Help: My Dog Bites Me

dog bites

Help: My dog bites me. It just started and I didn’t do anything to cause this. What do I do?

Throughout my decades of being a dog parent, most often I hear this lament from someone who has a puppy. Lately, I read about it more and more as I am involved in pet rescue. Of the top 10 reasons that most dogs end up in shelters, biting is one of the most frequent ones. And guess who is at fault (whether they admit or not)? You guessed it: The owner.

Dogs will bite for a variety of reasons. It is, however, very unusual for a pet dog/the family dog to start biting a family member for no good reason. It has generally been my experience in talking to experts, meeting with behaviorists, and interviewing positive reinforcement trainers, that dogs who bite a family member are doing so with cause. In other words, the problems is caused by abusive training, improper handling, teasing, or something else that sets the dog off.

dog bite prevention
This might look cute, but should be discouraged.

Mouthing or Biting

There is a big difference between canines who bite and those who mouth. When I play with my dog, for example, he play nips at me as if I were one of his pack mates. Similarly, puppies will mouth on things like fingers, hair, shoes, furniture, toys, and so on. These are normal dog and puppy behaviors. With proper training, any mouthing an adult dog might do can be corrected. Mouthing can be annoying, but it is not a danger.

Biting is what happens when a dog breaks the skin, pierces the skin, and/or otherwise makes contact with their teeth in a way that causes harm to the recipient. Dogs bite for a variety of reasons, and of the dogs who enter shelters because of biting, 5 out of 10 dogs in shelters are destroyed simply because there is no one to adopt them (ASPCA).

We recently penned an article, 9 Ways to Prevent Dog Bites, and you should read that. This article deals primarily with an adult dog who “suddenly” starts biting a family member, and if you landed on this blog post, that someone just might be you.

dog bite prevention

My Dog Bites Me: Help: Pet Parents React

So I have a dilemma and I hope someone on here can help me or else I will have to get rid of my beloved Cocker Spaniel, Misty (name changed). She is 5 years old now and has the alpha dominance in her. She has always had a bit of aggression in her but now it is coming out even more. She was upset with me yesterday morning with growling and snarling – then she bit me about 4 times on my hand! I have taken her to training and even to a behaviorist. Oh, and before anyone asks she is PERFECTLY healthy! Please help! What do I do?

The author went on to say, “She was upset because she was across the street (another story in itself) and I was trying to get her home. She has food aggression towards our other Cocker but we are successfully working on that issue. By the way my husband is currently out of a job so more training at this point is unfortunately out if the question.

The above is an actual post in a message board to which I belong. I am removing the name of the author as well as changing the dog’s name. I have learned that when someone reaches out for help, it’s easier to try to educate and help them than to get angry and ask them what the bleep is wrong to want to give their dog up.

For a short time, I watched as responses poured in to “help” this frustrated pet parent. Some of the replies:

Has her thyroid been checked? (I asked this because a thyroid disorder can cause aggression in dogs)

Is there any sort of pain associated with the dog? (good answer; dogs will bite in pain – and some pain issues are not visible)

Is the dog going deaf? (startled dogs may snap or bite)

Years ago I had an issue with a picky eater and our vet told me that in pack behavior, the one with the food is the pack leader. So to further establish yourself as the pack leader, to keep the food up high (on top of fridge for example) and make a big deal of doling the food out and putting it away, and being in charge. Also, in the house, at all times, keep her tethered to you with a leash, further asserting yourselves as the alpha. Also, with hubby home now, the dynamic has changed, so allow time for adjustment. More walks and exercise cannot hurt.

Have you tried turning her on her back and letting her know you are the Alpha?  To her you are part of her pack. And she’s in charge. You have to gain control. With my food aggressive Cocker I started when she was a puppy. I pretended to eat her food, on her level, when she growled I said, kisses, after I pulled her back by the skin on the back of her neck. I was never mean, but VERY firm!  Even now if she growls we say kisses and she kisses you. Also, say loud and firm, My food, ball, etc.! They must learn who is in charge, especially of her food. A day or two without food and she’ll start getting the gist. It won’t hurt her, if that’s what it takes, and it beats the alternative. As long as she has water she’ll be fine.

Be firm and immediately correct the issue with yours ! Don’t show any fear ! YOU are the BOSS !

My Dog Bites Me: Help: Positive Reinforcement Experts Respond

Since the average pet parent responded to the frustrated dog mom, I asked two expert dog trainers who do this sort of thing for a living to weigh in. Both dog trainers believe in positive reinforcement methods, and both are highly qualified and do this for a living.

