|Your dog might seem to love being around
your children – and still be at risk of biting one
of them. It depends on what her specific stressors are. You need to know what her stressors are, and manage her environment carefully.
4. Have the dog euthanized. This is never a happy outcome. Still, you need to think long and hard about this dog’s quality of life. If you can only manage his behavior, will he be happy, or miserable, being shut out of the activities he loves? Can you guarantee that the home you find for him will treat him well? What if he bites again?
If you can manage and modify, and still maintain your own quality of life as well as his, by all means, that is the best choice. But if not, remember that aggression is caused by stress, and stress is not an enjoyable state of being. If the dog is so stressed that you can’t succeed in managing and modifying his behavior and he is a high risk for biting someone else, he can’t be living a very enjoyable life. Nor can you! As difficult as the decision may be, it is sometimes the right and responsible one for the protection of all of your loved ones, including the dog.
What you should never do is close your eyes and hope and pray that he doesn’t bite again. You are responsible for protecting your family as well as other members of your community. Denial will only result in more bites.
Most biters can be improved
The good news is that relatively few dogs are beyond help. If you make a commitment to helping your dog feel more comfortable with the world, there’s a good chance you will succeed. You will understand why he has bitten in the past, and be able to avoid his stressors while you work to convince him that what are now stressors for him are actually good things.
Like my own encounter with my Scottie’s capable canines, you will realize that the bite wasn’t personal, but simply the end result of a chain of events that were beyond your dog’s control. What a proud day for you both, when you can take him out in public with confidence, knowing that he is as safe as any dog can be in the face of the unknown elements of the real world.
Modify aggressive behavior
Aggression is a classically conditioned response. Your dog does not generally take a seat and ponder whether he is going to bite the next time you try to clip his nails or remove him from the bed. When a stressor occurs, it triggers an involuntary reaction – the dog’s brain screams, “Nail clipping – BAD!” and the dog bites. If you want the dog to stop from biting when you clip his nails, you have to change his brain’s reaction to “Nail clipping – GOOD!”
You will use food, a very powerful positive reinforcer, to change the way your dog’s brain responds to a stressor, using “desensitization and counter-conditioning” (D&CC). Here is one possible program for a dog who bites during nail trimming, as an example. You can change the steps to fit any situation that typically causes your dog to bite.
NOTE: Because the risks associated with a failed program for aggression are high, I strongly recommend that you work with a competent positive behavior professional to implement a D&CC program. The following program is not intended to take the place of professional guidance.
1. Write down every step of the process you normally
go through for nail trimming (or whatever situation your dog
has problems with). Your list may look something like this:
a.) Set the nail clippers on coffee table
b.) Grab dog
c.) Drag dog to coffee table; keep stranglehold of dog’s collar
d.) Grip dog in unbreakable headlock
e.) Pick up clippers
f.) Pick up dog’s right front paw with left hand while maintaining headlock
g.) Move clippers toward paw
h.) Touch paw with clippers
i.) Clip first nail
j.) Clip second nail, etc., all the way through all the dog’s nails.
2. Determine how to separate different elements of this procedure
into separate goals for D&CC. Separate goals might look like
a.) Develop positive association with clippers
b.) Teach dog to sit quietly and accept paws being held
c.) Convince dog to allow nail clipping
3. Create a mini-D&CC program for each separate element. Work on each program separately but concurrently so you can put them all together later.
a.) Positive association with clippers. Purchase several nail clippers. Leave them around the house next to his dinner bowl, on the coffee table, etc. Carry them in your hand as you go about your daily routine. Feed the dog treats while you are holding the clippers. Teach him to touch the clippers with his nose for a high-value reward. (See “Right on Target,” WDJ March 2001.) Pet him with the clippers in your hand and feed him treats.
b.) Teach your dog to accept paw-holding. Have dog sit quietly with you. Touch him at a point that does not elicit tension – perhaps the top of his head. Feed him a high-value treat. Repeat several times, giving him a treat each time, then move your hand slightly down his neck and feed him a treat.
