Assume They Bite

border collie with ball and baby sitting in front

Even a “good” dog has teeth.

During his early time with us Sunny never growled or lifted a lip toward me or my husband. No one was more surprised than I was when he landed a bite on my neighbor’s calf when she was walking in front of our house. I soon learned  from other, more experienced fearful dog owners, that there was nothing surprising about Sunny’s behavior. He was essentially a dog who never had the opportunity to learn to feel good and comfortable around people, especially strangers, and I had encouraged my neighbor to toss tennis balls for Sunny when he went down to the road and barked at her. OMG. I can hardly believe it myself. What was I thinking? Fact is I didn’t know what to think. I never had a dog who was as prepared to bite people as Sunny was. Learning that the dog you are living with has the increased potential to, and in all likelihood will, bite someone is a crushing realization. I felt terrible about what happened to my neighbor, who was beyond understanding and generous in her response. I baked her a maple walnut pie and still am upset about Sunny biting her.

Since that time Sunny has put his teeth into another calf once. Again it was a predictable, and therefore avoidable situation. There was the perfect storm of conditions, I assumed one thing, the person engaging with him assumed another and “bam” it happened again. That sinking gut feeling is one I can do without. Again, the recipient of the bite was kind and generous and in fact was even unsure as to whether she’d been bitten or scratched, but I knew better, those marks were from teeth.

Recently I found out that another of the little dogs who was part of the same confiscation from a breeder as my Nibbles, had started biting people. Of all the shy dogs I met of that group, this little guy had the most skill and comfort around people. I never would have guessed that he’d end up biting, my money would have been on Nibbles. It’s been a couple of years since the dog had been adopted and I’m going to assume that this new propensity to bite has been building. The conditions the dog had been living in were leading to the creation of the behavior. Don’t get me wrong, the people he lives with are loving and kind. The dog is adored and well cared for but the, what are often subtle, signs of discomfort and fear were not seen or heeded.

When we live with a dog with “issues” of any kind we have two options that are often best combined. We manage the dog so that they are not put into situations in which they are likely to experience fear or discomfort and then fail at being good dogs. For pet owners without a lot of training background or skill, this is the go-to approach. Your dog lunges at dogs while out walking on a leash, stop walking your dog where or when you’re likely to run into other dogs. Your dog barks and charges guests who come into your home, put the dog in a crate or another room so they can’t.

The second thing we do is a combination of changing how the dog feels and teaching them new behaviors. Both of these are often most easily done using super good food treats. It can take some skill development on the part of an owner, but a good trainer, well versed in positive reinforcement methods and protocols can teach you. It’s a gentle and kind process that is a joy to watch unfold. As you are learning and practicing good management, your dog is learning and less likely to feel stressed and pressured, and less likely to bite.

I live with four dogs. My cocker Annie and border collie Finn have teeth and like all dogs can bite, but I don’t have the same degree of concern about their behavior with people as I do with Sunny and Nibbles. Annie and Finn have a buffer of tolerance and resiliency to being stressed by people. They are not afraid of people. Both Sunny and Nibbles have come a long way in their ability to feel more comfortable and safe with people, but the first feeling that washes over them when they see a person is probably fear, worry or concern. My goal has been to change that feeling to one of gleeful anticipation. In Sunny’s case it might be a frisbee toss across the dog yard. For Nibbles it’s a treat. For both dogs it means no handling or social pressure to engage in a conversation that decreases the distance between person and dog without the dog’s stamp of approval.

By assuming that your dog will bite you might save yourself and someone else having to deal with one. It’s painful.

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13 comments so far

  1. justthreadtwiddling on

    Because any dog with teeth can bite, I am very careful that my grandchildren are never alone with Ike or Tina. The dogs are loving and calm with hub and me, but if uncomfortable with children, who knows. And we have had the dogs since they were 7 weeks old. One issue we have is our DIL avoidance of dogs. She has made it seem like the dogs are something to fear to our 3 yo granddaughter.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It is true that dogs don’t bite or do as much damage, statistically as we “feel” there is the risk. But when it does happen it’s a big deal to all involved, and rightly so. Given what you can find online showing people harassing their dogs, the dogs are remarkably tolerant.

