Summarizing the key concepts from my first post on this topic:
- Any dog will bite, given enough provocation.
- It is rare that dog bites occur “out of the blue”.
- Most dog bites are preventable.
A very common (and very preventable) cause of dog bites: a dog has an object and a human decides to take it away. All animals (including humans) respect the truism that possession is 9/10 of the law. Hence, in the dog world: if an item is in a dog’s mouth, it is his. Any object that a dog has in his possession either clearly belongs to the dog (i.e., his bone, his food, his toy); or his owner has allowed the dog access to that item (i.e., shoes, trash).
As a trainer and a dog owner, I absolutely believe that we should all teach our dogs to “trade you”, to “drop it”, “leave it” and “wait”. These cues teach our dogs self control and give us the ability to safely remove items inappropriate for our dogs to possess. But we should teach our dogs to release items in a fair, positive way, because just as it is hard for you and me to let go of something we want, same with our dogs. It is an error to escalate into a confrontation with our dogs over a “possession”. We might get the object away from the dog, but we are also inadvertently teaching our dogs to resource guard, meaning that they feel that in an arbitrary world where no one seems to be following any rules, they have to protect their food, their bones, their toys, their space.
We fail our dogs when we put them in situations where an item that “belongs” to them (because the dog has the item in his mouth) is arbitrarily taken away. This includes randomly interfering with a dog’s enjoyment of an item; and allowing others (who often have the best of intentions and might think they are “just playing”), to inadvertently tease or stress our dog by taking things away on a whim.
With All Due Respect
Consider this scenario. You have gone out to dinner. You are starting to relax; your music of choice is quietly playing in the background; the waiter pours you a glass of wine. You put your napkin on your lap and your wonderful dinner arrives. And then: someone walks up and grabs your plate. How would you react? Probably (at the very least) you would feel indignant. You might stiffen; your facial expression probably would change; you might decide to say something politely, or you might call the waiter over to address the situation. Now…what if the snatcher ignores your response, and the waiter thinks you should just let it go—how would you feel? Disrespected? Unfairly treated?
Now consider the same scenario, except: you have had a lot of stress over the last few days; you’re not feeling well; pressure at work; lots of changes going on; you’ve just been taken to the doctor unexpectedly by a relative and had a blood draw that you didn’t want. The snatcher and the waiter don’t respond to your frustration and indignation. Would the stresses over the prior few days affect the degree of your reaction/indignation?
Looking at this from a dog’s perspective (I’ll call him Scout): let’s say Scout has just been given a nice bone and he is settling down to enjoy it. He has his napkin out, he is relaxing, all is good. And someone arbitrarily takes his bone away. Something of value has been taken away. In the human world, this would be called “rude”. Same in the dog world. And what if the waiter (my friends, this would be you and me) doesn’t prevent the situation, or intervene when it does happen?
How would Scout feel when his indignant body language and doggy signals are disregarded? Well…on a good day, Scout might let it go, even though it feels intensely unfair and all his signals and messages have been disregarded. On a bad day—he might feel the need to express his annoyance more clearly, or even take back his bone. And express his message more clearly to the rude person who ignored all his signals: so Scout bites; his teeth just penetrate skin. Immediate consequence: the person moves away.
From Scout’s perspective: the point has been made and all should be well. The person moved away. He has his bone. No hard feelings. Except…now there are angry people and Scout has no idea what they are mad about. Yelling, grabbing Scout’s collar, telling him “bad boy”, putting him in his kennel. Maybe Scout even has a visit from the Animal Control Officer, who explains that Scout has delivered a Level 3 bite; Scout is placed in quarantine and now has a “record”.
Tragically, Scout often has no idea that all these negative consequences are the result of the bite, because they happened well after (when one considers the split second timing of a dog’s world) the immediate consequence, and do not seem to be connected to the bite. Scout knows people are unpredictable; he lives in a world where human rules often make no sense but he goes along because he loves his family. And while Scout doesn’t understand the fallout and chalks it up to inexplicable human behavior, he is beginning to learn that people don’t notice when he signals stress and frustration. And what else have we just taught Scout? That if someone tries to take something away from him arbitrarily, if he bites: the first, immediate (and from his perspective, the desired) consequence is, that the rude person moves away. What an unfortunate lesson we have just given Scout.
An Ounce of Prevention…
So, how can you avoid encountering a situation when Scout bites someone because they try to take something away from him? If you follow these suggestions, you will minimize the chances of this occurring.
1. Teach Scout basic foundational skills.
a. “Trade You”. Teach Scout to easily relinquish items, because they will not be “stolen” away from him. Lisa Waggoner and Willow demonstrate an easy and stress free way to teach “trade you”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlNKM68Gw-I.
b. “Drop It”. Move on to teaching “drop it”, where Scout relinquishes the item and gets something in return: in this video with Victoria Stilwell (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JO2cxHgIzX0), the dog gets an equivalent toy when he drops the first toy. Similarly, if you are playing fetch: as soon as Scout drops the ball, he is rewarded by another throw of the ball.
2. Remember that Scout is living by many seemingly arbitrary human rules, such as when and where to toilet, when, what and how much to eat, how to behave around people. (On this topic, I highly recommend a brilliant booklet by Suzanne Clothier, Finding A Balance: Issues of Power in the Dog/Human Relationship, (https://suzanneclothier.com/shop/finding-balance-issues-power-doghuman-relationship/).) So let’s give Scout a break: when we have given Scout a bone, meal, etc., respect his right to enjoy his item without interference.
3. You are Scout’s advocate. Don’t let Scout down, by feeling that you have to be polite or permissive with adults or children who want to interact with Scout while he is busy with his bone. It is ok to set limits with people who want to play with Scout while he is enjoying his “stuff”.
4. If you need to take something from Scout, i.e., he has an inappropriate (from a human perspective) item. Scout either has not been taught or is too excited to respond to a “drop” cue. Rather than trying to grab the object from him, use this easy fix: toss something of higher value a short distance away for him (could be a few pieces of chicken, another interesting toy, etc.), and when he has left the purloined item, while he is busy with the items you scattered, pick up and remove it.
5. Management. Restrict Scout’s access to items that he desires and that you don’t want him to have. If your dog already has learned to resource guard, learn more do’s and don’t’s to keep everyone safe: https://www.thegoldcoastdog.com/resource-guarding-in-dogs/.
6. And finally: make certain you meet Scout’s needs, to decrease the likelihood of dog naughtiness: give Scout access to toys, etc. that he enjoys, that are ok for him to chew and play with, and give him good physical and mental exercise, so that he is a well adjusted and happy camper!
Going back to the big picture: the majority of dog bites are preventable. This Part Two has discussed avoiding bites related to resource guarding. Part Three of this blog will give guidelines to keep yourself, your family and friends, your dog, and others (human and animal safe) when others want to interact with your dog.