Why dogs bite: an introductory post especially about kids

I’ve been reading Nathan Winograd’s blog, which always makes me cry and get furious and very hopeful and inspired at the same time. And it also brings up topics that I want to write about, especially for those of you who have not been subjected to my rantings for years now. Specifically, I have been thinking about the rising tide of breed-specific legislation, which all comes down to “I am afraid that dog will bite me or my child.” When you really parse it, that’s all it is. So with all the dog bite conversation going on, I thought it might be helpful to explain a little bit about what happens in a dog bite, and what is going through a dog’s mind.

First, though, and this is VERY important–on this all behaviorists agree.

There is no such thing as a dog who does not bite. There is only a dog who has not yet bitten.

This is the key to it all. Every dog has a threshold beyond which it WILL bite. For some dogs that threshold is so high that he or she goes to their grave having never yet bitten, but that doesn’t mean that they were incapable of or never would have bitten. For a dog, a bite is a form of communication. They do it to each other constantly. For most dogs, biting a HUMAN has a major taboo attached to it, but if pushed hard enough they will break that taboo.

Second important thing:

There is a huge difference between play, punishment, and predation.

There are three main reasons dogs bite. Play, punishment, and predation. A play bite–very typical in puppies or unsocialized dogs–can do a lot of damage, but the dog had no clue it was doing anything wrong. It was “taught”–or never un-taught–that biting is an appropriate thing to do with humans. This is very typical when you have a dog with a very active mouth anyway–Shepherds are like this, Border Collies, Dachshunds, Beagles–and somebody thinks it’s hilarious that the puppy bites their hands. So they play all kinds of great bite/tug games with the puppy with hands, gloves, toys, laughing when the puppy leaps up to grab the toy from their hands, laughing more when the puppy nicks their knuckles with teeth. Unfortunately, they don’t laugh so hard when the puppy leaps up and bites a kid’s cheek. The puppy has NO CLUE that what it did was wrong. It is playing with a child the way it’s been encouraged to play with adults.

Then there’s predatory biting. This is probably the most dangerous type of bite, because it’s the way a dog eats–biting and then grinding down. This is the kind of bite that is triggered, unfortunately, in some breeds VERY EASILY. A breed that is designed to have a high prey drive–this would include most of the terriers, some of the sporting and working dogs, some of the hounds, and specific individuals of ALL the breeds–will be triggered by fast-moving objects, high-pitched noises, or the look of a “downed” animal. This type of bite response is particularly risky around young kids, because that’s exactly how kids behave. They run fast and clumsily, they screech, they make tons of noise, and they flop around on the ground. Even the highest-drive dog *usually* won’t attack its own family, but strangers will open the predation floodgate and can get bitten. You can absolutely train a high-prey-drive dog to be safe around kids, but 90% of people who own dogs don’t train them. So your friends and neighbors have probably never done a thing.

OK, punishment. This is the kind of biting that is the most common, and least understood. Every dog has an escalation of actions when they want someone or something to stay away from them or cease doing whatever it is they are doing. They’ll stare first, then stiffen, then growl, then snarl, then bite. In the dog’s mind, they have given huge paragraphs of ample warning before they resort to biting; it’s just that we don’t speak dog and we usually don’t pay any attention until the dog actually bites. A punishment bite is not intended to hurt; it’s a bite that does not grind down. When another dog is bitten like that, it doesn’t do a thing. Unfortunately, we have no fur and very thin skin, so we get small wounds. But the dog’s intention was only to make sure that you understood not to do that again.

