All too often I am approached with a story of a 'good dog' who suddenly bites "out of nowhere". The story usually goes something like this: "I was just petting him and he snapped" or "He went over to greet my friend with his tail wagging and then all of a sudden turned on her". These bites tend to be targeted towards familiar people, but not exclusively. They always seem to surprise the receiver who feels betrayed or deceived into letting their guard down because they thought the dog 'liked them' or wanted the interaction. So what went wrong?
It is imperative that prior to making any behavioural assumptions based on what I'm about to say, you first speak to a veterinarian to rule-out any potential physiological causes for the reaction. Dogs are typically stoic and can hide being in a great deal of pain or discomfort. Next, when behaviours are posing a safety risk, seeking out a behaviour specialist to assess your individual situation and provide direction is essential. You can reach out to our sister company Pet Intel. and a coach can provide you with an individualized virtual consultation.
Okay, let's get into it...
I want to tell you a story of a beautiful, sweet-smelling, perfect puppy. This puppy was loved and adored. He was hugged, held, cuddled and manipulated. He appeared to not only tolerate all the love, but actually seek it out! He was social and loyal. He was a rock-star in his obedience classes and everyone who met him thought he was gentle and sweet. He appeared to want to please his humans and regularly avoided conflict. This puppy became an adolescent and as time pushed on, his owners continued to love and adore him while the entire time missing his mild indications of discomfort, requests for respect of personal space, and now deeply established insecurity. Perhaps his initial attempts to communicate began with simply stiffening his muscles, squinting his eyes, or heavy panting. He obeyed his owners commands "sit", "paw", "down". He started to feel 'stuck'. You see, this dog does like humans, he does want to be included and to be social, but he has never understood how to end a social interaction, how to diffuse unwanted interaction or touch. He, by all definitions, is 'tolerant'... until he is not;
- the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
- the capacity to endure continued subjection to something, without adverse reaction.
Let's take a look at thresholds and impulse behaviour. When an animal has reached or exceeded their stress threshold (or level of tolerance) to a specific stimuli, the sympathetic nervous system reacts to the perceived threat. Most people are familiar with the acute stress response of fight or flight, but, what happens when the animal doesn't recognize flight as an option? What if they feel 'stuck'?
Typically, these dogs will start with lower level indicators of 'fight', like a hard stare or low growl. The difficultly here is how the human responds. If the dog is reprimanded for his expression of discomfort, it may work in the moment to stop his behaviour, but he may choose not to use these warnings again in the future simply because they did not work to achieve his goal. This means he will need to use something else next time. This something else commonly involves teeth. If the human decides to heed the dog's communication as a request for space and attempt to move away, depending on how you are oriented to the dog, the simple gesture of standing up and moving towards the dog (to remove oneself) in this moment, could be perceived as conflict and escalate the reaction. So what can we do?
Firstly, recognize that this behaviour was not 'out of the blue'. You may have missed the signs or you have have a dog who was really good and hiding it, but the signs were there. Secondly, keep social interactions short and sweet. Start working on "come" and "go" training. This simple activity teaches the dog that they can leave and it is equally as good as coming. "Come", treat, " Go" toss treat away. Simple. They will also learn that physical interactions with you don't always involve touching. Thirdly, try teaching your dog to present themselves 'bum first' for physical affection. This way, if you or another person are interacting with the dog and they dog give any signs of discomfort, you can remove yourself without having a face to face interaction. Your dog can then easily see an escape route and remove themselves. Lastly, observe your dog and begin to assess what rules you have set forth to ensure that you are equally respecting each others personal space.
Your dog is most likely not a monster or a fire-breathing dragon. He is likely doing his best to communicate his needs and emotions. This does not make biting a human ok, but it does mean that there are likely things we can do to help change the situation for the better. If this sounds like your dog or a dog you know, please reach out to a specialist to help safely guide you through a behaviour program.