When it comes to any behavior including dog bites, looking at the context surrounding the episode will give us some very much-needed information. What I am saying is that not all bites are the same.
Even sometimes people cannot even agree on what they call a bite. This is the typical example of a herding dog using its mouth to nip at someone in order to have them move- as they might do with a sheep that is choosing to not move when asked to do so. This is what I call a nip. A very distinct behavior not only because of the degree of potential injury but also because of the motivation behind the behavior.
When someone says that they got bitten by a dog or one of my client’s dogs bit someone we need to go into “detective mode” asap.
First off is to learn the degree of the injury. What I am looking for is the extent of damage done.
Here again, there are some specifics that can shed a light. These are some of the typical questions that help determine the severity of a bite:
1. Who was the person bitten? The demographics: child, elderly, men, etc. If it was a dog, then the dog’s breed.
2. Where was the person (or dog) bitten?
3. What is the degree of injury? In order to assess this, we need to ask further questions such as:
4. Are there some teeth marks as a result of the contact of the dog’s mouth on the victim? Puncture wounds? If so, how many? How deep is the wound? And the direction of the teeth marks? Was it a single bite or multiple bites? Was there any contusion (black and blues) as a result of the pressure of the dog’s mouth? And finally, did the person or dog needed a trip to the ER for stitches or the vet?
What the information above will tell us is if the dog exercises any bite inhibition or not. Bite inhibition refers to the amount of pressure per pound that the dog used to inflict when biting. It also serves as a gauge of the dog’s acquired bite inhibition (ABI), if at all!
ABI translates to the possible damage that a dog under the same circumstances as a previous bite would most probably inflict if it bites again.
Let me illustrate: Ian Dunbar DVM, P.h.D. was examining a very large dog at a local shelter because apparently, the dog has an ear infection. He gathered that the condition was painful for the dog. As he was lifting one of the ears to investigate, this very large dog gently, very gently put his mouth around Dunbar’s arm merely leaving a trace of saliva! Now that is bite inhibition! Dr. Dunbar was so impressed by this dog’s ability to bite without ever inflicting any damage- even when experiencing some pain that he adopted the dog on the spot! Now think if the opposite was true. This large dog could have produced a very, very damaging bite because of its size just by exercising a lot more pressure with his mouth.
Bite inhibition apparently is something that dogs can learn when they are puppies. It is remarkably simple: The puppy bites its playmate with some force, the playmate then yelps and removes itself from the interaction or play teaching the biting puppy that biting with force means you will lose your playmate. Wow! Right?
After the puppies leave their sibs or even in the case of a singleton puppy, the exercise can be conducted with people now giving feedback to the young puppy (up to the age of 4 1/2 month – 5 months) about the pressure they are exercising when play biting. Once again, if the puppy bites hard – even with those small teeth of theirs he loses the playmate (the person in this case). If we are consistent in delivering the puppy with this type of consequence for biting with pressure, the puppy learns to inhibit its bite thus creating less damage should he bite someone as an adult. Unfortunately, bite inhibition is something that a pup can learn but there is no evidence that this is something that can be taught to a dog past puppyhood.
Also of importance are the circumstances surrounding the bite incident. Here again, we are looking for facts. Let me explain by way of illustrating two real case scenarios.
A toddler is mauled by a dog while the parents are inside the home getting high. That is the headline. But what people might not know is that this dog was tied up on a chain and literally starving to death when the mauling to this child took place. There is more to this particular case, but I will not expand on the gruesome and sad details.
A large breed dog is safely in his owner’s car when a complete stranger decides to “befriend” the dog and puts his whole arm inside the car without ever asking for permission or assurance from the owner to do so. The dog bit the man’s hand without leaving a mere trace of the bite.
In the first case, we are dealing not even with aggression, but with predation, which falls on the realm of food acquisition. Keep in mind that the dog was starving and that the toddler most likely did not represent a threat to the dog.
In the second example, it appears as if the dog- and I say “appears” because it is really difficult to have 100% certainty about the motivation behind a bite, that the dog felt threaten when a complete stranger reached inside the car with no possibility for the dog to escape or at least create some distance. This dog does not have a bite history. The bite to the man was delivered with very little pressure thus barely leaving a mark on the man’s hand.
The take-home message then is that in order for us to prevent dogs from biting we must take it to heart to consider the circumstances around the bite incident (s) with very careful consideration for the facts so since the more we know about the circumstances surrounding the bite and the damage inflicted by the dog the better equipped we are in preventing another incident from taking place.
While dogs can most certainly learn to feel more comfortable around certain triggers and situations so that they do not need to bite again, it is also true that dogs can under the same circumstances (or even new ones of course) bite again.
On a final note: ANY dog can bite under the wrong circumstances. What’s more, any animal with teeth can bite. A dog that bites is not a bad dog. However, it is a dog that needs to learn to better co-exist in a human world without biting. What would make a world of good is to stop vilifying dogs for biting!
Biting works so they will keep on biting unless we teach them new and appropriate “strategies” so that when they are afraid or threatened they do not default to causing harm by biting… enter the fascinating world of behavior modification!