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aggression, Dog Behavior and Training, General

Removing the taboo of biting

Today I tried to count how many times I saw the dogs use their mouths on each other, and I lost track after about a hundred – in about half an hour. I also counted how many times they used their mouths on humans, and aside from Godric’s hand-chewing the grand total was zero.

No big whoop, you should be saying. Aren’t your dogs “good dogs”? That means they shouldn’t ever bite people. This shouldn’t be some kind of dramatic statistic.

This is going to be a short one, because I’ve already talked about how aspects of temperament and behavior can change and why I can’t stand labeling dogs, and even about biting (wow, is that an old post and I need to go edit parts of it to make it clearer, but the core of it is still what I think is true). But we need to have a conversation about this, because I think it’s so dramatically misunderstood.

The world of dog ownership in this country has defined dogs who bite people as “bad” dogs and dogs who don’t bite people as “good” dogs. I read – frequently – about how dogs with “biting problems” (usually defined as one human bite, or maybe two, or even a couple of dog bites) are the enemy, like “I can’t believe they let a dog with a known biting problem into that therapy program” or “She’s a bad breeder; my dog grew up and turned out to have a biting problem.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s very worthwhile for anyone interested in the changing role of dogs in this country to read the dog fiction that has been written over the last century or so.

I’ve always loved the “hero dog” books – White Fang, Lassie, Buff, Algonquin. And, TO A ONE, those books have a dramatic confrontation in which a dog bites a human. Lad bites. Old Yeller bites people. Savage Sam kills somebody. Heck, Buck kills an entire group of people. Lassie bites. Fortinbras growls at people and offers to bite them. Toto, Huan (from the Silmarillion), Jip, Roy the wolfhound who solves a Holmes mystery by attacking and almost killing his master, Kazan and Baree – I could go on and on. Every hero dog attacks people, every hero dog attacks other dogs. There was some sort of cultural expectation that if you did something stupid or bad, a dog would bite you, and it would be YOUR fault.

Now, in 2011, if a dog ever bites anyone or anything, it’s a bad dog and should be put down or at the very least isolated from life forever and ever. Something must be wrong in its brain and it is never to be trusted again.

In fact, the old books were right. We’re the ones who are wrong. I promise, I don’t think that a dog should go tear the throats out of twenty people, even if they are kidnappers or something, but what is very correct about those old books is that dogs live according to a very simple and very pure moral code, and if a person does something that breaks that code and won’t listen as the dog tries to tell them that they’re doing something wrong, they’re going to eventually get bitten.

What we are actually seeing when we make the 2011-style “good dog/bad dog” statements is not a dog who won’t bite versus a dog who will bite. We’re seeing a dog who is very patient and accepting of mistakes versus a dog who is slightly less patient. It’s always amazing to me how my dogs do their absolute best to include me in the conversation, doing the dog version of speaking really loudly and slowly – big wide tail movements, big slow mouth smiles, exaggerated ears. When it comes to disciplining me, they are even more forebearing; I don’t get a mouth correction unless I do something really awful (and the current dogs, with the exception of Bramble, have actually never given me a mouth correction even when I richly deserve it), whereas they’ll correct each other with mouths on a constant basis.

That’s why it’s ridiculous that we have a line in the sand when it comes to dogs biting people. Dogs don’t have a biting problem – they bit because they felt they needed to. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time it was a human problem and not the dog. That’s why there are so many “former biters” in therapy dog programs or living with kids or happily placed in homes. They aren’t former biters, and they weren’t problems. But back then they felt that they needed to bite and now they don’t. If they don’t feel they need to bite, they are no more likely to do so now than any other dog. The stupidity of the “biting problem” is like telling someone that once they yell in frustration they can never be trusted again and now they’re a problem yeller, and why can’t they be like Mrs. Henkel who never speaks above a whisper, and there must be something wrong with them because they yelled. Put that person in an opera audience and he’s no longer a yeller. Put Mrs. Henkel in a room full of fire ants and I promise you she’s going to be a yeller.

A dog who is biting is a dog who is in a room full of fire ants. He’s being pushed beyond what he can bear. For some, like Bramble, the “fire ants” stage is reached very quickly, especially when he’s nervous about the person involved (I can do anything with him; my brother-in-law terrifies him and wouldn’t even be able to touch him); for Clue, you’d almost have to threaten to cut off her leg or something before she’d get there. But it’s the same stage, both dogs WILL bite, and Clue is no more “good” than Bramble is.

The one thing I think we’re allowed to still say about biting is that it’s a sign that something’s very wrong. It’s something wrong with the environment or the people or the dog’s life or health, not with the dog’s soul, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sign that something must change. For some dogs the greatest gift you can give them is to rehome them – second homes are often “miracle workers” for biting dogs because whatever it was that was driving the dog crazy is no longer there. For others adequate changes can be made in the existing home to bring the dog back under the stress threshold and make him “not a biter.” Biting is always a reason to seek out a vet and a good, sympathetic behaviorist (wow, I am pulling out ALL the ancient posts today), but it’s not a life-ending crisis or a disaster. It’s a caution sign and a reason to reevaluate exactly what happened and what went wrong and, if possible, to remove the likelihood of the situation occurring again in exactly the same way.

Now go tell somebody she’s a good dog. Because she is.