Bite Me!

woman standing with wolfI recently had the unfortunate, albeit educational experience of being on a radio show with three other dog trainers. When asked if we’d ever been bitten I recounted the story of being bitten when I was a kid, another trainer spoke of his experience with sharp puppy teeth and his nose, but it was the last trainer whose response was most disturbing.

This self-proclaimed dog whisperer boasted- there was no disguising how proud she was- that she has been bitten countless number of times with varying levels of damage sustained. She considered being bitten a badge of honor and her creds for working with aggressive dogs. “Unless you’re willing to get bitten you shouldn’t work with them,” she declared. This I realized was what she thought separated her from other trainers, what made her better than other trainers, but to my ears it rang out incompetence. It was teenage boy bravado.

Imagine a trainer of wild animals, most of which will display some form of aggression toward people if they feel threatened, bragging about the number of times the lion bit them. If you work with wild animals these are not the kind of stories you necessarily live to tell. Most dog trainers do survive bites but that has more to do with the dog’s intentions, not the trainer’s skill. That being bitten by a dog poses less risk to us is no excuse for shoddy training. “Why,” I wanted to ask her, “If someone can train wild animals without being bitten, can’t you do it with a dog!?”

Her cavalier attitude toward being bitten also belied either naivete or ignorance about what happens when a dog, who might otherwise not have bitten if handled properly, does bite. Anyone adopting out a dog, is obligated to share a dog’s bite history with potential adopters. To not do so sets them up for being found liable for gross negligence should the dog bite someone in the future and the dog’s bite history becomes known. Imagine you’re visiting a shelter and all things being equal you can choose from Fluffy who has never bitten anyone and Lassie who bit his previous owners and the trainer brought in to work with him. How convincing will the guarantees of Lassie’s successful rehabilitation be? I am not saying that Lassie can’t be rehabilitated or that even nice dogs don’t have good reasons for biting sometimes. There are shelters with a policy of simply not adopting out dogs with bite histories, period.

We know that all dogs have the capability to bite. Depending on either inclination or size, one dog might do more damage than another. Simply putting their teeth on a person is not necessarily the only piece of information we have to decide whether or not they’d make a good pet for someone. Early on in our relationship I grabbed Sunny’s harness and he spun around and bit me. My hand was in his mouth and his teeth were on my hand. I sustained no injury, not even a dent or bruise. I was relieved for that reason, and also because it showed me that he had a high level of bite inhibition, meaning, he could control how hard he bit. He was giving me information, not picking a fight. From his point of view, I was probably the one doing that. Some dogs don’t have good bite inhibition and this is very difficult, if not impossible to change.

This trainer’s attitude was distressing and frankly, warped. Imagining that being bitten by dogs gives you some kind of caché, that you speak about it proudly on the air, says loads about your skills and relationship with dogs. Why brag about making a dog feel so threatened that they bite you? What does this prove? That you’re tough? That you’re in charge? That you don’t take any crap from a dog, a dog who is most likely reacting out of fear? Thinking that you have to be able to accept being bitten as a part of the process of training and rehabilitation indicates a lack of understanding about that process. Expecting that bragging about it should raise people’s opinions of you is pathetic. Sometimes I can’t help wishing that instead of whispering these trainers would just stop talking.


49 comments so far

  1. Ann on

    I am glad I never consulted THAT trainer! We adopted a rescue 7.5 years ago after Hurricane Katrina the day before she was going to be gassed down in Georgia. I had never pulled a rescue before and although she was tested by the person who pulled her for me, we didn’t realize she was a fearbiter but we had made a commitment so we vowed to work with her and we have. Many books, online consults, and years of positive reinforcement and living with very well socialized, bite inhibited dogs has helped a great deal. I had never been bitten by a dog before, even when I used to groom very unruly poodles no other groomer would take, and through 50 years of dog ownership! It was scary, bloody, but mostly upsetting that this dog I was trying to help was still so frightened of me and my husband. It has been a long road and every once in awhile some situations are just too much for her BUT the last time she went to protect herself(so she thought) she had my index finder in her mouth, she applied a little pressure, released my finger when I said “no” in a firm voice, sat down and hung her head! My finger was red, no broken skin and no blood! When in past years I’d be reaching for band aids! Just today, trying to give her a pill in a piece of baloney, she took the hidden pill from my right hand and actually had the rest of the baloney that was in my left hand in her mouth. I told her “no” and she took her mouth off the slice and sat down! I was amazed and so proud of her and of course I gave her the rest! She has come so far, but I don’t think that progress would have been made with a trainer who is proud if being bitten.
    It has been blogs like this that have helped so much. Thanks and please keep helping us help our frightened dogs.
    Ann and Tinketbelle and the 7 Keeshonden in Ohio

