Dog Biting – Dog Aggression
Some people believe that once a dog bites, it will likely bite again. Is this true? What causes a dog to bite? How does one judge if a dog is aggressive? Where can one receive help for aggression problems?
If a dog bites once, will it likely bite again? Not necessarily. It depends on the situation in which the biting occurred. Once a dog has bitten, it should set off an alarm in the owner’s head. The dog is in need of IMMEDIATE behavioural modification techniques to reduce aggressive tendencies. First of all, one must think about the reasons why dogs bite in the first place.
Biting is a natural behaviour exhibited by the canine species in order to survive. Biting is used for obvious reasons such as hunting and killing prey. It is also used for communication between dogs to exhibit rank or to ‘put a puppy in its place’. The pet dog has undergone years of domestication and has reduced the use of their powerful jaws to live in the human society. However, a significant percentage of domestic dogs have bitten a human, and aggression is the number one cause of surrendered and/or euthanized dogs. In most cases, this drastic solution can be avoided by educating owners and working with them to reduce aggression. A dog bites when it does not want you near them or you are in an area that they are ‘protecting’. Therefore, when placed in a different situation, the dog may not bite again.
Genetic factors may also play a role in whether or not a dog may bite. Some breeds are selected for their protection or guarding capabilities. For example, many breeds instinctively chase moving objects, which can escalate into predation. Socialization is also an important factor, because fearfulness or anxiousness is another common cause of aggression.
The best way to deal with canine aggression is to prevent it from developing in the first place. As a new puppy owner, there are a few points to keep in mind as you are training your puppy to reduce the chance of future aggression. Nipping is commonly seen between littermates at play. It may be a cute behaviour as a puppy, but that puppy will soon grow up to be an adult with much stronger jaws. The adult dog will not understand why the previously accepted play biting is no longer acceptable. Play biting and rough housing should not be allowed from day one. This is accomplished not by physical force, but by teaching a dog to associate non-aggressive behaviour with positive reinforcement. Studies have shown that this method is superior to other methods that use punishment as a means of teaching. For more details on what to do about nipping and biting dogs, visit http://www.pets.ca/articles/article-dogmouthy.htm
It is difficult to get accurate dog bite statistics because many bites go unreported, unless the person seeks medical care. Statistics Canada mortality data showed that an average of one Canadian per year died from dog bites between 1991 and 1994. National morbidity data for 1993 showed that 656 Canadians were hospitalized that year for dog bites. Children younger than 10 were four times as likely to be hospitalized as people aged 10 and older. The vulnerability of children to dog bite injuries, particularly on the face, is often attributed to the fact that their small size makes them less intimidating to dogs. As well, immaturity and lack of judgment sometimes lead children to act in ways that animals perceive as threatening or aggressive. Therefore, it is important to teach children how to approach an unfamiliar dog. If a dog is unknown to you, remember that anything can happen. If the owner of the dog is present and they say it is okay to pet the dog, have the dog approach the child. Children should not approach or touch a dog that does not approach or touch them first.
How does one judge aggression in an unfamiliar dog? Dogs will display similar body language signals to tell you that they are uncomfortable with their current situation. These signs include backing away from strangers, staring at the ‘threat’, growling, or teeth-baring. A fearful, uncomfortable or insecure dog has a higher likelihood of biting.
Dogs bite out of fear or protectiveness. It is important to properly socialize a fearful dog at a young age and expose him/her to as many new environments as possible. With patience, an older fearful dog can also learn to become less fearful in strange environments. Lots of praise (and treats!) can be given to the dog while he/she is in a new environment or meeting a stranger. The dog will then learn to associate new and strange things with something positive. For protective dogs, it is important to reward the dog for doing good behaviours when a stranger approaches. For example, as a stranger comes closer, make sure the dog is sitting and give lots of praise as he/she continues to sit as the person approaches. Eventually, the stranger will be able to come close enough to give the dog a treat. Once again, the dog will learn to associate the stranger with good things and forget about being protective. Consistency and patience are important.
In any case, what is the likelihood of a dog that has bitten to bite again? The answer depends on various factors, such as the age and size of the dog, the extent of the bite, the environment in which the incident occurred, and the degree of commitment the owners have for working with the dog to prevent it from occurring again. The last two factors are the most important. Some dogs are not suitable for environments with small children, especially if they have not been properly socialized with children in the past or if the children do not respect the animal. And of course it is up to the owners to be consistent in training and implementing the appropriate behaviour modification program to reduce aggression.
If all these factors are considered and the training is consistent, the prognosis of a successful program is good. It is important to realize that in some cases, success may require restrictions on the dog, such as avoiding certain situations that have elicited aggressive behaviour in the past. Generally, if there has been only one biting incident, prospects for success are good. However, if there has been a history of numerous incidents, the prognosis becomes less favorable. Therefore, it is important for dog owners to recognize the problem early and intervene immediately.
There are a lot of resources to turn to when faced with an aggressive dog. However, in Canada, the dog training and behaviour business is an unregulated field and people can teach any method of training, regardless of how inappropriate or inhumane it may be. With this in mind, any owner who has a dog with a serious behavior problem such as aggression should contact their veterinarian for a referral to a qualified and experienced trainer or behaviour consultant. It is important to realize that isolated biting incidents or sudden changes in behaviour may be due to medical causes, such as pain or neurological changes. A visit to the veterinarian will help rule out those causes and steer you in the right direction.
By Amy Cheung Pets.ca writer