I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the risks associated with dog biting, and the human component of this issue. As a follow up to this post, I had the occasion to ask a few questions to Irith Bloom, dog trainer in Los Angeles, California. Irith is the owner of The Sophisticated Dog, a science-based animal training company, and also member of the 2020 Healthy Pets Healthy Families coalition, spearheaded by Los Angeles County’s Veterinary Public Health Program. As such, she is highly involved with dog bite prevention efforts, especially regarding understanding dogs’ behaviors in relation to biting. Below are her answers to my questions and also don’t forget to check out her website: The Sophisticated Dog.
1. In your opinion, what are some reasons that cause dogs to attack or bite people?
“Dogs usually bite because they are feeling threatened or frightened. In some cases, a dog may feel threatened because an approaching person is unfamiliar, or appears strange in some way. In other cases, a dog may be frightened by the behavior of a familiar person. A dog may also feel nervous for reasons completely unrelated to the humans around, such as strange things or animals in the environment.
Unfortunately, people often create situations where a bite is more likely by ignoring warning signals the dog is giving (see Question 3 for more on warning signals). People can also be bitten due to what is called redirected aggression, which means the dog is already extremely agitated and bites a person more or less by accident simply because the person is nearby. (For example, when two dogs are involved in a fight, if a person steps in to separate the dogs, one or both of the dogs will often bite the person, without appearing to intend to do any harm to the person. Unfortunately, damage from bites like this can be very severe.)
The common factor in most bites, whether to a person or to another animal, is that the dog feels so uncomfortable about a situation that he feels he has no choice but to use his teeth.
2. What are some mistakes that people make around dogs that result in a bite?
The biggest mistakes that lead to bites are cornering dogs and ignoring signals that a dog is feeling uncomfortable. Another mistake that can lead to bites is punishing a dog for behaving in an anxious manner, or for giving obvious warning signals.
Let’s start by addressing the first topic – cornering dogs. Dogs, like most animals, choose between fight and flight when they are scared. When a dog is cornered, flight is not an option, so the dog more or less has to choose “fight” – which in many cases means “bite.” It’s never a good idea to corner a dog, even if the dog seems completely relaxed.
The good news is that most dogs give a lot of signals saying “back off” before they actually go as far as biting. The bad news is that many people do not know how to read those signals, so a dog may be forced into a position where the dog feels biting is the only option. (See the answer to Question 3 for tips on how to read dogs better.)
Another common mistake people make is punishing a dog for being scared or anxious. This actually strengthens the dog’s impression that a situation is dangerous; not only is something scary around, but now the dog is being punished by a human she trusts. This makes the dog more likely to bite, both in the moment, and the next time the same kind of situation comes up.
Another way that people accidentally make dogs more likely to bite is by punishing the warning out of the dog. The most common mistake people make in this regard is punishing a dog for growling. A growl is basically a dog’s way of saying “I am uncomfortable. Please let me out of this situation, or I may have to bite.” When you punish a dog for growling, there are two likely outcomes, both of which are bad. The first is that the dog will immediately bite. The second is that the dog will learn to suppress the growl, so the next time the dog will not growl first to say “please stop,” but will simply bite right away instead.
In other words, when you punish a dog for growling, you are making it more difficult for the dog to communicate without using her teeth. When a dog growls, back off immediately. Then try to figure out what made the dog so uncomfortable (so you can avoid that situation in the future, at least until you have done some training, as discussed in Question 4), and remember to mentally thank the dog for warning you, instead of simply going straight to biting.
In summary, here are some tips for avoiding bites:
- Avoid cornering dogs.
- Learn to read warning signals from dogs (see Question 3).
- If a dog growls at you, back off immediately.
- Never punish a dog for acting nervous.
- Never punish a dog for growling (you don’t want to punish the warning out of the dog).
3. How can you tell if a dog is scared/anxious or ready to bite?
There are many signals dogs give when they are nervous. The list of behaviors seen in these situations is quite long, so I will only include the most common ones. Here are some things to look for:
- Yawning when the dog is not tired
- Licking the lips (or just flicking the tongue in and out of the mouth) when there is no food around
- Panting even though it’s not warm
- Raising one paw and holding it up tentatively
- Turning the head away
- Curving the body or turning the whole body away
- Blinking rapidly
- Lowering the head
- Tucking the tail between the legs
- Trying to move away from a situation.