    PS Tinkerbelle will never be a ‘normal dog’, but we love her and she seems very happy to be with us and is comfortable. We make adjustments for her fears that are worth it when she actually starts to play – something, sadly, that we had to teach her.

    • fearfuldogs on

      What a rough road for Tinkerbelle. Survived Katrina and all that entailed, shipped to a shelter in GA and then almost PTS. Nice to hear she finally landed someplace safe.

  2. Linda Trunell on

    Totally agree with you 100%. I was only bitten once when I tried to put a harness on a Yorkie who had been very friendly up to that moment. It was just a little nip but I was surprised because I felt he gave no warning. Afterwards, I went over and over it in my mind blaming myself for missing anything that he might have been trying to tell me. I felt like I failed him.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Doesn’t sound like you failed him, maybe startled or scared him. And that doesn’t always have to be the end of the world for a dog. Especially when our goal is to have safe and trusting relationship with them. Most dogs can move on from isolated events like that. Sunny did.

      • Linda Trunell on

        I need to add that later the owner admitted to me that he had nipped her several times when she was trying to put on a harness before this happened. If she had been upfront with me, I would not have been so casual about putting the harness on him!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s easy to let your guard down. I’ve been lucky when I’ve found out that a dog was totally cool about being handled on every part of their body except the one I reach for next!

  3. Sage on

    It makes you wonder how these people get to the point where they are on TV spouting their mis-guided babble about dog training.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Someone decides they can make money off of them. That’s the goal, not providing dog training information.

  4. Amee on

    Absolutely agree with you. Pushing a dog to a bite is a disaster for the dog on every level and a failure for the dog trainer.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I would have been embarrassed to have admitted to, never mind boasted about so many bites.

  5. kdkh on

    Well said!

  6. Emma on

    I have had a bite or two, the two major bites I have had (one which required stitches), were the bites that caused me to go out and LEARN about dog behaviour.
    In both instances, the bites were entirely human-caused – the dogs in question had been taught not to warn people when they felt threatened or trapped, and I did not know how to read a fearful dog (heck, I had no idea at the time that you could suppress a warning behavior, leaving the dog with little option left but ‘bite’).

    I very rarely get bitten these days – when I do, its because I made an error, and I seek to learn from that error and I am pretty pleased that I am NOT getting bitten even infrequently, never again have I been bitten seriously, and.. and this is the most important thing.. I have NEVER been bitten in similar/same situations – I make a mistake, I learn from that mistake, I don’t make it again (and in the case of some trainers, again and again and again and again).

    I do agree that part and parcel of dealing with dogs, particularly with troubled dogs is accepting the potential for personal injury – but I absolutely do not accept that it is any kind of a badge of honour, nor is it routine, it is just an indicator that I have messed up.

    If I were getting bitten regularly, I reckon I would quit it and leave dogs alone, how much louder do they need to shout!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment. Learning from our mistakes is a good thing. Being proud of them, especially when they indicate that we’ve put undue stress on a dog is not…..quite right. Part of the whole dog whisperer schtick is proving one’s dominance over a dog. It’s gross.

  7. Ann on

    Emma I agree with you and understand you not being able to ‘read’ a fearful dog that was our problem too. The warning growl or raised lip seems to have been beaten out of Tinkerbelle and we didn’t ‘get it’ when she’d stand totally still or show wrinkles on her expressive little white head. I have had eskies since I was 11 and thought I knew them well. I still think I do, but not ones abused and/or genetically fearful. I went to Brenda Aloff’s book to learn and also the stress signs in the other books. We didn’t know how far we could bring Tinkerbellelle, but she is such a loving dog (non dog people just don’t’ understand that comment!) When not frightened we had to try and continue to try. I wasn’t proud she had felt the need to protect herself and I usually took the blame, but we don’t need so many band aids nowadays. We are pretty sure she likes it with us because a couple of times trees have knocked out a section of fence she has found her way to the outside of the garage or to the door of the motorhome which she loves to ride in and isn’t within the fenced area.

