When A Dog Bites
By Kama Brown
When a dog bites, everyone will likely be worried about the bite victim, but what about the biter?
Understanding the warning signs can help prevent a bite from happening, but how the biting dog is handled immediately afterwards can help prevent bites in the future and correctly set the stage for future behavioral training.
Properly documenting the incident in detail can create a big impact on the biting dog’s life going forward. Dog bites inflicted on both humans and other dogs have a huge range of severity. Simply stating that a dog has bitten yields too little information to be helpful for the future. A list of contributing factors should include the dog’s age, regular environment, biting environment, and a detailed narrative of what was occurring before and after the dog bite.
If this is the first time a dog has bitten, it’s particularly critical to get the information as accurately as possible. With proper training and management in place, most dogs who bite once can be prevented from doing so in the future.
Aggression is a progression of slight behaviors such as lip licking or looking away and gradually (or sometimes very quickly!) manifests towards growling, snapping and biting. If a dog has bitten, it means that the slight aggression behaviors were ignored or the dog was trained not to do them prior to this situation.
Many times it is assumed that punishing a dog for growling will end the aggression. In reality, punishing a dog for growling takes away their warning system and makes it more difficult for humans and other dogs to know when a dog is nearing the end of their fuse. Never punish a dog for growling. Instead, teach team members handling dogs that a growling dog is communicating that they are getting near their limit and this is a cue to stop the current situation.
Dogs who bite do so because they feel they have no other option. Knowing which situations a dog will find stressful is important to note in a way that everyone will see and read. With proper handling, time and breaks, dogs can be trained to handle a variety of situations they are not comfortable in. The key is to work slowly, exposing dogs to slightly stressful experiences just a little at a time and allowing them the choice to end the experience by exhibiting body language such as backing away or lip licking, instead of waiting until they exhibit harsh body language, such as biting.
If a dog has a history of biting multiple times or biting multiple dogs, or if the biting dog inflicted enough damage to require medical attention, management is the only option for boarding and daycare. Management should include safety protocols to ensure the dog does not have the ability to bite again, such as being kept separated from other dogs, being muzzled, being medicated, or being taken in and out through a separate entrance.
Bites During Daycare
When a dog bites another dog during group play, the biting dog should swiftly be taken to a quiet place where they can defuse. Biting is the height of aggression, and while it may seem that the biting dog is being a bully, most often they are experiencing an extreme amount of physical and mental stress before, after, and during the confrontation. It can be counter-intuitive for some, but keeping a biting dog in a situation they are likely to bite in an attempt to force them to get over it, or to create forced submission to another dog, is never the answer.
Forcing dogs to endure situations they aggress in will temporarily “shut down” a dog’s response, only to create a ticking time bomb for another person or dog in the future. A dog may “give in” on that day and time but can quickly decide to aggress sooner and with more force on another day and time. Shutting down a dog is not a kind, safe, or productive solution to ending aggression.
Bites during play are almost always the result of over-arousal or fear. Signs of over arousal include barking, mounting, darting, head-butting, wide eyes, extreme submission and belly showing, and the absence of taking breaks in play. When play seems single sided or always initiated by one dog, staff can focus on giving that dog forced breaks by body blocking them or gaining their focus to a new area of the yard to sniff. Simply walking around and calling the dogs over to a new space is a great way to defuse arousal.
If barriers are needed, x-pens, rows of trees, log piles, fences, dirt piles and swimming pools are all ways to section off play areas for dogs. Anything a person can do to get the aroused dog focused on something other than another dog is a great tactic to defusing arousal. Keeping the daycare area full of enrichment activities can make that easier.
Rough play between dogs can do more harm than good if it is allowed to go on for more than a minute or two without a break. An entire session of rough and tumble play should be limited to 10 minutes in good weather conditions (less in hot weather).
Dogs who are fearful will demonstrate avoidance behaviors such as darting, hiding, keeping their bodies low to the ground, pinning their ears back, looking away, and panting more than usual. However, fearful dogs can also demonstrate overly offensive behavior such as lunging, barking, snarling and air snapping when another dog is simply walking about or playing in an appropriate manner.
It’s important to assess whether the biting dog is responding to over arousal or fear, and if the biting dog is being overly reactive or if the biting dog was responding appropriately to the offensive nature of a non-biting dog. Many times an “overly-friendly” dog can cause a dog to bite because what looks overly friendly to us is actually extremely rude and offensive to a dog.
Allowing one dog to bother another to the point of aggression and then labeling the bothered dog as a biting dog is inaccurate. Dogs with play styles that include neck biting, ankle biting, head butting, body slamming, and general wrestling should be socialized with similar sized dogs with similar play styles for short periods of play.
Rough and tumble dogs can certainly learn to soften their style around smaller or quieter dogs, but doing so should include safety protocols for the quieter dog. When quieter dogs are exposed to rough play from another dog, particularly if there is a size difference, fearful aggression is likely to manifest from the quieter dog. Choosing well paired playmates is a great way to reduce dog bites and build tolerance during play.
Bites During Handling
Having staff learn and practice appropriate handling protocols can greatly increase staff knowledge on how and why dog bites happen towards humans. Many dogs have experienced enough regular handling to endure grooming and vet care from a stranger, but not all of them. Dogs with limited exposure to being handled by strangers are likely to find even gentle handling stressful.
Often if a dog bites during handling, the dog is afraid. Triggers can be small (such as being put on a slippery table) or large (such as pain during ear pulling or nail clipping). Whether or not we view the fear as reasonable is irrelevant to the dog. Dogs live in their own timeline for what they feel comfortable accepting while being handled by strangers.
If a dog does bite while afraid, it’s important not to overreact. Staying calm and ending the experience for the dog is priority in the moment. Sometimes all a dog needs is a few minutes of break and other times the situation won’t be able to be repeated.
If the bite wasn’t bad, after giving the dog a break, try the situation again (bath, nail trimming, etc.) and go slower this time, checking for body language that signals fear. Offering the dog a distraction, such as a food toy, can be a great aid in preventing fear. Giving the dog a break to walk or sniff can also build their tolerance to handling.
If the bite was bad enough to break skin, consider not offering the service to the client in the future. It’s important for both dogs and employees to feel safe in a boarding and daycare setting and dogs who have bitten harshly enough to inflict damage should be handled by a veterinarian or certified trainer.