As a dog owner, there are few situations which instill a rush of fear like your dog causing harm to a human or another dog by biting them. The risk of injury, the outright guilt or embarrassment you might feel as an owner, and the potential legal repercussions are just some of the reasons you might want to stop your dog from biting.
Dog bite statistics
- Dog bites are more common than you might think. In the United States alone, it is estimated that over four million people are bitten by dogs each year; of these, approximately one in five people will require some form of medical attention.
- Children are the most likely group to be bitten. Due to their height and proximity to a dog, they frequently suffer injuries to their head or neck.
- Over half of dog bite injuries occur inside the home from a dog that is familiar to the victim.
- There is little data to support any theories that any single breed is most often responsible for bites.
The history and evolution of dogs and biting
The first thing to make clear is that biting is perfectly natural behavior for every dog, irrespective of breed, size or age. It is an innate trait. Dogs are descendants of wolves, and long before humans had even thought about domesticating them as household pets, these animals used their teeth as a primary means of self-protection and survival. Using their teeth comes naturally to them.
Despite these natural tendencies, in order for humans and dogs to coexist, humankind realized that certain aspects of canine behavior were not compatible with our lifestyles. For example, we don’t just let our dogs go to the bathroom anywhere in our home; we train them to do it outside in designated areas. In the wild, this restriction would not be placed upon them.
We must be honest with ourselves and realize that we have trained some ‘inconvenient’ behaviors out of our dogs. These behaviors are inconvenient for us, not the dog. Biting is simply another example of a behavior that we must manage if we want our dogs to live alongside us harmoniously as part of our family.
Although dogs have evolved immensely over the centuries, some dogs still have that natural tendency to bite – despite our best efforts to try to train it out of them. The first step is assessing why your dog is biting. By analyzing the situation and context of the bite, we can pinpoint the catalyst for the behavior. Here are a few reasons why your dog might bite.
Biting out of fear
Remember when we said that dogs used their teeth as a survival mechanism? Biting is their primary weapon when it comes to protecting themselves from threats. If a person, dog or other animal gets too close for comfort, it is not uncommon for the dog to lash out and bite.
If your dog has ‘possession’ of something they value highly – think along the lines of their food, a toy, or even their favorite human – it can be too tempting for them to bite if they worry it is going to be taken away from them.
Dogs that have been bred to use their mouths (for example, herding breeds) may instinctively nip or bite at the heels of other animals. This was traditionally used by farmers to control livestock – the dog would be used to control the flow of the animals towards a pen or other area. Some dogs still rely on this instinct today to control their environment.
When a dog is sick or in pain
If you suspect your dog is sick or injured, be very careful when handling them. Consider using a muzzle if taking your dog to a veterinarian for specialist attention as they may be more inclined to bite whilst being handled. This also occurs when a puppy is teething – they may choose to bite anything that they think will help to relieve the pressure and pain on their gums.
Biting as a form of play
Play biting between dogs is a common way for them to interact with one another, but as an owner, it is all about knowing your dog’s temperament and making sure that they – and other dogs – are safe whilst playing. Be particularly watchful when bringing your dog into a situation where unfamiliar dogs will be present (e.g. a dog park), as you don’t want playtime to escalate into bullying which could cause injuries.
Tips for managing your dog's biting habit
Understanding the context in which your dog is biting – and the consequences of their actions – is key to gaining control of their biting habit.
For a puppy, it is perfectly natural for them to use their mouth to explore the world. The odd nip here and there is to be expected, and they are even more likely to initiate biting if they are teething. You can use chew toys, teething rings, or even fill a Kong with frozen peanut butter (ensuring it is safe for your dog) and yogurt to occupy them.
If you have a dog who is predisposed to biting, think about what triggers the biting in the first place. It is extremely unlikely that your dog will bite simply out of the blue – what was happening when the bite occurred? Context is everything. Try to redirect in situations where you think a bite might be likely to occur.
Your own behavior and energy can also have an effect on your dog, so whilst it might be easier said than done, try to remain as calm as you can! If you are visibly tense or nervous, your dog may start to sense it and react out of anxiety.
Finally, set clear rules and boundaries for everyone who comes into contact with your dog – from those in your immediate family who live with you, to any visitors to your home, all the way to strangers in the street. In particular, remind younger children about sensible behavior around dogs which could prevent a bite from occurring, such as:
- Don’t crowd the dog or invade its personal space
- Don’t pull on the dog’s tail, ears or fur
- Don’t steal the dog’s toys
- Don’t lay in the dog’s bed
- Don’t run towards unfamiliar dogs
- Don’t pet a stranger’s dog without asking permission
As we outlined at the beginning of this article, dog bites can cause you stress, worry and anxiety. As an owner, you can help mitigate this by understanding your dog’s behavior and remaining as calm as you possibly can.
If your dog is just undeniably aggressive or has a bite history, consider enrolling your dog in a behavior modification program with a professional dog trainer in your area. At Highland Canine Training, our team has built its reputation on helping dogs and owners that ‘purely positive’ trainers refuse to work with. They will be able to help you identify the causes and help to manage your dog’s biting habits.