Last updated on September 8, 2015
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
View the World As the Dog
In the course of a typical 24 hour day, what is the dog exposed to? Is he ever:
- 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.
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.
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)?