dogs. While this effort is commendable, it is equally important to address the canine end of the bite equation. Anyone who has ever owned a dog who has bitten a person knows the stress of living with a known biter, the guilt of seeing stitches in a child’s face, and the agony that comes with making the painful decision to have a four-footed friend euthanized rather than risk injury to another human. If we only had a better understanding of how our dogs’ minds work, we could prevent many bites from happening, and successfully rehabilitate many dogs who have become problem biters through mismanagement and inappropriate training.
The bite threshold
According to Canadian author and dog trainer Jean Donaldson in her excellent book, Culture Clash, dogs, like humans, have a breaking point beyond which, if pushed, they respond with aggression. She calls this the “bite threshold.” Dogs also have thresholds for other threat behaviors such as growling, snarling, and snapping.
Anything that stresses the dog is a risk factor. Risk factors vary from one dog to the next, but can include things like loud noises, children, anything the dog associates with punishment (a leather strap, rolled-up newspaper, choke chain), and anything to which the dog has not been adequately socialized, such as strange men, umbrellas, odd hats, etc. The list of possible risk factors is endless. Any one risk factor may be enough of a stimulus to cross a particular dog’s bite threshold, but in many cases it is a combination of factors that join together to push a dog past his limit.
For example, let’s say Rascal is not overly fond of small children, he’s afraid of loud noises, and a little bit protective of his toys. One day the owner’s two-year-old granddaughter is visiting during a thunderstorm, and crawls over to Rascal, who is lying in the corner on the floor next to his favorite toy. Rascal, who has always in the past just avoided the toddler, is on edge from the thunder, is cornered and can’t get away, and sees the girl reaching out toward his most valuable possession. “Without warning,” Rascal lunges and grabs the little girl’s face. The combination of risk factors has pushed him past his bite threshold.
In fact, there was plenty of warning, if someone had just been able to recognize Rascal’s nervousness with each of the individual risk factors and understood that putting them all together placed the child at a significant risk of being attacked.
Classifications of aggression
We tend to think of aggression as being one of two types: either dominance aggression, where the dog thinks he’s the pack leader and bites to get his way; or submission aggression, also known as fear aggression, where the shy, timid dog bites when he feels cornered or threatened.
In reality, the analysis of aggression is much more complex than this; there are more than a dozen different identifiable classifications of aggression, each with different triggers and approaches to modifying the aggressive behavior. Most dogs who have a problem with inappropriate aggression display more than one type. A competent trainer or behaviorist will be able to accurately identify and work with all of the various types of aggression that a dog may manifest in order to effectively resolve the complete problem.
The positive approach
There was a time when the generally accepted method of correcting a dog’s aggression was to be more aggressive than the dog. If your dog growled at you when you jerked on her leash or tried to force her to lie down, you were instructed to “pop” her under the chin with a closed fist. If she snapped at you in response, you might have been told to do a “scruff shake” or “alpha roll.” If she continued to fight you, your trainer might have taken the leash from you to “hang” or “helicopter” the dog. These techniques are as abusive as they sound – dogs have been blinded, permanently brain-damaged, and even killed by these methods. Even so, some trainers continue to use and defend the use of hanging and helicoptering even today.
But progressive, humane trainers have come to understand that aggression begets aggression. Many dogs respond to a physical correction by escalating their own aggression in their own self-defense. Unless you are willing and able to out-escalate the dog, the dog “wins” the fight and the aggression worsens. Even if you succeed in overpowering the dog, all you have done is suppress the signs of aggression; the risk factors for the aggressive behavior are still there. You have simply taught the dog not to growl or snap in warning.
When you suppress the warning signs of aggression – the growling and snarling – you actually increase the risk of a serious bite, since the aggression is then more likely to erupt into a full-scale attack without giving you the chance to be warned off by the growl.
Desensitize the dog
A far better approach is to desensitize the dog to the risk factors, that is, change the way he thinks about them. The fewer risk factors a particular dog has, the less likely they are to join in a combination of factors powerful enough to push him over his threshold and cause him to bite.
For instance, if we can get Rascal to think that having children around is a good thing, he will no longer be nervous when they are near, and the presence of children can be permanently removed as a risk factor. We start out by discontinuing the practice of punishing him when children are around. If he growls at a child and we jerk on his leash or smack him, we have reinforced his belief that bad things happen when children are present. If we exclude him from the family when the grandkids visit, we also teach him that bad things happen when children are present – he gets exiled from the pack. If, instead, we can consistently make good things happen when kids are around, Rascal will begin to look forward to their presence instead of fearing them.
We can accomplish this through the use of a reward marker, such as the Click! of a clicker, or the word Yes!, which we have already taught the dog to associate with a tasty treat. You might begin your desensitization process by finding a location where children are far enough away that Rascal can see them but not feel threatened by them (it helps to employ children that you know and have instructed to stay away). When Rascal notices the children, Click! the clicker and feed him a treat. Each time he glances at the children and remains calm, Click! and treat. This will begin to teach him that seeing children (and remaining calm) is a good thing – children mean treats!
