I am often asked by clients is why dogs bite. While this partly depends on individual situations, the most common reasons for dogs to start getting aggressive and bite are dominance and fear.
Why Dogs Start Biting
I recently received a call from a woman whose dog had bitten a friend in the face. She wholeheartedly loved her dog and wanted to know if I thought there was anything I could do to help.
Having built my entire business around working with problem dogs, I was not surprised to get a call like this – such calls are, in fact, more common than you may imagine. The reason many dogs take to biting is because biting works for them. From a behavioural standpoint, dogs will do only what works for them – in other words, they will only continue a behaviour they have practised if this behaviour effectively accomplishes their goal. It is my job to figure out the goal a dog is trying to accomplish by biting.
Biting out of Fear
The two scenarios making a dog aggressive and wanting to bite I most commonly encounter are dominance and fear. In the most powerful aggression cases, these two energies usually combine into something known as “insecure/dominance”.
An insecure or fearful dog will invariably attempt to walk away from the object (a thing, person, other animal or situation) he feels uncomfortable with. Walking away is a dog’s way of trying to communicate to the ‘object’ that he does not want to interact with it. On a “leave-me-alone” warning scale of 1 to 10, this act of walking away would be about a 3.
If this warning is ignored or walking away is no longer an option, most dogs will increase the warning to stiff or very still body language, turning the head away and avoiding eye contact. Most likely to be accompanied by a growl as well, this would be about 7 on our warning scale.
If this also fails to work, snapping usually does the trick. Once a dog has gone through this sequence of warnings a few times, he/she realises that walking away is not as effective as a snap. The result is a nervous dog likely to snap every time someone or something gets too close.
Biting for Control and Dominance
Other dogs are driven to bite by dominance and control. Here, dogs like to bite to control and correct something they consider as breaking a rule or out of control. If your dog is allowed to “run the show”, this behaviour set becomes more likely and is typically seen around beds, food, toys and similar things.
If you are trying to remove your dog from the sofa or your bed and he growls, he is warning you. If you ignore his warning and carry on, he will most likely bite you to tell you that you broke the rules.
The biting will, in both cases, continue until it ceases to be effective. Dogs biting out of fear need to feel safe and understood, so behaviours can quickly change once their humans learn to communicate better with them.
When dogs are dominant biters, it can be extremely hard for their current owners to effectively help them. The reason for this lies in the extent of control the dog is aware of having over his owners. He will only allow his owners to change behaviours once they have gained his respect.
What Happened in this Case
The dog biting the woman’s friend had bitten out of control. What happened here became clear when the lady told me the sequence of events prior to the attack.
Realising that the dog was somewhat uneasy with her right from the word go, the friend ignored & avoided him. The dog in turn did the same with her (more or less). When a dog avoids you, it means he has no wish to interact with you, and forcing the issue is highly likely to get you bitten, so you should never do this.
Having thought that the dog gave her a low growl, the woman continued to ignore him, which was the right thing to do.
While waiting for the dog’s owner, who wanted to finish something=ng before joining her, this lady decided to sit down on the sofa, where, after noticing a warm spot, she knew the dog had just been sitting. As she sat down, he jumped up onto the sofa and sat right by her side – which, as he was a fairly large dog, put him over her.
Seeing his tail wagging while jumping up, the friend decided to engage with the dog and, while speaking to him, touched his chest – at which point he suddenly grabbed her by her head. He only stopped when his owner rushed into the room. This was not a bite, but an attack, which means this dog was in a full-blown “I’ll teach you a lesson” mode.
In his mind, this dog owned the house & everything in it. The early warnings he gave were all designed to clearly communicate to this lady what he thought about her being in his house. By sitting on his sofa, she – in his mind – broke a rule. He subsequently jumped up to assert his authority and tell her “Get off my sofa”.
When she touched his chest, he took offence (followers NEVER touch their pack leaders without prior permission). He may also have read her action as an attempt to push him back. From his perspective, both actions are sufficient reasons for correction. It turned out that this dog has also bitten his owner, so he has successfully practised biting for control for some time.
Can I help this dog? Yes – if his owner understands her role in this and rallies around all necessary changes. Change is usually easier for dogs than for humans, so I sincerely hope this woman takes this seriously and does what is necessary, because otherwise…
Why do dogs take to biting? Because it works for them.