As a dog pro, I worry that a lot of information out there about dog bites is pretty… fuzzy. Like, how many are there? How bad are they? What breeds tend to bite more? It’s fuzzy or simply unknowable, and one reason for that is that so many—the vast majority, likely—are simply not worthy of report. They fly under the radar. I don’t go to the hospital every time I stub my toe, nor do I make a report to the Department of Health detailing the minor discomfort that might result. Would a researcher or journalist be able to easily find good, solid, accurate toe-stubbing information in any database? Where and how could anyone learn more about the scourge of toe-stubbing?!
Most dogs bite with inhibited force, and do not inflict the damage that they could, given their powerful jaws and impressive enamel hardware. So like stubbed toes, most dog bites go, quite reasonably, unreported. A dog’s ability to bite with inhibited force is both typical of social carnivores and one of the ways in which dogs are safe to welcome into our homes.
Dog bites are remarkably uncommon and generally minor, considering the number of dogs kept as pets, and especially considering the opportunities we regularly give them: we touch their food and their stuff, we push them around physically like they’re our inanimate playthings, we allow children to innocently but unpleasantly prod and poke them, we misinterpret their fear as misbehaviour, and some people even scare and harm dogs on purpose in the name of training, with punitive and painful collars. But even though most dog bites are the equivalent of toe-stubs, dog bites are indeed important. Dog bites are important because they’re scary, especially to kids, because they can mean a dog will be relinquished or euthanised, and because some dog bites do cause injury. In addition, a biting dog is almost certainly unhappy, which we don’t want. We want fearless and happy dogs. For all these reasons, we should do what we reasonably can to reduce dog bites.
We are all familiar with dogs who bite strangers (fearful types or “guard” dogs, who are aggressively scared of people they don’t know), and of dogs who bite when they are guarding their stuff, like food, bones, or their bed. But here is a surprising bit of news: a recent survey of dog bites suggested that a surprising number happen in contexts where a dog is uncomfortable being touched. “The most common context of a dog bite is related to interacting or attempting to interact with the dog (e.g., stroking, playing, handling, and restraining)”¹. Although many of these bites may be misinterpreted and the dog was actually guarding or fearful, it still comes as a surprise that patting can be… well, bite-worthy! It’s particularly surprising if you’ve only known cuddlebugs. Maybe you’re snuggled up right now to a dog who demonstrates very clearly that they love patting, hugging, and snuggling, through both body language (wagging, body relaxed, with an open-mouth smile and soft eyes) and behaviour (dog approaches, leans, sits in lap, puts head directly under hand, and so on and so on and so on and so forth.). But it’s true. Many dogs simply tolerate patting but don’t enjoy it, and many dogs find human touch to be scary or awful. And when something is scary or awful, the polite canine way for a dog to make this clear to the world is by a growl, a snarl, a snap, or an inhibited bite.
Yes, you read that right. In the dog world, the polite way to express discomfort includes a wary exit, a growl, a snap, or an inhibited bite. These dogs aren’t being bad, or dominant, or grouchy. They’re asking nicely (in dog language, that is) for us to stop handling them in a way that they find uncomfortable, unpleasant, or downright scary.
Help to be had?
Just like a dog who bites out of fear of strangers, and just like a dog who bites to protect their food or bones, a dog who dislikes being handled can be trained so they no longer bite. And just like how we train a stranger-fearful dog to enjoy strangers (which makes the biting stop) and we train a food-bowl-guarding dog to enjoy having people approach their food (which makes the biting stop), we can train dogs to enjoy being handled. Which...guess what? Makes the biting stop.
Usually, a dog trainer will start out by asking you to refrain from touching the dog at all. This prevents the dog from feeling, and acting, threatened. Then we’ll recommend a training protocol that will change your dog’s underlying emotional state, from a feeling of this is wrong and awful to this is pleasant and predicts treats. Often, to start, a dog will be taught to pat themselves on a steady, out-held hand. This takes many many repetitions and a good plan, but in the end, the dog happily and readily pats themselves to get the treat, all the while learning that hey, this patting thing is actually pretty awesome.
Dog trainers also set our clients up for success using Pavlovian conditioning. Just as Pavlov’s dog learned to happily anticipate food upon hearing a bell, we can teach our dogs to happily anticipate treats when we give them a stroke down their backs, or give them a belly rub.
Over time, our goal is that you’ll reach a pleasant middle ground with your dog. Your dog will have learned that being touched by humans is pleasant—he’ll have changed his mind! You’ll be able to handle your dog for important veterinary procedures, toothbrushing, and grooming. But you’ll also have changed. You’ll have learned that even though your dog uses dog language to say “I’m uncomfortable”, it doesn’t mean that he loves you any less. And you’ll come to appreciate the special new relationship you have with your dog, where you are as circumspect as he needs you to be about his comfort and autonomy.
This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2018", with Companion Animal Psychology.
1. Oxley, James Andrew et al. Contexts and consequences of dog bite incidents. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 23 , 33 – 39.