What Makes Dogs Bite

I received a call over the weekend from a vet friend who had just been bitten in the face by a friends dog. She wanted to know what I thought about the situation and if this was something I thought could be helped.

My business has been built around working with dogs that have serious issues so calls like this one are more common that most would think. The reason so many dogs turn to biting is because it works so well for the them. From a behavior standpoint, dogs will only do what works so when they practice a behavior they will only continue the behavior if it is effective at accomplishing their goal. What I have to figure out is what the dog is trying to accomplish with biting.

I generally encounter two types of scenarios that make dogs act aggressive and want to bite: Fear and dominance. The most powerful cases of aggression usually combine these two energies into something called insecure/dominance.

A dog that is fearful or insecure will always try to walk away from a situation or person that makes them uncomfortable. By walking away the dog is trying to communicate that they donʼt want interaction. On a scale of 1-10 walking away is about a 3 on the warning scale of leave me alone. If this warning is not listened to or the ability to walk away is no longer available most dogs will escalate their warnings to still or stiff body language, avoidant eye contact and a turn away of the head. This would now be about a 7 on the warning scale and a growl is most likely going to be heard as well.

If this still does not work a snap usually does the job. Once a dog goes through this a couple of times they realize that walking away doesnʼt work as well as the snap. Now you have a nervous dog who snaps every time something or someone gets too close.

The other reason dogs bite is driven more out of control and dominance. Dogs like this bite to correct and control something they see as out of control or breaking a rule. If your dog runs the show these behaviors become more likely and are usually seen around things like food, toys and beds. If you try to remove your dog from your bed and he growls at you, you are being warned.  If you continue there will most likely be a bite to let you know you broke a rule.

In both cases the biting continues until it no longer works. Fearful biters need to feel understood and safe so once the humans start communicating better the behaviors can change quickly. Dogs that are dominant biters are very hard for the current owners to help. The reason lies in how much control the dog knows he has over the owners. Only when the owners gain the dogʼs respect will the dog allow them to change the behaviors.  

The dog in question bit my friend bit out of control and when she told me the events leading up the attack it became clear what happened. 

She said the dog was uneasy with her from the start so she ignored and avoided him, and he more or less did the same with her. Avoidance from a dog means they donʼt want interaction with you so never force the issue with a dog who avoids you or you can get bit real easy.

At one point she thought she heard the dog give a low growl towards her but she continued to ignore the dog, which is what she should have done.

While waiting for her friend to finish up she sat down on a couch to wait. She said the spot was warm so she knew the dog had been laying there. When she sat down the dog jumped up on the couch and sat down right next to her which put the dog over her as this was a large dog. 

She said his tail was wagging when he jumped up so she decided to engage the dog and touched him on his chest with her hand while she spoke to him. It was at this point he grabbed her by the head.

It was only when her friend came rushing into the room that it stopped. This was an attack and not a bite which means the dog was in a full blown ass whooping, I am going to teach this person a lesson mode. She was also bit on the arm from trying to deflect him.

This dog owned the home and everything in it in his mind. His early warnings were all meant to clearly communicate what he thought about this woman being in his home. When she sat on his couch she broke a rule in his mind so he jumped up to assert himself and tell her to get down.

When she touched him (followers never touch pack leaders without permission) he took offense and may have also thought she was trying to move him back. Both of these actions are reasons to correct from his point of view. I was told this dog has bit his owner too so he has practiced biting for control with success for a while.

Can this dog be helped? Yes if the owners understand their role in this and rally around all the changes that would need to be made. Change for dogs is usually easier than change for humans so hopefully these people take this serious and do what is needed, otherwise....

Why do dogs bite? Because it works.