Dog Biting Series Part I - Why do Dogs Bite?
I can’t help it. No matter how many articles I read about someone being bitten by a dog, I take the dog’s side… at first, anyway. Unless these dogs are raised in a hostile, negative environment, or purposely provoked, I assume the person is at fault in some way. Maybe I’m wrong to think that way, but my experience from working at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts has taught me that our guests don’t want to bite. And if, for whatever reason, they feel the need to bite, they give us warnings. They let us know that something isn’t right.
Biting is generally a response or a reaction to something. It’s a very basic behavior for dogs, beginning as early as 3 weeks old when their baby teeth start to protrude. For an adult dog, biting is generally a self-protection maneuver because – guess what – they can’t yell at you or give you a verbal warning. Dog bites don’t necessarily come from what we may think of as vicious dogs either. Ordinarily sweet dogs can bite in certain circumstances. Your pup may very well “bite the hand that feeds him” with the right motive.
What could cause a dog to bite?
- 1. Stress
- When a dog perceives a situation as stressful, it is most definitely a motivation to bite. For example, a dog visiting our spa for the first time may be stressed-out by the unfamiliarity of it all… the noise of the blowers, the water, the smells… We watch for signs of stress and proceed slowly and calmly until our new guest feels more at ease. If we are not aware of our guest’s level of stress, we risk being bitten.
- 2. Pain
- Maybe a dog doesn’t feel well or is in pain and just doesn’t want to be bothered. Not just older arthritic dogs, but even younger dogs may have temporary back or leg pain and simply do not want to be touched. Or, he could just have an upset tummy. Even your best friend for many years may snap at you if he is in pain or is sick.
- 3. Age
- An older dog may just want peace and quiet. He doesn’t want to be disturbed. An approaching human, especially a small child, is an annoyance. He may growl at the intruder as a prelude to biting. Growling is an explicit warning and should be taken seriously.
- 4. Fear
- Fear is a biggie, and a close second to stress. Some dogs, just like people, are ill at ease around other people. When in a room of strangers, the fear [or stress] can be all encompassing. We should never approach a dog who looks “uncomfortable” in his surroundings. Similarly, startling a dog may trigger an instantaneous reactive bite.
- 5. Dominance
- Dominant dogs are headstrong and demanding and may be aggressive if they do not get their way. Their need for control may cause them to “force” submission or conformity the only way they know how… biting.
- 6. Aggravation
- Sure, we aggravate our dogs. Most of the time we don’t even realize that they are annoyed… like when we scratch that uncomfortable area that makes their leg twitch, or relentlessly pat them on their head, but sometimes, shamefully, it’s intentional in an attempt to be funny.
- Don’t tease. If you tease a dog, you are just sitting yourself up to be bitten. And if the dog looks obviously distressed at whatever is going on, we should back off.
- 7. Frustration
- Frustration can take many forms. You almost have to think like a dog to realize why he/she may be feeling frustrated. His frustration stems from some kind of need that is not being met… Maybe he feels trapped, or he could be confused, maybe it’s pent-up anxiety, maybe even excess energy that needs burned off, or maybe he just wants something and can’t get it…like past a gate, or out of a crate. But regardless of the reason, he is unable to control his impulses and may bite in frustration.
- 8. Territorial
- Generally, this would fall under the heading of “dominance”, however, some dogs are territorial about certain things and yet are not considered dominant in nature. For example, my own dog is somewhat territorial, or “protective”, of me. His personality is definitely sweetly submissive, but he has snapped at a few people in the past when they were reaching for me or getting too close to me when he is in my lap. Dogs who exhibit territorial tendencies are guarding or protecting people, food, toys, furniture, whatever they feel is theirs to defend.
- 9. Prey Drive
- Even our domesticated dogs still have a desire to chase, catch and bite things. Just watch how they play and you’ll know what I mean. Certain breeds have more of a prey instinct than others. These are generally working breeds such as spaniels, hounds, terriers, etc. It’s during this heightened state of excitement that biting could occur.
- 10. Lack of socialization
- A dog who has not been properly socialized as a pup has fears and anxieties because, sadly, he just does not understand the world around him. If entered into a room full of strange people, or walked in public on the sidewalk (as opposed to being let go in his own yard), or thrust into the presence of a rambunctious child for the first time, the resulting fear and anxiety could easily cause him to bite.
- 11. A tendency towards aggression
- Right or wrong, some believe that certain breeds are born with a natural tendency towards biting and aggression, i.e., chows, chihuahuas, German shepherds often carry that reputation. Insurance companies have a list of what they consider “aggressive” breeds and will deny liability coverage when these dogs are present in the home. Any dog can be prone to aggression, so it’s safer to view each dog as an individual, rather than limiting it to a specific breed.
- 12. Redirected Aggression
- Not to be confused with frustration, though similar in emotion, redirected aggression occurs when a dog is agitated or aroused by something and is unable to correct the situation or do anything about it. If another person or dog gets too close, the agitated dog redirects his hostility towards them and bites. Probably the most common example of redirected aggression that many of us have witnessed is an amped-up dog “patrolling” a fence line – unable to get to the other side. When “interrupted” by either a person or another dog, the amped-up dog bites the “interuptee”. Redirected aggression is why it’s so dangerous for an untrained person to try and break up a dog fight… Even though that dog doesn’t have any issues with you particularly, you may end up being the one to be bitten.
Many of these reasons overlap in some way… For example, a dog who is fearful of strangers was probably not properly socialized as a pup. And as mentioned, a territorial dog would sometimes fall under the category of dominant. Stress and fear overlap in many circumstances, as does age and pain. All reasons for biting depend on the circumstances and the particular dog.
Lastly, I hate to say it, but sometimes the reason dogs bite is because of who is at the other end of the leash. That means us. We so need to be conscientious, responsible dog owners. Whether we are raising a dog from a puppy, or adopting an older dog, it is up to us to manage and train our dog in a manner that will diminish the probability that it will bite. That entails raising our dogs in an amicable, loving environment, respecting their tendencies and instincts, and seeking professional training* when needed.
Interested in learning more about dog biting?
Explore the other two posts in this series from our dog trainers to learn everything there’s to know why dogs bite, how to train them not to, and how to avoid being bitten.
- Dog Biting Series Part I - Why do Dogs Bite?