We hear it over and over again “my dog would never bite”. That’s simply wrong – every dog will bite. We all know about some normally mild-mannered person who one day snaps and gets road rage – dogs are no different. They don’t have many ways to express themselves – so they use their teeth. They typically give several warning signs ranging from a growl to a stare and freeze, then move on to a bite. For some dogs, that progression is slow, for others, all of those phases can happen in a moment. This escalation process to an actual bite is called the “bite threshold”. Normal dog aggression occurs around specific triggers such as being touched, resource guarding “their” stuff – toys, food, etc., their people or around other animals. For example, a normally calm, submissive animal can appear to be vicious when approaching another dog while on a leash walk.
While many dogs are able to tolerate one stressor, trouble often occurs when a number of their stressors combine. For example, one dog dislikes, but tolerates toddlers, they tolerate when people take their favourite toy, and they tolerate loud noises. But, inevitably you have a loud family party, where a toddler takes the dog’s favourite toy. That combination could be too much stress for your dog to handle. Then wham, the dog bites, and everyone is shocked.
Here are a few things you can do to avoid aggression:
Be a leader
This is about being like a confident, assertive-parent. It’s not about being an aggressive dominant brute. You’re in control of everything in your dog’s life and they need to realize that. Use trainer Sue Ailsbury’s techniques to respectfully and responsibly put yourself in control of your relationship.
Socialize your dog to everything
Let your dog experience the world and different people of all ages, men and women. Let them see the world so they realize that it’s not a scary place.
Never use aggression on your dog
Using aggression builds fear. When you build fear, you’re also setting the stage for future aggression.
Handle your dog and their stuff
From day one, take away their stuff, make them move from your pathway and off the furniture, and be able to touch them all over. Ideally get other people to do this too so your dog is prepared for other caregivers such as vets and trainers.
Ask for and reward the behaviour you want – rather than tolerating what you get
Every day your milk man arrives, your dog goes wild, then watches him leave. His little doggie brain tells him that he’s done his job by sending the bad man away. Rather than allowing this behaviour, train your dog to do something preferable like sit or go to your mat. Reward that behaviour. Eventually your dog will sit or go to their mat when they see the milk man arrive.
Teach your dog to have a soft mouth
If you do this right and one day they feel the need to bite, they’re less likely to cause damage.
Protect your dog
One of your jobs is to protect your dog from harm’s way so they never feel threatened. Being attacked by another dog is an easy way to build aggression into your dog. One trainer I know carries a riding crop with her when walking her dog. If any dog tries to harm her dog, they can’t. It sounds a little nasty, but I’d rather deter someone else’s aggressive dog than build fear into mine.
If you notice signs of aggression, manage or modify it right away. Doing nothing is a recipe for disaster – either you or someone else will be bitten. Check with your vet to rule out that behaviour changes are not medically related – eg. if they’re in pain, they may snap. Don’t do anything that is likely to get yourself bitten. If you’re concerned at all, seek a professional trainer to help you out. When doing that, make sure you find one that uses positive techniques rather than aggressive, fear-based methods. Never tolerate behaviour in a small dog that would be unacceptable in larger dogs. What often starts out as cute puppy behaviours can turn into a nightmare.
Here are some additional resources to help you on your way: