By Dawn Todd
I have been living with anywhere from 10 to 50 dogs for almost 20 years. During that time I’ve evaluated hundreds of shelter dogs, and I’ve brought hundreds of rescue dogs into our home– without knowing much at all about their background.
What has always amazed me is how rarely dogs actually bite.
Let’s be clear, all dogs – even tiny ones – come equipped with jaws and teeth. They all can bite, but only a few really do bite.
Over the years I’ve observed the emotional, as well as physical suffering that goes on in a family living with a canine “felon”. As I’m writing this newsletter, a lovely West Highland terrier is sleeping on my feet just as sweet as he can be – but he actually has accumulated a criminal record of at least a dozen misdemeanors and felonies. Big Caesar, the magnificent 180-pound Great Dane shown above, has just one felony on his criminal record — but it’s a big one. Looks so innocent doesn’t he?
Families who live with biting dogs absolutely agonize over how to best manage them. They desperately try to make sense of their dog’s actions -“he got upset because I woke him up”, “she’s never liked Uncle Ted”.
But the truth is, we don’t ever know the exact reason a dog bites. The factors leading up to a dog bite are as complicated as those that lead up to one human punching another in the face.
What we do know, is a great deal about how dogs learn, and how behaviors form, so let’s start there!
While canine aggression is an extremely complicated subject, with entire academic textbooks devoted to it, I’m going to be brave and risk over simplifying to share with you the four things I think are most important to remember if you want to be sure your canine is a good citizen, a good neighbor, and an enjoyable family member.
Tip # 1: ALWAYS let puppies stay with their litter for a minimum of 8 weeks, nine weeks is even better.
Dogs learn about inhibiting the force of their bites as puppies.
The first nine weeks of a puppy’s life is an important time. Puppies in a litter learn quickly that when they bite too hard, their playmate yelps and stops playing with them. That’s a powerful lesson. Mother’s get up and leave when pups get too rowdy and bite too hard.
Many people come in to Noah’s Ark with extremely young puppies. Unscrupulous breeders are anxious to make a quick profit, so they sell puppies as early as possible. Sometimes the real birthday is noted. Sometimes we examine puppies that are clearly not as old as their new unsuspecting humans were led to believe.
Attempt to never purchase a puppy from a puppy mill- which for brevity I’ll define here as a person or group that breeds dogs for profit – not to maintain and improve a particular breed. For those readers who live here in Franklin, that includes ANYONE who sells dogs in the Walmart parking lot.
Tip #2: Socialization and gentle handling are keys to building the foundation of a great relationship with your puppy.
The first six months of a dog’s life is when they’re most impressionable. It’s equivalent to approximately the first 4-5 years of a human baby’s development. Once puppies leave their litter, they need to be well socialized to other dogs, other pets in the house, and lots and lots of humans.
Many veterinarians encourage their clients to leave their dogs at home until they are fully vaccinated. I believe that’s a mistake. Far more dogs are euthanized for anti-social behavior than die of a virus contracted while visiting a friend. Our vaccine schedule will keep your puppy protected from deadly diseases.
By six months, puppies should have learned how to play properly with humans. At this age, your puppy should not be putting his teeth on your skin – even during play. Puppies need to learn that all humans are delicate creatures, and skin is off limits. There are many great reads about how to socialize and teach your puppy to play nice, and not bite. Click here to read more about puppy handling techniques.
Tip #3: Almost all dogs warn before they bite.
If you’re lucky enough to catch that warning, stop what you’re doing and contact Noah’s Ark.
There’s a very predictable progression of warnings leading up to a dog bite. The problem is, sometimes you have to be a trained professional who “speaks dog” to see the signs.
Most dogs start with warnings that don’t injure, and if those don’t work, they progress to more drastic measures. In the beginning the dog may “freeze”, then they’ll progress to a growl or some sort of vocalization, then a snap without contacting skin, then a snap that contacts skin but leaves no mark, then a bite that leaves a mark but doesn’t break skin, then broken skin…. and on to more serious bites.
The most common mistake I see pet parents make is to scold or punish their dog when he or she growls. If you successfully “train” your dog not to growl, you’ve taken away the dog’s ability to say “Hey dude, you’re freaking me out!”. Be sure to contact us if you’re concerned about your dog growling.
Tip #4: Never let your dog (or your children for that matter) practice a behavior you want to extinguish.
The Olympics are in full swing, and it’s very clear that humans become very good at what they practice. The same is true for our dogs – if you want them to continue to perform a favorite trick, you have to practice that trick. If you allow them to practice biting, they’ll become very good at that too.
The best prognosis for stopping and eliminating undesirable behavior is to intervene as soon as possible when these behaviors begin. Don’t wait for catastrophe to strike.
Contact Noah’s Ark if you observe your dog freezing when you take something away, growling or snapping at you, and especially if your dog has bitten anyone.
We’re here to help! Click here to learn more about our Wellness Plans. If your pet is enrolled in a Noah’s Ark Wellness Plan, an office visit for a behavior consult would be a covered service!