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It's Not Time to Give Up Your Dog: When Dogs Bite

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There are a variety of reasons why pet owners seek to give up their pets. I think I've heard most of them and though most are ridiculous and frankly, really come down to a sense of laziness and unwillingness to do the work on the part of the owners, some seem downright reasonable. Case in point – dogs that are aggressive with humans or other animals.

First, I want to clear up what is aggressive and what isn't.

Scenario 1: You and Fido are walking peacefully down the street in your neighborhood and a neighbor approaches. Fido is curious but lingers back around your legs and isn't really engaging. Your neighbor, standing tall, reaches behind your legs to pet Fido who snarls. As Fido has never reacted like violently with anyone, it's laughed off and your neighbor attempts to pet Fido anyhow. Fido lunges at his hand and bites him before retreating further behind you. You are both surprised by this behavior.

Scenario 2: You and Fido are walking peacefully down the street in your neighborhood and a neighbor approached. Fido begins to strain at the leash and bark incessantly. Your neighbor lingers back in their yard as Fido lunges forward snapping and barking. Fido yanks the leash from your hands and races toward your neighbor snarling. Your neighbor begins to flee in fear and Fido follows them snapping until you manage to catch up and restrain him.

The first scenario is not an aggressive dog. It's a naïve and ignorant owner. The second scenario is an aggressive dog and an irresponsible owner. In scenario 1, the owner and the neighbor failed to read the very obvious signals that Fido was giving off. Fido felt fear at the unknown situation and sought comfort in the only place available, behind you, the owner. Fido was simply saying, please don't come near me and don't touch me. He snarled in warning attempting to discourage the situation and when it was pursued, he reacted with the only defense left – biting. Fido didn't seek out the confrontation or the neighbor, nor was he the aggressor in the situation. It was exclusively reactive and fear based. The owner failed to acknowledge Fido's fear and comfort him, rather allowing the situation to escalate into a bite. In the second scenario, you have an aggressive dog who sought out their target and pursued it. The owner failed to properly restrain their dog and tragedy occurred.

So how do you prevent scenario one from occurring? It's been a big problem for me in the past. I have a miniature pinscher and as she is only 10 pounds, people often feel that she isn't a threat to them and can be approached, picked up or pet without consideration. She's cute and people tend to think of her as a toy. But she's not a toy. She's a living animal with fears that are deeply rooted and only one defense mechanism – her teeth.

Learning to approach a dog is key. Dogs exist in safe zones. They feel safe near you and in their homes or familiar places. When a new person enters that zone it can be terrifying for dogs. Don't allow people to reach for your pet in their zone, let your pet approach them. For us, this means never reach for or pick up our MinPin. Sit down and she'll jump in your lap and come to you – no biting included. Pick her up and the snarl will reach feverish proportions and snapping will ensue. Ensure that people are asking you if they can pet your dog, they are strangers and it's intimidating to your pet.

You need to remain in control of the situation, you know your pet best. Don't let people rush in. Have them lean down, make a fist and drop their eyes away from your pets. Without reaching in to your pets safe zone, gently have them extend their fist below the dogs muzzle and allow the dog to close the space between them. Watch your pets reaction – is their body language telling you they are relaxed or tense? If tense still, wait a bit before allowing the new person to touch them. When they do touch, make sure it's gentle and appropriate. Though your dog may like you rubbing their belly or touching them a specific way, it's best initially to simply stroke their back gently. Your dog will dictate their comfort level and show you when the calm can be extended and lines into friendship crossed.

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