By Mikkel Becker
A. There is no single strategy that works for every dog who bites another dog. Instead, bite incidents are best addressed on an individual basis with the help of a professional — your veterinarian may be able to help, or he may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or work in conjunction with a positive reinforcement trainer. These professionals can assess the specific dog’s history and the circumstances around the aggressive incident and determine why the bite occurred and how to (hopefully) prevent it from happening again.
Before we discuss moving forward after a bite, however, it’s important to understand why a dog would bite another dog and how to recognize a dog who is liable to bite.
Canine sociability is influenced by various factors, including genetics, early learning and ongoing experience around other dogs. This means that a canine may still be a great family dog, even if he isn’t particularly dog friendly.
A puppy’s ideal socialization window extends from 6 to 14 weeks of age. It is imperative that a dog have various play and social interactions with other canines during this window, in order to learn to read and react to other dogs’ body language and to use his own body language to communicate. Dogs who have had limited socialization in puppyhood may be less likely to perceive other dogs as “friends” and more likely to react defensively to them. These early interactions also help teach a dog to use his mouth gently and to use a soft mouth rather than a hard bite should he ever act aggressively.
Limited experience with other dogs during the socialization period or access to only certain types of dogs can make a canine more selective about the types of dogs he is comfortable around. In addition, a negative experience with an aggressive or bullying dog can teach a canine that dogs — or certain types of dogs — are unsafe. This can lead to fear-based aggression.
There are various reasons one dog may bite another dog, but most bites occur when the biter feels threatened. In this case, the bite is a defensive behavior designed to increase distance and lessen the threat posed by the other dog. Bites are almost always a last resort and typically occur only after prior communication cues go unheeded.
Before a bite occurs, most dogs will attempt to communicate their need for space. A dog will typically start with small cues, such as avoiding eye contact and turning his body away; if these cues are ignored, he will progress to bigger warnings like barks, growls, hard stares and snarls. Most dogs will attempt to avoid a bite or full-on fight, as aggression comes with a high risk of injury.
Certain circumstances may cause a dog to display more aggressive behaviors. Some canines will be friendly with familiar dogs but may become aggressive when encountering unfamiliar dogs on walks or at the dog park. For others, aggression may occur with familiar dogs. In this case, possession of a valuable resource, like a favored chew toy or food bowl, may contribute to defensive behavior, which can lead to aggression.
In very rare circumstances, a bite may be the result of predatory drift, when a dog instinctively reacts to another (often smaller) dog as prey.
If the situation is right, it is possible for any dog to feel threatened enough to resort to a bite. In many cases, the dog’s owner will describe the bite as coming “out of nowhere” —despite the fact that the dog was most likely communicating his discomfort before the bite occurred. For this reason, it is crucial for dog owners to learn to recognize the signs of fear and anxiety.
It is important for a dog who bites to be assessed by a professional, both to evaluate ongoing risk of another bite and to determine training options. Medical issues should be ruled out early, as dogs who are in pain or are otherwise not feeling well may display aggression. In cases in which the incident was behavioral in origin, dogs who display a variety of warning signals before progressing to a bite tend to respond better to behavioral interventions than those who escalate with less provocation and fewer warnings.
The severity of the bite also influences risk. For higher-risk situations, the best solution is often an ongoing combination of careful management — in other words, consistently avoiding situations that may aggravate aggressive tendencies — and training. These components will need to continue consistently throughout the dog’s lifetime in order to prevent another aggressive episode.
Training strategies are frequently used in combination with a behavior modification plan, such as training the dog to turn away or go to a mat when there is a conflict. Training may also be used to turn a dog’s fear and agitation around other dogs into a positive association with the same situation. In other words, training can teach a dog that good things happen when he’s with other canines, which may help alleviate aggression.
For some dogs, medications or supplements prescribed by a veterinarian may make behavior modification more successful. Talk to your veterinarian about this possibility before you begin training.
In some cases, management tools, like barrier gates in the home, head halters and basket muzzles may be used to minimize risk.
Sometimes, the risk of aggression is too high and the dog must be removed from the situation. Rehoming may be the only solution in these cases. In every situation involving a dog bite, though, professional guidance is needed to provide the best future for your dog and your family."
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