Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dog Behavior IV: Biting

Which dog is most likely to bite you?

Compare the following pictures; which dog would you think most likely to end up biting a person?




I'll explain what I see in the body language of these dogs.
In picture A we have a dog who is barking. She may be announcing someone arriving, a change in the environment, or wanting attention. Her ears are to the side listening, and her lips are covering her top teeth, rather than bearing the top teeth, i.e. she is not trying to intimidate by snarling. Her hackles don't appear to be up. In other words, she is barking...showing no offer of biting. In fact, she doesn't look all that upset, just announcing something she finds noteworthy.

Picture B is a dog whose not happy. Unlike dog A, whose ears are to the side listening, dog B's ears are tense, held stiff and slightly down. His entire posture is stiff, his lips look prepared to pull up. This is a dog that is on edge and if approached too close might well snap quickly or even bite.

Picture C is a dog curling in on itself in a self protective stance. Because this dog is small many people might find it tempting to lean over and pat or stroke the dog to reassure it. That would be an excellent way to get bitten. This dog is clearly telling anyone who can read his body posture that he wishes to be left alone. This is the dog that to me is most likely to result in a bite, because not only is he mentally in a fearful place but physically he isn't as intimidating as dog B. On average, people would find dog B's size and posture together cautionary and would be more likely to approach dog B with a little more caution than dog C. Either dog could bite but C is most likely to be put in a situation that will produce a bite.

In this group of pictures it is the barking dog that is least likely to bite and least likely to be put into a position that will lead to a bite - because barking dogs can be off putting, they often will not have people just walk up and stick a hand out to pet them.

So what situations place a dog in a context most likely to produce a bite?  We are not talking about dogs that are trained guard dogs now, we're talking about the dog that you might encounter in public or at someone's home.

By the way, do not assume that because an owner allows their dog to be off leash in public, that the dog will not bite if approached. Unfortunately, some owners are not responsible and others are just not clued in enough to their own dogs thresholds to realize that the dog is a potential biter. As some of us know, almost any dog can eventually be put in a situation that could lead to a bite -- context matters a lot in the dog world.

Most obvious potential biters: Dogs in pain.
The kindest natured, usually none biting dog when in pain and touched in an area that is painful has the potential to snap in response. This is instinctual reaction -- dogs are born with the instinct to protect themselves and if something is hurting they may well bite at it to defend themselves. It is precisely because this is an instinctual reaction to pain that dogs who would normally not bite have the potential to be put in a situation where they will bite.

Most likely to bite without warning: Fearful dogs.
A dog can be afraid for many reasons, including feeling trapped, cornered, chased or threatened. Probably one of the best ways to get bitten is to confront a fearful dog by rapidly approaching it or better yet, corner it. If you would like to guarantee that you get bitten, corner a fearful dog and then try and grab it. The likelihood of a bite is so high that dog catchers have taken to using long poles with loops on the end to grab stray dogs; they don't want to be bitten.

Learning to read the body language of dogs and knowing when a dog - including a barking dog - is barking or behaving from fear will go a long way towards protecting you from being bitten. The best way to approach a fearful dog -- ignore it. Let the dog approach you if and when it is ready. And when it first approaches you, continue ignoring it. In fact, training yourself not to immediately respond to dogs is one of the best ways to avoid getting bitten. But that is an entire blog topic in and of itself.

Most likely to bite if agitated: Chained or contained dogs.
In some ways this ovelaps with fear biting. But for some dogs it is also frustration or self protection rather than fearful biting. A trapped dog is being placed in a context where it feels an increased need to protect itself and it's territory.  The dog that is unable to escape attention due to a leash, chain, or cage approached by a person (or other animal) that basically "chases down" the animal and insists on direct interaction is basically being asked by the person, "Please, bite me!"
Again, allow dogs to approach you and ignore them until they are ready to do so.

If you are looking for a dog to adopt and see a potential adoptee who is kenneled, you are not necessarily going to see the dog's ordinary behavior until the dog is out of the cage and preferably in a closed private room where it can roam and interact with the people on the dog's own terms. Dogs that are kenneled often act more aggressive than ordinary because they are trapped in a small territory and must protect that territory and themselves - they have no avenue of escape and this can lead to reacting to people in an aggressive manner. Occasionally, a kenneled dog will actually appear more submissive then it normally is; caging can have many different impacts on a dog's behavior.

As with barking, biting does not happen for "no reason." It often happens for reasons that people are oblivious to. For example, I was walking my Shar Pei Ning through a busy street on our way to the park one evening. A number of people had just gotten off at the local train stop and I moved Ning off the sidewalk so she would not be in anyone's way. I then decided to just back her up and have her sit and wait until the departing passengers had passed us. Without warning a man stepped off the sidewalk and in the same move stuck his hand out and straight into Ning's face. Due to the number of years I'd worked with dogs I was actually instinctively able to jerk Ning back out of bite range as she snapped at the man's hand; I physically responded to a situation that experience had taught was guaranteed to produce a bite.

The man laughed. "It's okay," he assured me, "I've been bitten by all the big dogs, Rottweilers, Shepherds, Dobermans..."

I backed away saying, "We have to go now" and Ning and I retreated from the guy who was so oblivious to dog behavior -- and apparently pain -- that he seemed to think getting bitten by a range of dogs was some kind of merit badge accomplishment. Ning was a well trained and well behaved dog who never offered to bite anyone - this was a context that we encountered only that one time in our lives and I honestly wouldn't have thought that someone like this man was out there in the world. I'm actually still a little surprised that my instincts were that fast and I was able to prevent a bite in a situation that still strikes me as unbelievable.
This taught me something very important though - eventually, any dog can be put in a context where there is the potential for a bite.

