Updated: Jun 25, 2020
When your pet bites someone it brings up many emotions – fear, anger, confusion. After making sure the person is okay you need to have your dog assessed by a veterinarian. Always assess the severity of the bite. Did the bite break skin?
Dog bites rarely come out of nowhere. Often the dog has a history of fear and anxiety. After a dog has bitten someone it is important to back track and consider what was happening at the time. Many questions will need to be asked. This is the key to uncovering your dog’s fears and managing future events.
If the bite was to someone the dog is unfamiliar with ask yourself if the dog is fearful of strangers. Have you failed to notice some of the early warning signs that dogs use to signal that they are uncomfortable and placed the dog in a risky situation? People can mistakenly believe dogs will get used to events/people they are fearful of and continue to expose them, but this tends to make anxiety worse.
If the bite was to a familiar person there are also many questions that need to be asked. Was the dog over-aroused by play? Is the dog a resource guarder or was there a combination of stressful events that led to the bite event?
Dog owners are apt to reprimand dogs that display the early warning signs of aggression because they feel concerned and worried that these signs could escalate. Unfortunately “telling a dog off” for growling or snapping makes a bite more likely in the same situation, since the dog will suppress the signs that it has been punished for. For this reason you should see your dog’s growl as very valuable information and not something to be punished.
Your dog’s growl is telling you that the dog is fearful and anxious in this scenario. Do not punish fearful body language – it will only make your dog more fearful.
Consider the Ladder of Aggression. Early warning signs of a dog’s increasing fear include tail tuck, look away, lifted paw, head turn away, barking, freeze, lip retraction, growl, snarl, air snap…All these are possible signs that a bite may follow if the warning signs are not heeded.
You now have two tasks:
Manage the dog’s environment so it is not exposed to the triggers of its fearful behaviour. If the dog has bitten children, for instance, the dog should not be left unsupervised around children. This means the dog needs to be within arms reach and actively monitored by an adult. The only time the dog is with children is whilst actively engaged and being supervised in the desensitisation exercise that follows. Management is important not only because we want to make people safe but also because it is important not to further practice the unwanted behaviour. Every time a dog uses biting behaviour to gain space and distance from its fears it learns that this is an effective strategy and will go to this strategy more quickly on subsequent exposure to the fear stimulus.
Change the dog’s association with the things it is frightened of – through slow, kind and persistent rewarding of calm behaviours with high value rewards (usually food) in the presence of the fearful trigger (but at very low levels of exposure) you can change a dog’s emotional response to its fearful triggers. This is called desensitisation and counterconditioning and should proceed at the dog’s pace.
Learn about dog body language so you can recognise what scares your dog. If a dog always walks away from interactions with children it is an indication that the dog does not enjoy the children’s company. To allow children to continue to follow a dog that has voluntarily moved away is a bite risk.
All dogs are capable of biting. A dog that has bitten can never be guaranteed not to bite again.
A dog who has bitten should be assessed by a veterinarian to rule out medical causes such as pain or illness, and if none is found, then a behavioural consultation should be advised.