    • Emma on

      Educating people about NOT punishing growls out of existance is now one of my ‘pet’ things – the dog that bit me was an Old English Sheepdog in a semi-long coat. No tail either and at the time he was lying down.

      Looking back, it seems blindingly obvious to me – he lay still, his behavior was unusual (he would normally run to me carrying a toy when I came in, I was his dog walker) – he refused to move when I called him, and I went to take hold of his collar and he grabbed me, hard and I twisted away, tearing the skin on my arm open.

      But back then, I had no clue beyond ‘growl = unhappy’ and ‘waggy tail = happy’ – and with a hairy dog with no tail, it just did not occur to me at all.

      I learned after that bite that he was scared when the husband was home (he didn’t like the dog at all and punished him a lot), he had been punished heavily for growling at the husband and at his young kids as well, and I had unwittingly walked in when hubby was home unexpectedly so the dog was behaving differently.

      I have a dog currently who has re-learned to make faces and growl – when we got her she would freeze (shut down) and then eventually, erupt into a ball of fluffy fury, and then she would dash off and hide.

      She’d been forced into things, punished for growling and beaten for erupting, poor girl.

      These days, because we have VERY carefully made sure to make a point of stopping doing something (generally its grooming) the SECOND she freezes or looks tense, any sign we could pick up on that she was feeling tense, and saying ‘oh, sorry… fussfuss… ok lets try again’ and also heavily rewarding her for allowing us to do such things, she will now make MUCH more obvious signals about things shes not happy with.

      It is a bit of a freaky process though, because she went backwards through the range of displays, starting with freezing for a much shorter time but with a much reduced ‘eruption’ – it became evident that SOMEONE had taught her bite inhibition and actually she never went for us, she would try to bite the brush or the clippers instead… anyway now we are at the point where if I hit a tangle, she can tell me ‘ow, careful’ or if shes fed up she will gently take the brush in her mouth and remove it from my hand. Much nicer! (And only happens when we ran out of cheese.. hmm..)

      • fearfuldogs on

        Dogs often try so hard to get their point across without breaking skin don’t they.

  8. Catherine McBrien on

    How anybody could be proud of getting bitten is just unbelievable to me. As a dog trainer you should never encourage a dog to practice any undesirable behavior, much less “goad” the dog into doing something that could cause the dog to be put down. That is a really sick concept of being a dog “trainer.”I am certainly not a trainer, but I always try to prevent my dogs from feeling like they need to practice undesireable behaviors.

  9. Pam Garland on

    This article was very comforting to me. As the owner of a fear agressive dog that has bitten family members it has been a scary journey with him. Recently I unintentionally did something that scared him and he placed his mouth around my hand. He didn’t bite but the experience scared me into thinking perhaps this isn’t going to work; perhaps he is too scared to be alive. Reading this article showed me that he was exhibiting bite inhibition and it is a tremendous feeling of relief. I love him so much I want him to be happy and not scared all the time but now realize that helping him feel safe and unafraid is my goal for now. Thank you.

  10. Robert Paul Hudson on

    I was listening to a podcast on a very popular pet podcast network, and this trainer/host was asked a question received by email from someone who wanted to know if it was OK to leave a puppy in a crate all day while at work and that they had been reading about the “crate method”. The trainers only response was, “No, not all day, but a few hours is OK”. He also said later that the crate can be used to calm down, basically punish a hyper dog.

    A) the crate method for house breaking a puppy is a step by step process that must be followed carefully in order for it to be effective, and depending on the age of the puppy it has to go every two hours, which he never bothered to explain.

    B) The crate should never ever be used as punishment or to confine any age dog for any length of time. Some dogs will sleep in a crate using it as their den, but the door should be left open.

