If you've never had to deal with that alarming moment when your beloved dog snaps at a guest in your home, you are fortunate. I hope you never do. But just in case, it's good to know that, first, you're not alone lots of dogs have snapped at guests in their homes (or worse!). Second, it's not the end of the world; it doesn't mean you need to euthanize your dog and it doesn't mean your dog will inevitably maul someone. It is, however, an important heads-up for you. How you handle the situation can often determine if your dog's aggression toward visitors escalates or diminishes. So if it happens, here's what you need to do:
Contained in every puppy’s mouth is a set of amazingly sharp little daggers known as “teeth.” Puppies explore the world with those mouths. Since you are part of your pup’s world, it is inevitable that those sharp little teeth will at some point come in contact with your tender skin during a behavior known as “puppy biting.” It hurts. So what should you do when your puppy bites you, or other family members (including children)?
Many of us have dogs who bite down too hard when taking dog treats – this is a canine behavior sometimes known as “hard mouth.” Some dogs take treats forcefully all the time; others get hard mouths only when stressed or excited. One theory is that a hard mouth is a function of bite inhibition – or lack thereof. If a dog doesn’t learn to use his mouth softly during puppyhood, he’s likely to resort to using too much pressure with his mouth throughout his life. But some dogs with acceptably soft mouths take treats hard when stressed or excited. Here are five things you can do when facing a “hard mouth” challenge.
My dog bites me. A lot. Scooter, the 10-pound Pomeranian we adopted from the shelter after he failed a behavior assessment (for serious resource-guarding), has bitten me more times than I can count. Most of the time I don't even feel his teeth. He has never broken skin, and the few times I have felt any pressure, it's been because I've persisted in what I was doing despite his clear request to stop. Scooter has excellent bite inhibition. In the dog training world, bite inhibition is defined as a dog's ability to control the pressure of his mouth when biting, to cause little or no damage to the subject of the bite. We know that all dogs have the potential to bite, given the wrong set of circumstances.
Growling is a valuable means of communication for a dog something that dog owners should appreciate and respect rather than punish. Of course, we don't want our dog to growl at us, but neither do we want him to fail to growl if something makes him uncomfortable; that's very important information in a successful canine-human relationship. It's very common for dog owners to punish their dogs for growling. Unfortunately, this often suppresses the growl eliminating his ability to warn us that he's about to snap, literally and figuratively. On other occasions, punishing a growling, uncomfortable dog can induce him to escalate into full-on aggression.
Animal care professionals are fond of saying, “All dogs will bite, given the right (wrong) circumstances.” If that’s the case, how have I managed to suffer only two punctures in a 30-plus-year career working with dogs? Partly through reading and responding to canine body language well enough to avoid provoking an attack (see “How to Save Yourself,” September 2005). Partly, I’m sure, through luck. But largely, I suspect, because many dogs possess a wonderful quality known as “bite inhibition.”
Clients always appear a bit stunned at first when I tell them their dog's growl is a good thing. In fact, a growl is something to be greatly treasured. These are my aggression consultation clients, who are in my office in desperation, as a last resort, hoping to find some magic pill that will turn their biting dog into a safe companion. They are often dismayed and alarmed to discover that the paradigm many of us grew up with punish your dog harshly at the first sign of aggression has contributed to and exacerbated the serious and dangerous behavior problem that has led them to my door.
By your own standards, your dog’s life may not seem all that stressful – after all, he doesn’t have bills to pay, does he? But when you apply the more scientific definition of the word – anything that alarms or excites him, triggering his sympathetic nervous system into action and flooding him with the “fight or flight” chemicals adrenaline and noradrenaline – you may be able to see how many seemingly unrelated things in his environment actually contribute to his “misbehavior.”
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.
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.
I first met Lucy at my local monthly “My Dog Can Do That” competition in January of 1998, at the SPCA in Monterey, California. She was easy to spot – a merle Great Dane with lovely natural ears, who literally towered above the competition. Lucy was attentive, responsive, performed even the most advanced MDCDT behaviors with ease, and consistently placed in the ribbons. It surprised me, then, when a few months later I heard Lucy had started threatening humans, and her aggression was escalating. This was not appropriate behavior for any dog, but particularly disturbing in one of Lucy’s size, with her potential for causing serious harm.