Friday, November 5, 2010

Stress and How It Affects A Dog's Bite Threshold

This blog entry was written by my mentor Marie Selarque of Pro-Dog Hawaii.  She talks about stress in dogs, and how it can affect their bite threshold.  It's something every dog owner should understand, even if their dog is not aggressive.  It can help keep everyone safe and your dog happy!


In my puppy class I take great care to tell people about bite inhibition. I show them how to teach the dog that when she bites, she should inhibit the strength with which she bites rather than [inhibiting] the action of biting. It is very important that dogs know that we have much more sensitive skin than they do, and that engaging in play is much more effective if they bring us a toy rather than nip at our toes.

   In puppy class we also do a lot of handling, introductions to strangers, kids (when we have some), noises, etc. It is called socialization. This is also a very important step in the development of the puppy. By doing so we offer a buffer of "good experiences" to counteract what may come later that is not so pleasant. Hopefully the puppy, having experienced a minor conflict with tons of great encounters in class, will be better equipped to deflect, avoid or recover from a more serious aggression.

   But will it prevent bites? To a certain degree, yes. But it does only because we have reduced the possible stress that the dog would feel. Stress in dogs, as in humans, will pile up, resulting in an explosion. It can be road rage or bad temper for us and a snap or bite for them.
   Let's take Rover for example. He is an Aussie mix and has has great owners. They have taken him to classes, play groups, hikes, etc. They have been very conscientious about exposing their puppy to everybody and everything. Yet Rover is funny about his personal space; he does not like people approaching too fast and hovering above him. He is also sound sensitive. And to top it off he is in love with his duck toy.

   Rover will feel cautious about overly enthusiastic people wanting to pet him, but he will offer head turns and lip licking as calming signals and all will be fine. Similarly, if a stranger approaches calmly but wants to engage in tug of war with him and goes to grab his favorite toy, Rover will simply grab the toy and walk away.

   You get the picture. Rover is really a good dog. Now put all of it together. The family takes Rover to the soccer game. The field is near a big street with lots of traffic noise with buses whizzing by. There are a lot of kids running around, with high pitch voices, whistles, cheering. For most of the game Rover has been chewing on his Duck toy, lying down between mom and dad.

   Arrives the end of the game, and 3 happy kids spot Rover and come running. They crowd him (break rule of personal space), they speak loudly (break rule of quietness) and they grab the Duck (break rule of possession). Rover snaps and bites one of the kids' finger.

   Is Rover at fault? No. His owner, then? No, Rover never exhibited aggression [before]. The kids? No, they were being kids. So what happened? The stressors stacked up, making it impossible for Rover to deal with the situation other than by biting and telling everyone loudly, "Back off please!!!!!!"
He had no other way to express himself.

   This bite may seem totally unprovoked, but from the dog's perspective it was provoked, and he tried to tell people but was not heard.

   Now let's look at the possible consequences. He is scolded by his owners. Rover will fear children, soccer fields, soccer balls maybe, and will have less tolerance, starting a downward spiral toward true aggression. Or he is pushed aside to [so the owners can] attend to the bitten child. He is left alone; his action worked. He is rewarded by having peace and quiet and space. His snapping may increase.

   Also he will feel the fear that his owners now have and he will get even more worried about kids, crowd, fields, etc.

   So what is there to do? First calm everybody. Chances are Rover who has a "soft mouth" (due to the good work done in puppy classes) just bruised the finger so it is not a life/death situation. Give everyone some space and look at the situation. Teach the children how to behave near dogs, all dogs. Take control of the situation and protect your dog by preventing kids from approaching too fast, being too loud, grabbing things from the dog. Perhaps allow the kids to give Rover some treats, making everybody feel more relaxed. The final outcome of this interaction has been positive. Everyone learned and not too much damage has been done.

   Now imagine Fido, just adopted from the shelter. Stressed beyond her limits, not well socialized, put in a situation where she cannot cope, and you have a tragedy.

   In our life we are stressed and often we have little mishaps. Now let's look at Arnold for our human example. He has problems at work, he woke up late, forgot important documents, etc. It piles up but he can still cope. Then comes the phone call telling him something happened to his kid at school. He explodes and he gets in a car accident. A shouting match follows and now he shoves the person in front of him. This person looses balance, falls and gets hit by a passing car. Tragedy.

   It is so important to know the triggers that will create stress in your dog (as well as in us) and not put him/her in those situations. The dog cannot help his emotional responses any more than we can when faced with something that scares us or hurts us. Training, such as desensitization and counter-conditioning work very well and can increase tolerance but will not take nature away. What you can avoid though, is increasing the undesirable behaviors of lunging, barking, biting by punishing the dog, or inadvertently reinforcing them.


For more information about desensitization and counter-conditioning please contact Marie.  You can also subscribe to her newsletter at


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