A Deeper Understanding
Mary Jean Alsina examines the reasons behind the proliferation of dog bites in the US and
outlines what can be done to try to reduce the number
pproximately 4.5 million people a year are bitten by a dog in the United States and 885,000 of those bitten require medical attention (Gilchrist, et al., 2008). There are a multitude of reasons why dogs feel the need to bite and although biting dogs are commonly looked upon as “fresh,” “aggressive,” and/or “dangerous,” a large percentage of dog bites are actually fear-based. This can be fear of the unknown, fear of people or dogs invading their space, fear of being yelled at, hit, or handled inappropriately, and the list continues. Another reason which is often overlooked as a cause for dog bites is medical issues. When a dog starts showing signs of aggression, a vet check is in order as pain, inflammation and other symptoms can cause even the most well-adjusted dog to lash out. Think of something as simple and harmless as a doorbell. That sound can immediately create a highly negative response in many dog owners because of the extreme uncertainty (or exact knowing) of what may transpire after the door opens. Countless owners live in fear that their dog is on the verge of biting a guest, a child or another animal. Having visitors can wind up decreasing in frequency as can going to public places for enjoyment. As their social life starts to diminish, owners may then resort to other measures. Locking a dog up in a room or crate when they do attempt to have company is one strategy that is utilized, often in desperation, although this can cause more stress for all as the overly frustrated dog can bark, whine and experience great distress because of the inability to keep the house, family and self safe.
The Importance of Socialization
Dogs need to know from a young age that people are not a threat. They can either learn this well, or be deprived of it during the first 12 weeks of their lives. Equally important is puppies learning acquired bite inhibition (ABI). This is an essential part of puppy development as puppies are learning how much pressure they can inflict with their teeth without causing damage. Dogs who have not learned good bite inhibition can potentially deliver fatal bites as adults. When deprived of adequate socialization, dogs, unfortunately, can come to view humans as “invaders” and do not appreciate their being in close proximity to them, their home, or families. These scared dogs learn quite rapidly that barking, lunging and using their teeth will create the distance they need to achieve safety. Once a bite has landed, the dog has found the solution to his problem. Bite and “they” go away – it is that simple. As we know though, simplicity is certainly not the case when it comes to dog bites, or any other type of behavior issue for that matter. Many owners will punish a dog for biting not knowing that this can, without a doubt, make the situation much worse. A dog 38
BARKS from the Guild/January 2016
Learning bite inhibition from siblings is an essential part of puppy development, but not all dogs get this opportunity
© Can Stock Photo/Colecanstock
may bite someone because he is scared and by getting admonished for it, he may begin to create further negative associations between the person and the situation.
Train without Pain
Along with good socialization, dogs fare well when they are guided by a hand that is not heavy in training. This is the critical piece of nature/nurture that is so often overlooked. Genetics are a large part of a dog's temperament, but a dog that is trained in a non-invasive manner will benefit so much more from the nurture part of the equation. The number of dogs that develop aggression and land bites out of fear and self-defense is alarming. In a veterinary study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), if you are aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive too. Says Meghan Herron, DVM, lead author of the study, "Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses." The number of clients that come through my door who have attempted training techniques that require them to be the “pack leader,” “alpha,” “dominant,” and a whole other host of terms that have been completely disproven is astounding. These dogs are fighting back. They are terrified because they are not being shown what to do but simply being punished for what they should not be doing. Owners are not mother dogs and should not be treating or grabbing their dogs the way a mother dog might. Positive, force-free, clear and consistent training is what is necessary to teach a dog to understand what is expected and will also help keep his personality intact, as he will then be less likely to feel the urge to protect himself.