Understanding “Bite Threshold” When Dealing with Dogs and Why All Dogs Will BITE
I talk a lot about aggression.
Let’s face it; aggression is probably the top problem people come to me for training.
The problem is that people don’t understand dog aggression and why they bite.
They think differently than we think, and it is hard for us humans to take the time out of our busy lives to begin to understand them and to sit and watch the intricacies of their language.
I often wish that dogs could take over the world for a few days so that people would HAVE to learn their language.
We expect them to understand us, but we give no notice of how they communicate with us or each other.
Humans are pretty self-absorbed.
Humans smile when we are happy.
Dog’s don’t smile when they are happy; dogs show their teeth as a warning signal that something is wrong or to stop doing whatever you are doing, this is a sign of impending aggression.
BUT, dogs are great about realizing pretty quickly that when we smile at them we aren’t going to eat them. Some dogs actually mirror our smiling behavior as a way to connect with us and try and speak our language. There is the occasional dog that has learned to smile back in an attempt to appease us.
Dogs are Pretty Smart!
We pay little to no attention to them and expect them to learn our language.
You rarely see a person run up to a dog and play bow (doggy language for "let's play")
The problem is it is then nearly impossible for people to see and understand their, or other dogs’ thresholds because we don’t study them or seem to care.
Even if we can begin to recognize signs that our own dogs are showing distress we usually don’t stop taking our dog where he is stressed or doing what we are doing and we usually don’t pay much attention to another dog, and this is what develops into sometimes very serious bites.
First Understand All Dogs Can Bite and All Dogs Will Bite (Yes, ALL DOGS)
Under the right circumstances or conditions and stress any and all dogs will bite. As my mom use to say “If it has teeth, it will bite”.
Some Signs Of Dog Stress
- Dilated pupils,
- Whale eye (if you can see the whites of your dog’s eyes and he is not a breed that was bred this way i.e. Pug, Bulldog, that is a sign of stress)
- Stiffening or Freezing
- Trying to retreat or get away
- Ducks head or moves body away
- Licking of lips
- Pulling on the leash
- Ears flat back and tails tucked
- Whining or screaming
- Jumping and pouncing
So Let’s Talk About It
So let’s talk about it so we can understand it and begin to read it; not only in our own dogs but in other dogs as well.
Aggression is usually caused by stress and stress can be pain, fear, anxiety or even arousal (excitement). And, when one stress adds to another stress to another stress the dog is closer to his bite threshold, or his willingness to bite to get out of the situation.
The key is recognizing the stress or many stressors right away and alleviating it or stop them from happening.
For example: let’s say my dog doesn’t like new places, doesn’t care for loud children, doesn’t like when people come to talk to me or him and doesn’t like being petted over the top of the head, and maybe he is over tired from the excitement or earlier exercise.
So if I take him to a baseball game (stress of new environment), it’s full of wild children (more stress), an adult walks up and talks to me and then him (elevated or more stress) and tries to pet him over the top of the head (stress and a lack of controlling it because he is tired).
At this point an even normally social dog, is much closer to biting the human, because it is as if all of his sensory issues are being pushed.
Even if you alleviate a few of the stressors he is still uncomfortable and closer to biting.
I know people who have sensory problems, some are autistic, and others of us just have things that bother us and our senses.
I don’t like loud noises, I don’t like crowds of people, and I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know. So even though I like concerts; my sensory issues are at their max, so if you touch me you are likely to get a very angry me.
Some people don’t like their food touching other food on their plate, add that to a restaurant full of loud people, and someone being rude to them and they too might have an anger management issue.
Let’s Talk About the Complexity of Thresholds
This is the lowest level at which the stimulus can be detected, the dog may or may not be stressed.
So this might be the moment your dog notices another dog. Or, this could be the moment the dog notices a toddler walking around.
This is the level at which a stimulus can not only be detected but also recognized.
This might be when you lose your dog’s attention and his attention is on the baby or the dog, losing his attention denotes stress to some level; even if it is simply excitable stress.
This is the level at which an increase in a detected stimulus can be perceived.
Now is when your dog begins to pull toward, try to jump on, freeze, stare, bark or possibly growl at the dog or toddler.
This is when the stress becomes more overwhelming.
Even if the dog is not aggressive and is normally social, excitement may very well cause a bite (for more on understanding that phenomenon click here)
This is the level beyond which a stimulus is tolerated. This is when the bite is about to occur.
Your dog or “the dog” has given you multiple warnings of stress that you have never taken the time to notice (lip licking, ducking head, and yawning) and now if you push him and try to touch him and he feels like he can’t get away he is likely to bite.
Not all dogs growl or give an aggressive warning (why I believe a growl is a good thing click here) sometimes it is up to us to study some dog language.
If in Doubt
If in doubt don’t ever push another dog into petting, you might get bit. The busier the surroundings and the more people petting or around the dog, the more stressed the dog is likely to be.
I don’t care if the owner says the dog is a saint; if your gut tells you that you are not comfortable listen, even if it hurts the person’s feeling. They may not recognize or see the signs their own dog is giving you.
If your dog becomes stressed pack your things and GET HIM OUT!!!!
I don’t care if you have driven 5 hours or purchased tickets or whatever is going on in your life. If you took the responsibility of taking your dog and he is stressed out, take him somewhere where he can chill out.
That is not to say that you can’t work on desensitization, slowly and build your dog’s confidence. But the more stressed he is, the more likely he is to bite.
And, dogs that bite are bad for everyone (unless of course you are a police officer with an active K9)!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.