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.

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16 Comments

  • Reply Joanna Kimball July 20, 2011 at 3:53 am

    OK, that’s three bossy dog posts in three days. Gimme some props.

    • Reply Erin July 20, 2011 at 9:16 am

      Hooray for bossy dog posts! They make my day!!

    • Reply priscilla July 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm

      Joanna, i loved this article and had read some of the old ones mentioned…
      i do so appreciate your wisdom and wish i could have have a fraction of this in my brain two days ago… although it may not have heeled. I spent the night with my daughter-in-laws parents because they were the only people , immediate family included, who’d let me and my two dogs stay in the house over night, and so i took up the offer.. Our air went out and my hubby stayed in the heat till they replaced the unit over 24hr, period..not a good idea with me and the dogs, haha … anyway i had a wonderful time they were very gracious and my dogs did awesome..Thank God! My dilemma, or should i say my son and his wife’s dilemma, was not my dogs it was their 4yrold pem. who was not around because hes been banned from heir home…This is her parents house mind you.. who have always loved cowboy.. Cowboy is a very nice dog hasn’t got a oz. of aggression in him, but a couple of months back he did a “no no”.. he bit their new adopted 9 yr old daughter in the leg .. and it was bad , they almost to her for stitches … They told me this story while i was sitting in the living rm. watching Carly and Frankie very closely.. I said “what was she doing”? They said she was just swinging.. well i know for a fact that Carly tries to jump on all of us, including my gran kids when we are in the swing . Frankie does not do it.. but hes not much of a herder for a corgi..lol…So i was wondering if you were aware of this issue , seems to be a instinct of some sort with herders? maybe you know about the attraction. ?
      So i said all that to ask you for your wise consul , what in the world can they do to help this situation, i know that hes not the problem hes over here all the time and so mellow… but they think hes going to bite again…I feel bad for the dog.
      thanks for all you do and all the info you put out there!
      Grateful reader…Priscilla

  • Reply Elizabeth Johnson Blanks July 20, 2011 at 8:08 am

    I read the biting one early this morning – I thought it was really interesting, something I’d never really given much thought to since we’ve never had that issue with any of our dogs. You raised some really good points! I like your bossy posts…they make me think! :-)

  • Reply Emily~ DreamEyce July 20, 2011 at 9:11 am

    People are always shocked in my puppy classes when I insist people teach puppies HOW to bite people (Bite inhibition), instead of saying mouthing is wrong. I’m not sure where the opinion that dog mouths should never touch people came from, but I don’t like it. Dogs who don’t know how to mouth people are disasters waiting to happen if they’re ever in a position where they need to bite, as they have no idea HOW to bite a person and expect people to be like dogs.

    • Reply Erin July 20, 2011 at 9:17 am

      This is interesting. How exactly do you teach this? I must admit, I’ve always heard any and all biting is unacceptable and had that attitude with my dogs. I don’t tolerate mouthing on people at all, but perhaps there is a better way for me to be training the puppies? I would love to hear. Thanks!

      • Reply Emily~ DreamEyce July 20, 2011 at 9:28 am

        When a puppy mouths too hard, you say “Ouch” in a sort of yipe, and they generally stop, look at you in a quizzical manner then try again to ‘test the waters’. I don’t PRAISE for mouthing, but I ‘yipe’ when they bite down too hard. This teaches them what’s too hard, and what’s acceptable, and I always go at the soft side of “too hard” so even small children won’t be affected.

        There’s plenty of articles by people much more qualified than I am about bite inhibition. I’ve found teaching dogs how to use their mouths is a better long-term option than saying “No, using your mouth is wrong”. Mouths are how dogs communicate, and all they know so asking them to toss out a major life tool is IMO insane.

        • Reply christine July 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm

          Yes, I totally agree.

          I first heard Ian Dunbar talking about teaching bite inhibition back in 1992, and he convinced me then. If you google “bite inhibition” you’ll find some very good resources online.

