When dogs bite, they are actually choosing how hard they are biting based on their mood at the time of the bite. If a dog wants to hurt you, they will. We get a lot of commentary from some people that state they are faster than their dog and are able to punish them when they do something wrong. Although there is no scientific way to prove or disprove this statement, we do know that most people do not read a dog's behavior well enough and are bitten far more frequently than a bite actually being stopped when it is decided by the dog to do so. Quite commonly, also, is the fact that punishment occurs AFTER a bite - not before or during - and this results in damage already done. For more information on how to better read your dog and help them understand what behaviors would be more acceptable in our society, please contact us so that I may speak with you more.
Although it is a very sad, growing statistic, dogs bite. They do have other ways of communicating their moods (fear, displeasure, etc) to us, but oftentimes we ignore (or worse-punish!) their warnings. Then, they feel biting is the best option. Sometimes they bite out of defense, due to what they deem a threat (example: a stranger's hand coming into their space). Sometimes they bite on accident (example: when they are playing with a tug toy and you move it after they have launched their mouth at it). Sometimes they bite out of possession aggression (example: they hovered over the bone, showed the whites of their eyes, staring to the side, maybe even gave you direct eye contact, lifted their lip, growled...and you STILL tried to take the bone away, so they had to bite). Sometimes they bite out of fear (example: you seemed mad when you came home and walked in, cornered him and went to grab his collar [he doesn't know you saw the chewed up papers-he was just so happy to see you and you got mad] and he was scared because the last time you grabbed his collar bad things happened. Regardless of WHY they are biting, this is a NATURAL dog behavior...it is just not acceptable in our world.
Think about another example. Dogs do not "pet" each other when they first meet. They sniff, play bow, posture, etc. When a person reaches into your dog's space to "pet" them, it is WEIRD! The dog probably will show signs BEFORE the bite occurs, however, many people miss them because we don't always fluently speak "Dog". Dogs tend to have very simplistic behavioral reactions: Fight, Flight, Freeze. If they are on leash, for example, and cannot Flee, they will Fight or Freeze, depending on temperament, training, etc. We must TEACH dogs that hands reaching for them mean GOOD THINGS, like treats. With that said, teaching cannot occur in stressful situations. That's like expecting you to say a greeting representing the U.S. in French (with only a handful of repetitions) in front of a French Ambassador.
So, although we may feel that biting is wrong, dogs feel differently. Biting gets people to go away in most stressful situations. If biting gets a punishment from a human, then the dog has also now just learned that after a bite, he/she must quickly run away, bite again, ...or distrust their human. This is where the problems continue. Most of the time our dogs learn 1) their body posture and eye contact warning system doesn't work; 2) they get punished for growling; 3) they get punished worse for air snapping (a "missed" bite), and 4) they get punished, crated, or otherwise physically reprimanded for a bite. If they are lucky enough to be timed appropriately, the dog may associate the bite with the punishment) and must bite and flee next time; 4) just bite first and ask questions later when stressed.
What a confusing picture we present!
With that said, just how much pressure are we talking about when a dog really bites?
A dog's mouth can exert 150-200 pounds of pressure per square inch when biting...with up to 450 pounds per square inch recorded in some breeds when truly aggressive! For comparison, an average orangutan has 385, an average
lioness has 938, and an alligator has 2200. Some studies have shown a Mastiff having a 556 psi bite. That's a LOT of pressure...and when you pair that with sharp, rigid teeth...that's potentially a lot of damage.
Now, do I want you to look at your dog, who has always been tolerant of your kids pulling on their tail and harshly patting them, and be worried? No...but be aware. If your dog wanted to do damage, he/she could.
Instead of worrying, try this instead: The next time your dog is being tolerant of behavior that we may "expect" but don't really reinforce... reinforce it by saying what a good dog they are and raining treats from the sky. Example: Your dog is sleeping. Your child goes up and starts hugging him and he just wakes up and tolerates it: Yes! and treats fly over there...what a GOOOOOOOD DOG!
Instead of expecting behaviors all the time...teach your pet that if the kids come close, treats start falling and when "weird" stuff happens, better treats fall. Teach tolerance, not mistrust. If I walked up and smacked you upside the
head...what would YOU do? I am willing to bet the next time someone approached you, you would turn to face them head-on. We learn from experiences. If instead I said, "I'm going to give you $100 and smack you upside the head...okay? Then, I'll give you $100 more after." Now, what would you do? Probably tolerate it. You may not like it, but you have LEARNED that good things will come if you tolerate it.
http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/kids-and-dogs-how-kids-should-and-should-not-interact-with-dogs for more examples for kids.
If anything, try to remember that even if sometimes you really do feel that your dog is your kid (even I feel this way!)...at the end of the day, when all is said and done, they are also still a dog. They are GENETICALLY PROGRAMMED differently than us. It doesn't mean we can modify some behaviors into more acceptable ones. After all, we teach them sit-stay while a squirrel runs past...which they probably wouldn't do in the "wild"! So why can't we teach them to love the other weird stuff that happens when they are around us?
Written by: Julie Westphal, CVT & Behaviorist, Instructor at Cudahy Kennel Club, & Owner of Awesome Paws Academy
***The Doberman in the picures is Siska, a Doberman I was training for Schutzhund competition. We were at a protection training seminar with others and she is practicing her bitework.***
*** The Belgian Malinois with the child is Charlie, a foster dog who was taken in, medically care for during his Heartworm disease treatment, trained, and re-homed with a handler for training as a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog.***