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The Biting Dog

By: Dr. Ilana Reisner

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All dogs are potential biters and biting is a normal part of every dog's behavioral repertoire.

Fortunately, it's relatively uncommon for dogs to bite and injure human beings. Contrary to expectations, victims of dog bites aren't just burglars or mail carriers - records kept by departments of public health show that the most frequent victims are children and the elderly. Similarly, biters aren't typically "wild," uncontrolled dogs; they usually are pet dogs owned by the victim's family or by a neighbor.

A dog's motivation for biting usually falls into one of three categories: territorial defense, social dominance or fear - or, all three. Play biting is another matter: It is part of puppies' play wrestling and the "mouthing" that occurs lacks the threatening body signals of a serious bite.

Understanding the problem is the first step in making your dog a safe member of your family and community.

  • Territorial defense usually is defined from the dog's perspective. To the dog, even a neighbor's child can be seen as an "intruder." To complicate matters, owners often reinforce aggressive behavior by encouraging their dogs to be good watchdogs. The tendency to attack strangers is heightened in dogs that are left alone outdoors for long periods of time. This probably is a result of daylong isolation, punctuated by glimpses of passers-by and delivery trucks. These comings and goings can increase the dog's frustration level and facilitate learned aggression.

  • Social dominance may be a problem for the dog's own family. Dogs live by rules of dominance and deference communicated by body language that we don't necessarily understand. They may snap or bite when the "rules" are violated. Take, for example, a cocker spaniel that is awakened with a hug from a toddler. While some dogs would yawn and go back to sleep, others might consider this an egregious violation and might respond with a bite.

    Dominance-related biting isn't simply a result of holding the "alpha" position in the family - it can be complex and unpredictable. From the dog's point of view, each bite is provoked, although the provocation can be subtle and difficult for us to appreciate.

  • Fear and edginess play a role in almost every situation. Unfamiliar or intimidating circumstances can push a dog over the edge so that he protects himself by biting. This can happen regardless of whether the victim is a stranger, a familiar child, or a member of the dog's family.

    Biting, regardless of cause, is a serious problem that can sometimes lead to serious injury, loss of your dog and/or homeowner's insurance, and even to lawsuits. If your dog has shown a tendency to bite, you can minimize the chances of further aggressive incidents by keeping him leashed – even indoors – and by not leaving him tied or fenced outdoors when unsupervised.

    A behavioral specialist can guide you through issues of safety and prevention. He or she can help teach both you and your dog to feel confident and safe around frightening or provocative situations without resorting to physical punishment, which often exacerbates any potential for aggressiveness.

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