    It made me sick to listen to this so called expert with his own radio show. You won’t hear that on my show.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is the case that these shows often leave precious little time for someone to fully explain techniques and protocols.

    • KellyK on

      Wow. It sounds like he did a pretty awful job at explaining how you would use a crate for housetraining. The rule of thumb I’ve seen is no more than an hour between potty breaks per month of age, but it varies a lot from dog to dog. A few hours is way too vague to be useful—how many is a few? how old is the puppy? are you taking them out after they eat or drink and when they wake up? (When we first got our dog, she was four months old, and coming home at lunch to let her out worked fine, but that doesn’t mean you could do the same thing with a two-month-old puppy.)

      And using the crate as punishment? Way to teach the dog to hate it. That will be a problem when they want to leave the house and the dog now wants nothing to do with the crate.

  11. Mel on

    Wow. I don’t know whether to be surprised she admitted to so many bites on air or be shocked that she was so proud of it. Maybe both.

    How could she think that shows anything but bad skills?

    I am with you Debbie. I just wish they would stop talking. Ugh!

    • fearfuldogs on

      She really did think it proved how awesome she was. Fortunately the sound for this show was so bad the producer decided to scrap the whole thing. Not sure if my nagging him about how horrible the information was would have been enough to get him to nix it.

  12. jet on

    Yeah shut those bad dog trainers up!!

  13. iambosco on

    I really don’t know what to say!! As a dog trainer it seems completely ridiculous that anyone would feel ‘proud’ of being bitten, in my opinion it shows a complete lack of knowledge or understanding, and even worse…a lack of respect for the dog. When working with aggressive cases it is so important to work with a dog under threshold, and to never push them to the point where they will bite you, not only is it dangerous, but damaging to the trainer/dog relationship. Completely bewildered!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      If my eyes got any wider when she said it they might have popped out of my head.

  14. Kerry on

    EXCELLENT post… Thank you!

  15. 2 Punk Dogs on

    Both of our dogs have issues, but it’s pretty easy to tell when they’re nervous and when people need to back off. Strange that a “trainer” would be proud of getting bit. It’s like a badge for obliviousness!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Ha! Badges for the new age.

      On Tue, Mar 19, 2013 at 9:37 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  16. sarahhosick on

    I love this blog post, Debbie. I, too, have come in contact with someone who has “bragged” about being bitten while working with dogs. It’s mind-blowing, but I’m truly not surprised. There are lots of trainers out there that spew nonsense and most people are so eager to understand their dog that they’ll believe anything they’re told by a so-called professional. I’ve even had someone admit to me that they felt “flattered” when a dog urinated submissively at their feet; that it was because the dog instinctively knew they were an “alpha”. The stupidity made me shake my head, but more than anything, it made me so sad for the dogs they’ve encountered.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Sarah. The worst of it is that dogs are stuck in shelters or killed because someone has provoked them into trying to protect themselves. I had to explain to one client that his 80lb dog “could” have taken his face off but hadn’t because he was only trying to get the owner to stop alpha rolling him. The dog had never done a bit of damage to the guy, just “had the nerve” to put his teeth on him. Very upsetting, and challenging to get the guy to believe me because of all the pack leader hype. The dog actually seemed to like the guy, just wasn’t trained and had no life.

      On Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 3:17 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  17. The Pet Care Magician on

    Don’t go talking to groomers then. I no longer participate in grooming forums as they take great delight in sharing stories of how often they are bitten, lunged at or have otherwise “bad” dogs in. They refuse to accept that they caused this. No it is always the dogs fault. I am a groomer and have been bitten three times in 15 years of grooming aggressive difficult dogs. All three times were my fault. I have never been bitten training a dog, come close but never bitten.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Both vets and groomers are often put in untenable situations. They are expected to work with dogs who have been given no prior training. I don’t envy them.

      • The Pet Care Magician on

        There is much of your work that can be applied in those situations, which is what I do as someone who moves between the two disciplines of grooming and training.

