The act of aggressing is often reinforced by positive consequences for the aggressor because the threat frequently moves away and leaves the aggressor alone. Threat displays range from a subtle lip lift to a full bite, and while aggressive behavior is important for survival, it is an extremely worrying behavior for dog lovers to live with.
If your dog has bitten a person or another dog, it is vital that you find what caused the bite and control future situations so your dog is never in a position where he can bite again. Whether your dog has bitten once or has a multiple bite history, your No. 1 priority is to keep your dog comfortable, and other people and animals safe by managing your dog’s environment at all times.
Management means that your dog is safely contained behind a door, baby gate or crate when visitors come over or that he is never let off the leash when walking outside. These simple safety steps will help until you find a certified positive trainer to work with you and your dog to minimize the chance of a bite happening again. Some of the best positive trainers can be found at positively.com/trainers, or you can take your dog to a board- certified veterinary behaviorist.
Stress leads to biting
Stress has a profound influence on aggressive behavior and a significant impact on even the calmest of dogs. While some dogs might shut down when they feel threatened, others will express their discomfort by showing fear-based aggression, which is why many bites happen. Dogs might look like they’re being “nasty” when they aggress, but a bite always serves some kind of important function for the dog at that time. Physically punishing a biting dog or using old school confrontational methods or equipment to “fix” aggressive behavior rarely leads to positive results, and in many cases increases the dog’s stress levels and insecurity, which leads to more bites in the future.
Stopping the bite
So how can you stop aggressive behavior? Positive training techniques and methods are very effective in helping dogs cope with domestic life. Once you understand why the behavior is happening, your trainer will create a management plan for safety and a behavior modification plan designed to increase your dog’s confidence and guide him into making better choices. These protocols are much more effective than punishment-based training, both for short- and long-term success, because they give dogs coping skills in different situations and environments, promoting emotional stability.
Preventing bites in the first place
One of the most important ways to prevent your dog from biting is to ensure he has a good canine education as well as a positive social foundation. I teach all my puppy clients to accept “rude” human greeting behavior, because it is virtually impossible to prevent people from invading their personal space to say hello. We are a dog-loving nation and are naturally drawn to touch these incredible animals even when we know we shouldn’t. Children are particularly vulnerable to being bitten and often imitate the behavior of their parents, caregivers and guardians.
Dog bite prevention therefore puts the focus on human education. Every child and adult needs to know what body language to look for, how to greet a new dog appropriately and some important points to remember:
✔ Avoid kissing a dog on the nose
✔ Watch out for signals that a dog is uncomfortable such as avoidance, lip licking and yawning
✔ Do not hug a strange dog or a dog that you do not know very well
✔ Do not reach out to touch a dog uninvited
✔ And, if you are told it is OK to pet a dog, allow him to come into your personal space rather than invading his. Building a general awareness helps keep everyone safe and comfortable.
High or low threshold
Most dogs can be helped with a behavior modification plan, but if your dog has a long bite history and a very low threshold for aggressive response, or if bite incidents have become more severe and frequent, a positive outcome might be harder to achieve. If the aggressive behavior cannot be successfully redirected or has become more unpredictable and is occurring in many different environments or situations, there is less likelihood of success.
If bite injuries have caused slight bruising or minimal wounds, the behavior has only recently begun and your dog has a higher stress threshold, which makes an aggressive response more predictable, manageable and avoidable, the prognosis is much better.
Make sure that your dog has a full medical checkup to ensure that aggressive behavior is not linked to pain or some other medical problem. Teaching your dog appropriate life skills and allowing your dog positive social experiences will help build his confidence and emotional stability.
Every dog’s well-being should be taken into account, especially when out in public. Every handler needs to be aware of and advocate for their dog’s unique needs. This will not only help prevent dog bites but will also help guardians successfully manage their dog’s future if a bite has already occurred.
Using a muzzle
Muzzles are vital safety tools. However, they can also cause untold amounts of stress for dogs that are not used to wearing them. The sudden restriction of facial movement and confinement of the mouth can cause panic in the calmest of dogs, as their primary method of defense is taken away. Not only that, certain muzzles can restrict breathing, making it hard for dogs to breathe normally and to cool themselves down.
Teaching any dog to wear a muzzle should be a slow, careful process, as it is especially important to do things right, particularly with dogs who are nervous or do not like being handled around the mouth or face. Don’t make the common mistake of only putting the muzzle on when your dog is in a situation or environment that makes him uncomfortable — in the presence of strangers or when there are loud noises, for example. The key to successful acclimation is to pair the muzzle with good things and fun experiences, rather than the muzzle becoming a predictor of “bad” or “scary” experiences. Once that is done, the muzzle can be worn when needed.
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About the author:
Victoria Stilwell, dog trainer, TV personality, author and public speaker, is best known as the star of the TV series It’s Me or the Dog, through which she reaches audiences in more than 100 countries. Appearing frequently in the media, she’s widely recognized as a leader in the field of animal behavior, is editor-in-chief of positively.com, CEO of the VSPDT network of licensed trainers and the founder of the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior — the leader in dog trainer education. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter at @victorias.