Robin Bennett dog trainerRobin K. Bennett has been involved in the pet care industry for the past 20 years as a dog trainer and dog daycare expert.  She founded All About Dogs, the largest dog training company in Virginia and grew it from a sole proprietorship to a Corporation that boasts over ten instructors, teaching private lessons as well as numerous group classes and behavior modification lessons for shy, fearful and aggressive dogs.

“I definitely wouldn’t recommend pinning since that will most likely make the dog either more fearful or more angry at the owner….thereby giving them even more of a reason to bite the next time too,” Bennett said. “I tell people the biting is a symptom of some emotional state (usually fear). You don’t want to work on the symptom (the biting) you want to work on the emotional state. If you can make the dog less stressed, fearful or whatever, then the symptom (biting) will decrease. So ultimately that is the goal. “

Bennett says that depending on the situation when the biting occurs, she  would do a wide range of things…increase distance, use treats to redirect the dog, call the dog into another room to change the context of the environment, etc. It really will depend on the situation which triggers the biting.

Dog trainer, Laurie C. Williams, agrees.

“I would definitely not recommend fighting aggression with aggression. I rarely see this happening “suddenly,” she reports. “Once I interview and gather a full history I usually discover there have been minor incidents along the way preceding the actual bite. “Warnings” of things escalating such as resource guarding, growling, air snapping and nips before an actual bite. The only best advice is give would be to seek professional help ASAP.”laurie

And by professional help, that means an in-person positive reinforcement trainer. Laurie Williams has devoted her life to the love of dogs and feels very fortunate to have enjoyed a long professional career in dog training, behavior modification and general pet care spanning nearly 30 years. 

What Would Make a Dog Bite a Family Member?

One of the most common things I have seen over the years is that the word  “dominance” is inappropriately used and diagnosed when it comes to dog training. Some dog trainers and “armchair quarterbacks” diagnose every problem as a “dominance” problem. How many of these odd rules have you heard in conjunction with being the “alpha” or “pack leader” and showing “dominance” over a dog:

  • Don’t let the dog eat before you
  • Exit a door first before the dog does
  • Keep dogs off the furniture
  • Don’t interact with the dog unless you are in control
  • Pin a dog down to show dominance as alpha over them

None of the above will fix a dog biting problem that was created because of a human being. Please re-read that sentence carefully. None of the above will fix a dog biting problem that was created because of a human being. In fact, it will most likely worsen the situation.

dog urination

View the World As the Dog

In the course of a typical 24 hour day, what is the dog exposed to? Is he ever:

  • Teased
  • Hit (NEVER hit a dog)
  • Unexpectedly woken up (ever hear of “let sleeping dogs lie?”)
  • Is hugged or kissed: Some dogs see this as a threat and don’t like it
  • Being exposed to emotional turmoil
  • Under stress because of separation
  • Experiencing a change in routine
  • Living with anyone new
  • Have a health condition
  • In pain: visible or not
  • Having dental issues

Dogs Who Bite and Why

Here are two examples of family dogs who “suddenly” started biting their pet parent or someone in the family:

Sully the Dalmatian bit his owner when the owner cornered him. The dog would not go outside to pee when the owner commanded the dog to do so. The owner called to Sully, but the dog ran to the other side of the house. The owner chased the dog to the end of the hallway. Sully the dog rolled on his back and peed. The owner roughly picked his dog up, carried him outside, and the scared dog bit the owner on his hand.

A) The dog reacted in fear: Yelling at a dog and chasing him down induces fear

B) You don’t demand a dog to pee when you say so with a gruff voice and manhandling

How can a dog be expected to do something when the dog has no idea what you, the owner, wants of them? A dog must be taught and properly trained. Note to that pet owner: I would not do what you told me if you were mean and demanding about it.

Misty the Cocker Spaniel would bite at anyone who tried to move her from the couch. There are people who simply do not want their dogs on furniture, so this is a common occurrence across the world. That’s fine if you don’t want the dog on the furniture. From the dog’s perspective, he or she is yelled at or scolded whenever they are on the furniture. I have read of people who shout at the dog, toss things at them, swat at the dog, beat their hand on the furniture near the dog, and do any number of things to get the dog off the couch/chair, etc.

Think like the dog: The dog associates mean behaviors by people simply for resting on a piece of furniture. It is the people who need the training and not the dog. There are ways to discourage behaviors, and the aforementioned are not the ways to go.

dog bites

Dogs Who “Turn” On Their Master: Now What?