Repeat this process, giving him treats all the while, very gradually moving down to his elbow, his knee, his paw. It may take several sessions just to get to his elbow. If at any time you elicit signs of aggression – a growl, snarl, or snap – you have moved too quickly. An ideal D&CC program never elicits the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Continue this gradual process until you can lift each paw and hold it longer and longer without resistance.
c.) Convince the dog to allow nail clipping. Your dog now thinks that
nail clippers are GOOD and paw holding is GOOD. You must now convince
him that the actual clipping is GOOD as well.
Do this gradually. Hold the clippers in one hand while you repeat the paw desensitization step (step 3b) with the other, to show him that paw touching in the presence of clippers is also good. Be generous with your high-value treats. Then use the hand with the clipper to repeat step 3b until he is happy about having you touch his paws with the clipper. Continue by closing the clippers near his toenail, then against his toenail, then by actually clipping the very tip off one nail.
4. NOW STOP! If he handled this much well, it is tempting to go on to the next nail, but it is important that you stop here. One nail clipped without resistance is a huge success. Don’t spoil it by pushing him into feeling stressed, and undoing your work.
Repeat the process the next day, and if all goes well, clip the next nail. The third day, if he still does well, try clipping the next two nails. Eventually, when he is comfortable with the whole process, you can sit down and clip all his nails in one session, without risk of being bitten.
To minimize your dog’s other stressors, make a complete list of all you can identify, then create and apply a program such as the one above to desensitize and counter condition him to each. There may be some stressors for which this is impossible, but remember that the more stressors you desensitize him to, the more likely it is that he will spend the rest of his life bite-free.
-by Pat Miller
Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and recently published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training. For more information, see "Resources" below.
Well-known veterinarian, dog trainer, and behaviorist Ian Dunbar has
developed a six-level system of classifying bites, in order to make discussions
of biting behavior more
consistent and understandable. Those levels are:
Level 1 Bite – Harassment but no skin contact.
This is the
so-called snap. Don’t kid yourself. A snap is an intended
“air bite” from a dog who did not intend to connect. He
didn’t just “miss.” It is a lovely warning signal, telling us that
we need to identify his stressors and either desensitize
him or manage his behavior to avoid exposing him to the
things that cause him undue stress.
Level 2 Bite – Tooth contact on skin but no puncture.
this is a bite from a dog who didn’t intend to break skin,
and a warning that this dog is serious. It’s a very good idea
to remove the dog’s stressors at this point, before he graduates
to the next level.
Level 3 Bite – Skin punctures, one to four holes
single bite (all punctures shallower than the length of the
Level 4 Bite – One to four holes, deep black bruising
punctures deeper than the length of the canine (which means
the dog bit and clamped down) or slashes in both directions
from the puncture (the dog bit and shook his head).
Level 5 Bite – Multiple-bite attack with deep
or multiple attack incident.
Level 6 Bite – Killed victim and/or consumed flesh.
American Holistic Veterinary Medical
Association (AHVMA), 2214 Old Emmorton
Road, Bel Air, MD 21015. (410) 569-0795. Send
a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a list of
holistic veterinarians in your area, or search on
AHVMA’s NEW Web site: www.ahvma.org
TRAINING AND INSTRUCTION
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT),
66 Morris Avenue, #2A, Springfield, NJ 07081.
(800) 738-3647. References to gentle trainers in
your area. A searchable database of trainers can
be found at www.apdt.com
Pat Miller, CPDT, Peaceable Paws Dog and
Puppy Training, Chattanooga, TN. Train with
modern, dog-friendly positive methods. Group
and private training, Rally, behavior modification,
workshops, seminars, intern programs.
Order signed copies of The Power of Positive
Dog Training online by calling (423) 326-0444,
or at www.peaceablepaws.com.
NOTE: Send an e-mailto: peaceablepawssubscribe@
to cyber-chat with Pat and other positive dog owners and trainers.
All books mentioned in WDJ are available from
DogWise, Wenatchee, WA. (800) 776-2665 or
Copyright 2001 Whole Dog Journal. Reprinted with
permission, Belvoir Publications, Inc.
For subscription and other information, call (800) 424-7887 or