Punishment biting is difficult to understand because it is built in layers. Each layer of intrusion or stress builds the dog up toward the threshold of where it’s actually going to bite. VERY common layers are location, pain, age, touch, noise, strangers, fear, territory, food, and sex. So, in other words, imagine you have a dog who does not like having his feet touched–very common in dogs. Feet touching alone would never make this dog bite, and you’re not even really aware that he doesn’t like his feet touched because it’s not a major issue, just a minor one. NOW imagine that you have friends over, their kids are running around yelling, the dog is in “his” chair, and a toddler holding a Frito comes over and grabs his foot. You’ve just piled location, territory, touch, noise, strangers, and food on top of each other. The dog can’t stand it anymore, and he nips her hand. Everyone screams “Oh no! Rowser can’t be trusted anymore!” In fact, Rowser hasn’t changed even a tiny bit–it was all there to begin with, and Rowser was probably tense as a board and nobody noticed.

So how to you prevent the bite in the first place? Well, unless you are very experienced and have a lot of dog savvy and know when things have crossed a line (and I would say that most people don’t), you don’t EVER play with a puppy in a way that uses mouths for fun. Fetch is great. A million commands are great. Seek and find, scent games, teach the puppy to climb in and out of a box, anything like that. But don’t teach any games that use teeth anywhere near human skin, and actively discourage ANY contact between a dog’s mouth and human hands. Dogs should be convinced that human skin is like an eggshell, and will be horribly hurt if they even accidentally brush it.

Second, separate prey-driven dogs from prey. This is so simple, but so few people do it. Dogs that have ever shown an instinct to chase (cat chasers, for example, or squirrel chasers, or the dogs who run the fence line) or who get excited by toys or noises should not be out loose at pool parties, during games of tag, or near kids who are going to be on the ground. Just put the dog inside. If someone says “Oh, why don’t you let Sasha out, she’d love it!” say a polite but firm no. Prevention is much easier than stitches.

Third, be aware of layers, and learn to watch your dog for signs that stress is building. It is useless and cruel to force a dog who is afraid of kids to be in the room “because he’s got to learn sometime.” Never push a fearful dog. Everything about this has to be positive, with tons of treats and praise. No punishment ever works when the dog is afraid. Work from puppyhood to desensitize the “layers.” Handle the dog all over all the time, especially the big ones like feet and tail and genitals (I know, ewww, but put your hand in a washcloth if you need to and pet him ALL OVER). Expose the puppy to noises, to strangers, to kids of all ages and genders. Don’t let a dog “own” any furniture. A dog should always give way to the human, and if he decides to own a chair then he’s not allowed on the furniture at all. Don’t neglect age and pain–the threshold for any elderly or painful dog is incredibly low. When the dog is showing signs of aging, keep him or her pain-free with medication and also keep in mind that it’s a management issue. Older dogs have a right to their peace and quiet, so offer a room or place where the dog can get away and no children or other stress is allowed.

Never separate or get between two fighting or squabbling dogs unless you really know what you’re doing. Major damage to a dog is better than major damage to yourself or a child. The especially dangerous dog fights are the ones heightened by the presence of food or when two or more dogs are attacking a third dog. Yes, I KNOW you can’t bear to see the poor third dog get hurt. But if this fight is serious, the dogs have moved from punishment to predation. They will not realize it’s you or your kid and they will use predation bites on you (or your child). One predation bite equals a crushed hand or a life-threatening facial injury. Do not be so foolish as to invite a dog to do this to you.

And, finally, remember what I said earlier. Ninety percent of all dog owners do NOTHING to train their dogs. So don’t assume that because you have a Beagle and he’s great that you can trust friend X’s Beagle. Never leave kids and dogs unsupervised. Teach your kids to NEVER touch, talk to, or make eye contact with strange dogs, even if they act friendly. Be impolite. Ask your friends to put the dog in the bedroom if he’s getting excited or looking tense. Don’t be afraid, and teach your kids not to be afraid, but DO be firm.

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3 thoughts on “Why dogs bite: an introductory post especially about kids

  1. And that’s why I do programs weekly through our K9Ambassador’s group! We talk about dog safety, how to meet and greet dogs and what NOT to do around dogs.

    I think if more people were proactive, rather then reactive, everyone would be better off, especially the dogs.

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