There is no one magical solution: A qualified obedience instructor or dog behaviorist must intervene with a positive reinforcement approach. I adore the teachings of Victoria Stilwell, and I highly encourage anyone who is thinking of getting a dog or presently has one to read her books: Namely It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet. I met Victoria and thanked her for teaching me so many amazing things about how to view the world as a dog.

Victoria_Stilwell

Note: If a dog bites unprovoked, is unable to be around people in public, reacts to everything and anyone, the aggression is sure to eventually cause a major problem.

The bottom line is this: If you are working on correcting the dog’s behavior, you also need to work on correcting the behavior of those who interact regularly with the dog, and that includes the pet parents. Learn to read a dog’s body signals so that you can avoid putting him into a situation where he feels he must react or is challenged.

Repairing the trust and bond you have with your dog can happen: With love, patience, guidance, and professional help. Do not use force or punishment as a means of treatment: The goal is to pick the pieces up and rebuild, not to weaken and destroy the spirit of the dog.

Have you ever dealt with a dog biting incident (or more than one)?

 

Comments

  1. I would argue against blaming the owner in all cases. Many rescues are placing mentally unsound dogs who have issues with biting already. We should not always assume the owner is the cause. Some of the dogs entering the shelter and rescue system (more and more often these days) are coming in with issues. Still a great piece, but wanted to call that out.

    • I would argue against the assertion that “many rescues are placing mentally unsound dogs”. I volunteer for a rescue and attend events with many rescues. A reputable, experienced rescue would never place a mentally unsound dog. Aggression in a dog is the result of a problem, whether it is physiological or a reaction to an outside stimulus. Yes, the owner is not to blame in all cases but more often than not, the dog bit because of something that was done or not done by the humans around it.

  2. Totally agree with the advice in this article but I have to say there are dogs that are sometimes just wired wrong. We dealt with this for more than 4 years with one of our dalmatians. We adopted him from a dalmatian rescue when he was a year old. He had a few issues up front that we knew about, did not like his feet or tail touched, he played very roughly with my other dogs but that was about it. Took him to training, he was excellent in obedience and we felt like he was a good addition to our family. Over the next two years, the parts of his body that he did not want touched grew to include his back and sides, he would snap at you. Again we went to a trainer. When it all started going bad, he bit ,my grandson as he was walking through the front door with my wife. Did not break the skin. We noticed his responses with children, he truly did not like them, he would actually stalk children out by our pool. Again we went back to a trainer then consulted with a behaviorist. We decided to manage him by never allowing him around kids. Depending on the length of their stay, he would either be confined to our bedroom when the kids were over or boarded. During that time he bit me and my wife several times, again never breaking the skin. But the scary part is he was at the point where he gave no warning, no growl nothing, just bit. Again, trainers. We also had tests run at the vet for thyroid problems, etc. He was perfectly healthy. The final straw came at the age of 5. He got in a fight with my mastiff mix, I have no idea why. My mastiff was on top of him and I had to pull him off by his back legs. Neither dog was injured at all. Once up, he came behind me while I was leaning over my mastiff and ripped the back of my arm, I slightly turned to use my hand to push him away and he bit me twice in my face. As I stood up he bit me twice more on my arm. After spending 5 hours in the ER getting stitched and superglued, we made the hard decision to have him put down. This was not a redirect of their fight, this was an attack on me. I still have nightmares of that day and jump if one of my dogs nudges me under the arm where the most damage was done. There is no worse feeling than having the dog you adopted and love attack you. I am sorry this post is so long but just wanted you to know that sometimes all the training in the world (all positive) cannot fix a dog.

    • I had a beloved pet wo had to be put down for behavioral issues.We tried for ten years to change her habits.We got her from a shelter and she was immaculate and so well behaved.I thought” Why would she here?” I assume her behaviour was the reason. 🙂

      • That is very heartbreaking. Did they check her thyroid, as that can sometimes cause behavioral issues. Did you work with a positive reinforcement trainer or more? Was her urine checked: A urinary tract infection can cause issues. What were these behavioral issues?

  3. I love giving hello nips to mom. I’m so excited to see her. I call it a love nip. She laughs and calls it “ow”
    Snorts,
    Lily & Edward

  4. I’m so grateful that our dog isn’t a biter or even a dog that has ever mouthed. I would be very anxious about it and would definitely need to address it immediately, especially with children in the house.

  5. It’s so important to assert authority with dogs. Once they know whose boss it’s so much easier to train away bad habits – they are descended from wild animals after all!