- Freezing in place (standing very stiffly)
- Raising of the hackles (this is when the hair on the back of the neck, and sometimes even the whole spine, stands up)
When dogs are cornered or otherwise forced to remain in a scary situation despite giving the signals mentioned above, they may escalate to more obvious signals, such as the following:
- Drawing their lips back to show their teeth
- Flattening their ears back
- Air-snapping (biting the air with a loud clap of the jaws)
Note that if a dog lunges and air-snaps at a person, that is actually a warning. The dog did not try to bite and “miss”; dogs have very good control of their jaws. An air-snap means the dog made a conscious decision not to bite.
All of these signals are warnings from the dog. The dog is telling you the situation is too much for him, and that a bite may follow. These warnings need to be taken seriously, even when the warning is relatively subtle (e.g., a lip lick). In fact, noticing subtle warning signals is the best way to prevent a bite.
The video at the following link shows examples of some of the more subtle signals dogs send, and can be a helpful tool for learning to identify the types of behavior that indicate a dog is anxious or scared.
4. What are your recommendations on how to behave around a stressed/aggressive dog?
The number one consideration must always be safety. In general, if a dog is giving signs that she is anxious, it’s a good idea to back away from the dog calmly and slowly. If a dog has flattened her ears and is growling or snarling at you, you should also try to put a physical barrier (such as a door) between you and the dog if possible. This is especially important if the dog involved is a stranger to you, and is loose.
If the dog is only showing subtle signs of anxiety, such as lip licking or turning away, it may be enough to give the dog an opportunity to move away to a distance that is comfortable for her, but you have to be sure there is enough room between you and the dog to allow her to escape the area if she chooses.
If the dog you are dealing with is your own dog, after creating some distance between you (or allowing the dog to create distance), make a mental note of what made the dog so uncomfortable. Then find a trained professional who uses force-free methods to help you come up with a training plan that will help your dog learn to feel more comfortable in that type of situation. Here are some good online sources for trainers who can help you teach your dog to feel more relaxed in situations that used to scare her:
5. Any other recommendations for dog owners?
Be proactive! Teach your dog to feel comfortable in a wide range of situations. An excellent way to do this is to give your dog treats in new situations, so that he learns to expect good stuff whenever something strange happens. The more you practice this, the more your dog will learn to handle a variety of situations calmly.
If you are dealing with a strange dog, or one you don’t know very well, keep in mind that dogs, like people, take time to make friends and develop trust. Your own dog may not mind if you corner him accidentally, but a dog who does not know you well may find that frightening. Similarly, a dog may not mind a hug or a kiss from his person, but a hug or kiss from a stranger can seem very threatening (imagine how you would feel if a perfect stranger walked up to you on the street and gave you a big hug and kiss).
I’d also like to point out a distressing statistic: Children nine years old and younger are bitten more often than any other age group. Most of these bites could be prevented with careful management and education. If you have children or get lots of child visitors, be sure to supervise carefully any time children are around a dog, even if the dog is generally happy to hang around with children. Give dogs periodic breaks from interactions with children (who sometimes nag dogs), and watch dogs for signs of stress when they are around children.
Never leave a child unsupervised with a dog.
It’s also important to teach children that dogs are not toys, and that they need to be treated gently and respectfully. Explain to children that dogs don’t particularly like hugs and kisses – and that even if their own dog is willing to tolerate these things, someone else’s dog might not like it. In addition, instruct children to stand perfectly still, with their hands folded together, looking at the ground, if a strange dog runs up to them. Most dogs are excited by screaming and movement, and a quiet, still child is in much less danger of being bitten than one who is squealing and running around.
Finally, whether you are dealing with a dog you know well or a strange dog, remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Kindness, praise, food treats, and toys are good ways to make friends. Yelling, intimidation, and physical punishment are not. Dogs are armed with very powerful weapons (their teeth), and scaring them using threats or violence is likely to get you bitten. If you treat dogs with respect and kindness, they will generally return the favor.”
- Thank you very much Irith for this great Q&A! This is very useful information to understand the issue of dog biting from the dog’s perspective. Hopefully this will help reduce dog bite incidence, especially in children.