        • Reply Erin S July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm

          That is actualyl how I teach bite inhibition, but I do it for any mouthing. You mention children specifically which is my biggest concern. My dogs are around children, not my own, frequently, and kids (and their parents) will freak out at the littlest bit of mouthing. I guess that’s why I’ve always discouraged that anytime your mouth is on a human, it’s not okay. Have you found parents to be accepting of “soft mouthing?” I just don’t see it, but maybe it’s the parents I know! :)

          • Emily~ DreamEyce July 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm

            I’ve not had issues with parents, but I also Poms and Cardis, not large dogs. My dogs aren’t constantly mouthing and don’t chew (Just touch on occasion), but I can be sure when they’re grabbing a treat, or playing tug and such that they’ll use ‘people mouth’, instead of ‘dog mouth’. I get a lot of compliments about my dogs with parents, but people are more forgiving of little dogs than bigger dogs so it could be different if I had a larger dog touching kids with their mouth.

  • Reply Raegan July 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

    “if you did something stupid or bad, a dog would bite you, and it would be YOUR fault.”

    This should be the new criminal justice system. If you do something stupid or bad, a dog will bite you, and it will be your fault. Love it.

  • Reply Laurel July 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    My grandmother had a dog who bit first my little sister and then my little brother in the face. Also a few other children in similar situations. In my family lore, Gibbon is a Bad Dog who should have been put down.

    Actually my grandmother is a Bad Dog Owner who should have kept her dog separated from her small grandchildren, since having kid faces in his face obviously made poor Gibbon feel like he was in a room full of fire ants. She refused to board him, train him, crate him, or even keep him upstairs when we were visiting. In retrospect there were a lot of things she or my parents could have done to make it safe to have him be alive. Given that they did none of those things, it was utterly predictable that he kept biting kids.

  • Reply Beth July 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    I grew up with dogs. Lots of dogs. Hunting dogs, mostly, and field trial dogs. When I was about 8 or so the neighbor’s little dog nipped me. Tiny bite, broke the skin but no real damage and no big punctures.

    My parents were out and my grandmother cleaned me up and was ready to haul me to the ER (overreaction), which my aunt wisely put a stop to. When my parents got home, they looked at the tiny little bite and looked at me and said “What did you do to the dog?”

    I was deeply embarrassed because, truth be told, I had persisted in trying to get the dog to pay attention to me after she had turned around and walked away and made it clear she didn’t want to be bothered several times. And I knew better. Little dogs were a novelty to me, though, and I was treating her more like a walking stuffed toy than a dog.

    She was a terrier mix and had a lower threshold around children than I expect of my own dogs. Still, she wasn’t a “bad dog” and my parents’ interaction with the neighbors over it consisted of verifying she was up-to-date on her rabies shots. Oh, and they told me to leave the poor dog alone in future. End of story. This was the 70’s. Dog nipped child— child got told to knock it off.

    • Reply Erin S July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      I wish that’s still how it was. Instead, a friend of mine was telling me about her sister-in-law’s dog that she was watching a few weekends ago. She has a 10 month old infant and left her alone with the dog while she was in another room. The baby was poking at the dog who was on the couch as far away from the baby as she coud lget, and the dog bit her. Didn’t break skin, so not a bad little dog at all. My friend freaked out, hit the dog a few times, yelled, and put her in a crate for the entire rest of her stay. Sigh… maybe your baby never should have been left alone with the dog to begin with! This is a friend who has watched my dogs before when I’ve gone out of town, and it goes without saying that will never happen again. If she doesn’t know enough to keep her baby away from annoyed dogs (because, “they’d been playing fine together all weekend”), she doesn’t know enough to have a dog in her house.

  • Reply Christina July 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I am so glad now thinking back to the stories of our dog when I was very little. He bit me across the face when I was allowed to crawl up to him, not enough to hurt me but enough to just say “no, bad baby”. He was already an older dog, at least 13. He wasn’t put down and lived out the rest of his life in our house, with me separated from him at all times.

    Generally I’ve found in the limited reactive dogs I’ve worked with (including both of mine, one of whom is ‘reformed’ and the other is ‘mostly reformed’) there is ALWAYS a cause, sometimes finding it can be tricky. The only problem with your ‘finding a behaviorist’ article is well.. I’m just getting started! I want to become a behaviorist but I can’t go off and finish my Master’s and I know better than to just start practicing. Everyone wants that person whose been there, done that, but it makes it hard for those of us who want to get started to actually.. start.

  • Reply Kristine July 21, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Thank you so much for writing this post. Our society’s current view of dog biting has never sat right with me and now I know why. It’s always confused me why one bite, just one, often means a death sentence for the dog. Context does not even seem to play a small role. One bite and a dog is labelled a “biter” and therefore a dangerous liability. There must be a better way to protect people while also protecting dogs.

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