As responsible owners the best we can do is work with our dogs so that we are knowledgeable about what their typical responses are; remain honest with ourselves about our dogs' potentials; practice reading our dog's body language and responding to it so that we eventually reach the point where we are responding to what they are telling us without needing to think it out. This last stage may be the hardest but it is also where we can find a lot of support. There are multiple books, web pages, and even DVD and TV shows that talk about dog behavior and body language. There are dog behaviorists and trainers. If you want to learn how to read dogs then there are many support sources that you can reference.
And as always, responses, observations, and questions are welcome here.


  1. Hi Chris: As always, really interesting blog - it continues to amaze me how knowledgeable and thoughtful you are about dogs.

    That's a fascinating encounter you had at the train station and a testament to how in tune you were with your dog. I expose my dogs to all kinds of people but am always conscious of their body language - your blog will help me to maintain this at a high level.

    My 13 retriever mix, Ruby, is really interesting along these lines. The second day I had her (as a 12 yr old rescue) she snapped at the vet as he palpated a mass on her belly. She had to be muzzled, but has never behaved that way again through shots and an investigation of her vulva (she had dermatitis there due to urinary leakage and constant licking to control it). In fact, I reminded my vet that he'd had to muzzle her for the belly exam, but he didn't muzzle her to examine her vulva. A year of working with her in various contexts where she was calm and tolerated pain like a champ with no muzzling had showed him that she would handle this fine. My vet is very cautious, so to me this signaled his strong sense that her snapping at him was very specific to a painful belly mass.

    One of the things that interests me about Ruby is that she is a fairly take charge kind of dog - bossy with other dogs, as many older female dogs are, completely dependable with people of all ages, but of course, I would never let them mess with her belly, at least in the area of her mass, although she loves having her belly scratched and tolerates me palpating the mass (it may hurt less than a year ago due to her arthritis treatment - it may be associated with her arthritis).

    The thing I find interesting about her is that she is such a strong warner. She has snapped at me 2-3 times in the past year - always when I did something accidentally painful. But it was always that, a snap, not a nip or bite. I've read that dogs that spend 7-8 weeks with their mother as pups with a number of other pups and get well-socialized to other dogs and people at an early age are going to have strong bite inhibition.

    Strong bite inhibition means a dog will comfortably snap, growl, lightly nip first when in a difficult situation, rather than immediately launch into a full-blown bite or attack. They have enough experience, typically with other dogs, understanding how to communicate, that a bite is painful and unacceptable, that they can convey what they want through these lower key strategies in many situations so that they don't need to use the full-blown bite as a first strategy.

    Dogs without that level of experience/instinct will tend to be more dangerous - for example, if accidentally hurt, this is a new and scary situation more likely to escalate them to a full-blown bite as a first strategy. If you step on their foot, as an example. You want a dog that has enough experience at key developmental stages that they move first to warning. Clearly, Ruby is that kind of dog. Although she wasn't with me her first 12 years, I know some of her history, and can tell she has strong social skills and a good ability to respond with warnings rather than more intense, undesirable responses to mild pain or fear.

  2. People often do not realize the big difference it can make in a dog's life if the dog has spent the right amount of developmental time with their mother and litter-mates.

    Puppies taken from their dam and fellow pups too young are also at an increased risk for being bitters - they haven't been properly socialized to dog behavior and language. Once again Kathy, you've raised a good topic for a whole separate blog! :) Thank you!

    Ruby's behavior is a good example of how a dog that will normally warn or complain can sometimes unexpectedly bite out in response to great pain -- and to being in an unfamiliar environment with people she doesn't know that well. I think it is worth noting that you'd only had her a day at the point she was having that exam. Basically at that point you were not someone she knew enough to trust. From her point of view she was in a stressful situation with two unfamiliar people. Then she suddenly experienced pain. Again, good context to lead to a bite.

    With time Ruby has learned that she can trust you and that she is now part of your family - you are no longer just another person who is handling her, as you still were in the beginning of your relationship. I think that is also part of why she now will allow you to check her mass. She is not under the level of stress she was that day, and she knows you are a safe, trustworthy person.

    How well a dog knows the person handling them along with the kind of associations they have with that person also makes a big difference in the kind of responses that a person will illicit from a dog, i.e. two people, same situation, same dog will often not have the same responses.

    Once a dog recognizes that a person is reliable and if the person is also basically the leader of their pack, the person can handle the dog in ways that no one else would be able to.

    Also, dogs are in much more stress when they are not in a familiar environment and/or in an unsettled context -- many dogs who are newly adopted still need to settle in and become part of the new-to-them environment. I think all of us have found there are things that will put us over the edge when we're stressed out that might not otherwise bother us. (Or is that just me?)

    I think Ruby's behavior now is not owed just to her previous socialization but also to the stability and care she is now able to take for granted. She could be a different dog in a different home; with more stress, less stability, less calm handling etc. Ruby could have realized a different potential. Dogs are always a mix of previous experience, genetics, and current context and changing any of those can potentially impact the kind of behavior a dog exhibits.

    Good job on helping Ruby realize her best potential! An older dog taken to a shelter in her senior years faces a chance of not finding a home at all; to find a home that has put so much time into understanding her has been a great gift to Ruby. I would argue this is a gift that all senior pets who end up in a shelter deserve and hope more people are encouraged to give senior pets a chance the way Kathy gave Ruby a chance. As you can see from Kathy's posts, it is a rewarding experience for both person and dog.

  3. Hi Chris: You're right - she probably is 1000% more comfortable with both of us today than a year ago, Kathy