Gradually move closer, continuing to Click! and treat for calm behavior. Don’t push your luck, however. If you notice the tiniest sign of nervousness on Rascal’s part as you near the children, stop and calmly retreat. If children come toward you, attracted by the dog, use a clear, firm, but calm tone and tell them to stay back!
When employing a desensitization program, you need to avoid triggering the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Getting the dog too stressed and forcing him to growl or snap at a child would be a serious setback to your program. Watch closely, and stop at the first sign of discomfort. If you have moved forward in small enough steps you may be able to pause for a moment, wait for calm behavior to return, and Click! and treat the dog for making a good choice of behaviors. If you have been impatient and moved forward too quickly, you may have to back up to find the point where the dog’s calm behavior returns, and Click! and reward him there. It is always better to move forward slowly and end on a positive note than have to back up and repair damage.
Once you are close enough, and assuming your dog is still calm, you can ask the children to toss treats to the dog, so he starts realizing that good things actually come from the children themselves. (It may take days, weeks, or even longer to get a dog who is very fearful of children to this point.) Ask the children not to stare into the dog’s eyes, as this is a strong threat for a dog, and be sure to do this exercise, at least at first, with children you trust to be calm and not act fearful themselves. Over time, you should start to see signs – wagging tail, bright eyes, perked ears – that your dog is eagerly anticipating his encounters with kids instead of fearing them.
An ounce of prevention
It is far easier to prevent undesirable behavior than it is to correct it. A desensitization program can take anywhere from several weeks, to months, even years, depending on the intensity of the dog’s discomfort with the risk factor, and the owner’s or trainer’s skill. And while you may succeed in desensitizing the dog in the above example to, say, the child factor, you haven’t even begun to address his protection aggression over his favorite toy.
If you start when your dog is a puppy and you raise him right, you can avoid a lot of the headache and heartache of risk factors through proper socialization. Socialization means getting used to environmental elements through exposure.
In the wild, a puppy is naturally exposed to the elements of the world during the first several months of puppyhood. Anything new he encounters after that is cause for alarm, or at least for extreme caution. The same thing is true of our domesticated puppies. If you make an effort to expose pups to lots of different stimuli during the first five months of their lives, they will grow up with a much shorter list of risk factors. Of course, the exposure must be positive – exposure to traumatizing stimuli during this same period will make the list longer!
So, if you want a dog to be comfortable around children, men, odd hats, etc., you better make darn sure that he meets a lot of kids and men and people wearing odd hats who are nice to him and feed him treats before he is five months old. Reknowned trainer Ian Dunbar suggests that people hold occasional “puppy parties” for this purpose; the diverse attendees ALL wear funny hats and act strangely, and they all take turns praising and feeding the puppy treats!
If you want your puppy to get along with other dogs, give him plenty of opportunities to play with other puppies and appropriate (non-aggressive) adult dogs while he is young. If you want him to not be possessive of his food and toys, spend time gently showing him that you can take toys and food away and give them back, or that if you approach while he is eating you may give him more food, or better food than what he already has. Do this without punishment, and he will learn to associate pleasant things with each of these stimuli.
Some puppies are born more fearful than others. It is especially important to take the time to socialize these shy guys, or they can turn into serious fear biters. Because of the gap that can occur between protection from maternal antibodies and puppyhood vaccines (see “Vaccination Mystery,” WDJ January 1999), some veterinarians counsel their clients to keep puppies confined at home until at least the age of four months. Unfortunately, while these pups may never die of distemper or parvovirus, they risk losing their homes, and perhaps their lives, because of the socialization that they miss during their critical learning period. In my 20-plus years of experience working at animal shelters, I’ve seen far more dogs euthanized due to behavior problems caused by lack of socialization and training than puppies who contracted diseases from exposure to other dogs.
Many training classes now start puppies as young as 10 weeks as long as they as they are properly vaccinated, in an effort to provide socialization and early training for the youngsters. These pups never have a chance to learn wrong behaviors, since they learn the right ones from a very early age – as long as the trainer uses positive, non-punitive training methods and no choke chains.
If you have a dog who already has lots of risk factors, seek help from a competent professional soon, rather than later. Don’t wait until a tragedy occurs to recognize your dog’s potential to bite, and don’t fall into the denial trap. If your dog reacts to a lot of risk factors, or reacts strongly to any one particular factor, likelihood is high that sooner or later he will be pushed past his bite threshold.
Remember, all dogs can bite. When you interview trainers, check their credentials, and be relentless in your questioning about their methods. (For more information about selecting a trainer, see “Choosing the Right Trainer,” in the May 1998 issue of WDJ.)
And what of the Rottweiler who wanted to eat me? He wasn’t a client; I was there on his ranch with a humane officer to investigate a complaint of horse neglect, so I didn’t have chance to work with him to modify his behavior. And while I thank my lucky stars that no one had ever suppressed his warning signs – it was the growl that gave me time to whirl away – I do worry that he is still out there, a ticking time bomb, running loose on the ranch, that sooner or later will explode in the face of someone who doesn’t turn away in time. There are far too many such ticking time bombs out there. Don’t let your dog be one of them.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Step-by-Step Desensitization.”