  18. Lisbeth on

    Cesar Millan is damaging dogs in so many ways…

  19. Dog Diva on

    In 50+ years of dog ownership and nearly two decades as a pro, I have been punctured by a dog exactly once. The people who brag about their battle scars should spend that time learning about dog body language, and about how to de-escalate dangerous situations, rather than contributing to them escalating. Most of the famous TV trainers’ incidents have been from that lack of de-escalation – maybe bites look better on TV than the boring “let’s watch paint dry” of progressive behavior modification, but some of those dogs on those shows now have to go home with a “bite history” which may make them unadoptable if the owners choose to rehome them later. In cases of food guarding, for example, which is normally easy to rehabilitate using accepted methods, the dog can end up dead instead at some shelter, or living out its days as part of a shock collar wearing “pack” somewhere. It’s about time the public demanded skill of dog practitioners and not just smoke and mirrors.

  20. Leah Roberts on

    When a trainer gets bitten, it is because that trainer made a mistake. We’re all human, we’re all going to make mistakes at one time or another, and hopefully learn from them. Plain and simple, any trainers who actually brag about how often they get bitten are announcing their level of incompetence.

  21. Lynn on

    A few months after I adopted my fearful Tulip, she suddenly nipped me when I was clipping her nails – didn’t break the skin, but it hurt and left a mark. I’d clipped her nails before, so it made me realize her “placid” behavior until then wasn’t because she didn’t mind being petted and groomed but because she’d been too shut down to express an opinion. She’d just sit there, no lip licking or yawning or anything obvious that I could understand. It was a breakthrough for both of us, and definitely my mistake. I wouldn’t trust a trainer who thought being bitten was just part of the process.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hard won lesson! It’s helpful to understand how scared animals react. Freezing is often confused with acceptance or worse, calm submission.

      • KellyK on

        Oh, my gosh, yes. This is why I twitch when I hear the phrase “calm submission” because I associate it with seeing my dog scared and naively thinking that was a good thing.

  22. Rosemary on

    Does anyone know of published evidence on whether there’s necessarily a relationship between growling at people and actually going on to bite to do damage?

    As a primarily cat person involved with a shelter that also rehomes dogs I’ve been very struck by the fact that dog owners seem to become fearful if the dog ever expresses annoyance whereas cat owners are fairly relaxed that they won’t get bitten so long as they back off if the cat hisses or growls. Most cat bites happen when the owner hopes the cat is bluffing rather than being a complete shock.

    It seems to me that the danger with this is that the cat’s fine with providing unambiguous signals but the dogs are being trained and selected to bite with no warning at the point where they’ve been pushed beyond their tolerance.

    Of course this is easier if you have a cat because their bites are so much less powerful, so I’m not sure what could be done to solve the problem.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I think your question is akin to asking how many people go on to slug people in the face after asking to be left alone. Some will, some won’t. Some won’t because they get what they asked for. Some will after asking once, others will ask again.

      The point you make is that dogs are often punished for growling. Trainers suggest that doing this can create a dog who seems to bite, without warning. But as you suggest, they have been pushed beyond their tolerance and were unwilling to say so.

      Growling scares people. I live with four dogs and I still will startle and prepare for action when I hear growling. But more often than not the dogs get their points across without much more excitement than that.

    • KellyK on

      Having both dogs and cats, I think you’re right that a big part of it is that cats are so much less powerful than dogs and less likely to do you a real injury (at least with their teeth…the claws are another story).

      I think there’s also a very different perception about cats’ and dogs’ personalities, so we view their signals through a different lens. We see cats as aloof and self-sufficient, while we think of dogs as social animals who are supposed to be deeply loyal to their people. Culturally, we kind of expect cats to be grumpy and want to be left alone sometimes, and dogs to be ever happy and cheerful. I mean, compare Garfield and Grumpy Cat to Lassie and Clifford. (I think these expectations can be bad for cats and dogs both—dogs because we expect a level of friendliness and intelligence that’s not realistic, and cats because we can miss that they are really social creatures and do need our attention and affection.)

      So when a cat growls or hisses, it feels much more normal to people. When a dog growls at you, it’s not only a danger sign but it feels like a betrayal in a way that it doesn’t when a cat hisses at you.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        So true. Few people try to make a cat like them.

  23. Elle on

    “Sometimes I can’t help wishing that instead of whispering these trainers would just stop talking.” I want that on a bumper sticker!!

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