  6. Our dog has never bitten us or anyone, but she has growled, which always worries me. She’s the most submissive dog I’ve ever met and she’s small, and the growling is like this begging sound for food. Anyway, I’m always on alert even though she’s never even bitten the cat!

  7. 1st I love the cartoon graphic! I do not have any dogs at the present moment but I know people who have had dogs and we have been at their house when their dogs has bit one of my friend’s children. It is scary. After that my kids have been leary of dogs.

  8. I’m printing this off and pinning it to our neighbours door…they have two really big dogs {that they ignore} and an elderly man just got bit on the head a couple of days ago.
    The sad part..they just don’t seem to care about the dogs or the people around them.

  9. Great Tips .. I’m scared my Dog will bite me .. he’s a Pit bull and I hear they can be quite temperamental .. I have a Rottweiler but never a Pit bull so these are great tips to consider

  10. Our dog bites when he’s playing, but he’s real careful not to bit down. He’s really good about it with the kids too. Lucky us!

  11. My dad and his wife have a dog that jumps and bites. I know she just wants to play and although I’m no dog expert, I think she could benefit from training. With that being said, I think it’s so important for pet owner to be on top of things like biting and finding a resolution. =) Great post! You provided a lot of good info!

  12. First of all I’m so jealous that you met Victoria Stillwell! I love her books & Its Me Or The Dog TV show. We’ve had lots of people surrender dogs saying the dog “bit” their child. Most times the dog is really sweet & friendly & we can’t believe s/he ever actually bit anyone. Its probably snapping behavior due to fear or teasing. Your friend’s living situation could be a factor; a spouse who lost a job and is stressed out & always at home could an issue. I hope she contacts her local shelter to see if there is any free training or guidance available.

  13. It seems like there are a ton of potential reasons for this behavior. I wouldn’t want to approach the situation incorrectly if a dog suddenly started biting. This is really helpful.

  14. oNone of our own dogs have ever bitten. However some that people have dumped off here do. We try to correct the situation that leads to biting, but sometimes it is not successful.

  15. This article is fantastic. If only more owners would take responsibility for their pets. Rather than taking their pets to shelters and rescues because of biting problems, address the issues. So many owners look for the easy way out. It’s the same for the elderly. Oh, poor grandma can’t remember anymore! So, they “wash” their hands of any responsibility, and put grandma in a home. What a sad state of affairs.

    If you choose to have a pet, you are responsible for his/her life, and not just when the dog “fits” the situation. You are spot on, Fidose. It’s the owner’s fault for almost all biting problems either for creating the problem or not addressing the problem.

  16. I would add to the body language signs: wrinkling nose and curled lip. I read about this in Patricia McConnell’s “The Other End of the Leash”. Knowing that clue has helped me avoid fight situations between dogs.

  17. I do not know if this thread is still open, but if so:

    I rescued a 4 month old great pyr, border collie, shepherd mix. He was a large dog even then, so was not especially welcome in Puppy Kindergarten with the many small, younger pups. Nevertheless, we went to training classes. He is smart and very sweet. However, as he got older he behaved more and more aggressively towards other dogs and then towards people. I took him to a Clinical Animal Behaviorist (a veterinarian with additional training as a dog behaviorist) at 16 months old and he was diagnosed with “fear aggression.” Before I began his re-training regimen, he would lunge and bark furiously at certain dogs and people. It seemed that when he was startled he reacted, though those were not the only times. The times he was able to get away from me, he either ran to the another dog and played with him (most of the time) or tried to fight. He bit 3 people and the third time broke the skin. He was never aggressive towards family members or friends of ours.

    I learned that a dog’s socialization window is open during the first 3 months of it’s life. After that it is very difficult/impossible to train him to have good socialization skills. That said, I learned many ways to work with my dog. When in the woods with him I let him loose wearing a basket muzzle (made of rubber and he can eat, drink, breathe easily.) When I walk him, which I only do in a large park where I can see other people and dogs approaching, I use both a harness with leash and a gentle leader with leash. His reactions have lessened in frequency and intensity but I still cannot predict his behavior. He recently bit me after being upset by another dog passing close by our car. I should have just let him be for a few minutes, but I tried to leash him. I think and hope that was a one-off event.

    There are many dogs who need a home and I still firmly believe in rescuing animals whenever possible (I also have a snake and 2 cats – all rescues.) When I “rescue” my next dog I plan to find one who is well under 3 months old, but there is no guarantee that he/she will be perfectly healthy. In the best of circumstances, having a dog is a long-term commitment of time and money and more so if the dog is “damaged” in any way. I would urge people to consider that before adopting a rescue dog.

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