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Not All Dog Bites are Created Equal

When a client calls a for help addressing behavioral issues with a dog that bites, a trainer or behaviorist generally responds with a multitude of...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jun 2nd 2010


When a client calls a for help addressing behavioral issues with a dog that bites, a trainer or behaviorist generally responds with a multitude of questions about each bite incident. What happened immediately before the bite? Who was the victim? What happened immediately after the bite? What happened in the week preceding the bite? How many times has the dog bitten? For each bite, did the dog break skin, leave a bruise, puncture the skin, tear at the skin, bite once and retreat or bite multiple times?

The answers to these and more questions will help the professional assess the severity of the problem, the triggers for the problem, and create a systematic training plan for safe, controlled, and positive exposure. It is important to remember that dog bites fall across a broad spectrum, from the “air snap” to a bite which kills and maims. There is a vast and significant difference between a dog that snaps at the air near the skin or brushes the skin with his teeth and the dog that grabs your hand, chomps down, and shakes as hard as he can, causing lacerations, bruising, and sometimes broken bones.

Ian Dunbar has created a bite assessment scale which ranks bites according to severity. Here is Dr. Dunbar’s Bite Assessment Scale:

Level 1- Dog growls, lunges, snarls-no teeth touch skin. Mostly intimidation behavior.

Level 2- Teeth touch skin but no puncture. May have red mark/minor bruise from dogs head or snout, may have minor scratches from paws/nails. Minor surface abrasions acceptable.

Level 3- Punctures the length of a canine tooth, one to four holes, single bite.No tearing or slashes.Victim not shaken side to side. Bruising.

Level 4- One to four holes from a single bite, one hole deeper than the length of a canine tooth, typically contact/punctures from more than canines only. Black bruising, tears and/or slashing wounds. Dog clamped down and shook or slashed victim.

Level 5- Multiple bites at Level 4 or above. A concerted, repeated attack.

Level 6- Any bite resulting in death of a human.

Luckily for humans, the vast majority of dog bite incidents fall in the level one category. Dogs with a bite history at the lower end of the bite assessment scale have a higher prognosis for recovery (and often a more rapid rehabilitation process) and dogs at the very highest end of the spectrum may require intensive management for life or, in the worst cases, euthanasia.

If your dog is a biter, take heart – there are a number of scientifically valid, effective, modern training techniques which will allow you to see progress in your dog’s modification.

Owners of dogs who have bite histories on the lower end of the spectrum are still advised to enlist a behavior professional to address the presenting issues. If a dog is biting regularly (or even rarely), there are likely factors in the environment which are reinforcing the behavior. If the environment and the dog’s behavior are not modified appropriately, a level one biter can, with a little bit of practice, quickly ascend the ranks to a higher level on the bite assessment scale. More often than not, biting issues do not “go away on their own,” but tend to get worse as the dog has more opportunities to rehearse the unwanted behavior.

To learn more from Dr. Dunbar about Biting and Aggression, check out his DVD Dog Aggression: Biting, also available for digital download from Dog Star Daily.