  2. rangerskat on

    For as long as I can remember I’ve known that all dogs will bite if you give them a reason. I’m sure my mother preached it to me non-stop since from the time I could walk I was totally convinced that every dog I met would love me–and was never proven wrong thank heavens. I suspect dogs believe that humans are the worst listeners on the planet. They lick their lips to say I’m uncomfortable with this and we humans ignore it; they shy away and widen their eyes to say I want this to end and we pay no attention, they offer a growl to say please, stop and we yell at them making them even more afraid and so since we didn’t listen to anything else they bite.

    Some dogs, like my registered therapy dog Ranger, have a lot of buffering, excellent socialization, and good genetics and are able to make their point before they feel the need to bite but more dogs, like my fearful Finna, raised by animal hoarders, never socialized, and with high strung genetics reach for the tool of teeth very early on. She doesn’t have a lot of patience for people not listening to her and she doesn’t have the background to understand there are a lot of other ways to get her point across.

    At a recent reading time at the library Ranger had a girl that believed she could and should treat him like a giant beanbag chair, climbing on him, laying on him, etc. Ranger and I both told her no repeatedly yet when I turned my head to answer a question from her mother she flopped down on him like a mattress. Ranger whirled around and delivered one very deep bark right in her ear. She got a scare and a teachable moment. Hopefully she’ll remember in the future that dogs aren’t furniture but are living beings deserving respect and that you need to listen to what they tell you. If it had been Finna instead of Ranger the child would have been mauled because once you push Finna into that place where she feels like she has no options but teeth she’s stopped thinking. It’s why Ranger gets to go to the library to listen to children read and Finna gets to wear a muzzle whenever she’s not at home or at the trainers. I find it helps people remember how important it is to listen to what she tells them if she’s wearing the big muzzle sign that screams “I have carpet knives in my mouth and I will use them if you don’t pay attention to what I tell you.”

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      One of the prices of domestication for dogs seems to have been that they are subject to our whims and desires. I suppose it was worse for pigs.

      • Joanne Davidson on

        Tinsel, the puppymill rescue, has also come a long way from the terrified, traumatized unsocial dog that came 19 months ago but he has also started to growl at the people that come into the house that he doesn’t see often. I know better than to growl at him because I don’t want him to become a “silent” biter. By that I mean, I would rather he growled a warning first with possible biting being his last resort than become a dog that just bites without warning. For example, my brother came by this morning and he growled and ran to the other side of the room. I told brother to not look at him or speak to him for a few minutes than I started handing out treats. I gave Tinsel’s treat to my brother, had him offer it to Tinsel and Tinsel came over and with a stretch, took the treat. We then proceeded to ignore him and eventually he came over to investigate. Honestly, I would be worried about having children in the house that are not dog savvy or are too young to be. On the street he has been okay so far but we can’t do a lot of it because he has bilateral hip dysplasia and walking is not comfortable for him. He also has a malformed right wrist so is not a candidate for surgery.
        Hoping hydrotherapy will help with this issue.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I hope the hydro is helpful. My border collie Finn was hit by a car and as he ages he’s gotten more and more gimpy in his hind end. But in the summer he swims a lot and I notice a huge difference. I also started giving him meds for the pain and inflammation.

  3. Bruce and Anne Kitts on

    We have a big problem in our area with people walking their dogs without a leash. In particular, those that own a Pit Bull think that it is a great idea to take one of the most dangerous breeds in the world out for a walk in our subdivision when children are out playing.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Leash laws are often ignored, it’s frustrating. Almost any dog can be dangerous to children. Most aren’t, including most pitties,thankfully.

    • Kara on

      All dogs should be on a leash. It is a law in some states. The Pit Bull breed is not one of the most dangerous breeds. Do the research. All breeds can be dangerous!

  4. ldmaking on

    I needed to read this as my dog recently lunged at someone and she was ready to bite. I’m glad I caught it in time but it was totally unsuspected. Sadly the individual’s response was not as positive as what you experienced, in fact, his words were “that dog needs a muzzle”. Personally, I think that’s the worst case scenario and there are so many other ways to shift my dog’s behaviour. Thankfully there are others with a similar mindset to mine.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nothing wrong with a muzzle.

      • rangerskat on

        Personally I like having my fearful Finna wear a muzzle when she’s out and about on a walk. Even the most clueless member of J.Q. Public understands to leave a muzzled dog alone. It even works to keep the “dog lovers” who aren’t able to listen when I say Finna needs space, away. Muzzles are much more readily understood than yellow ribbons.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Good point.


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