There’ve been a number of dog attacks reported in the news lately. With 5.1 million dogs in Australia, dogs are our number one pet. We rely on them for companionship and security. So, when they bite a person – especially a child – it’s terribly sad.
Incidents like these often happen in everyday situations, even in the home. Dog bites are traumatic and can have lasting effects for everybody involved, from the victim who’s attacked to the dog and onto the dog owner.
But why do dogs attack? Are some breeds just aggressive by nature, or does a dog only bite when provoked?
Preventing dog attacks
Any new dog owner should make it a priority to prevent their pup from biting (gentle or not), lest it become a habit and then a behavioural problem. When raising a dog that requires a multi-faceted approach.
The ball is in our court. We’re responsible for making sure our dog is well-adjusted and not threatening or dangerous to society. This includes recognising and understanding the warning signs of dog aggression long before they escalate.
This article is the first in a series around dog attacks and dog biting, as we look at the reasons why dogs bite and understand how to ensure the safety of our furry companion as well as everyone around them. Watch this space for our future pieces.
Why dog attacks happen
Dogs can attack for numerous reasons and in a variety of different contexts. For example, a dog may nip during play. A dog facing an intruder might attack. A pup who’s surprised can bite because they’re startled.
Dogs can even bite when play escalates and gets too rough, or when they’re being possessive, which can happen over toys, food, or their humans. If a friendly dog is injured or sick, it may bite reflexively to protect itself. And of course, a dog who is scared and/or aggressive will sometimes bite out of defence.
Do dogs attack for no reason?
To understand dog behaviour, it’s important to know dog attacks are ‘provoked’ in some way (unintentionally or not). The cause may not be evident or easy to assess. For example, it may be linked to a behavioural problem that stems from past experience. The provocation may also be something or someone else other than the victim.
It may be due to an owner’s negligence. This can happen if a dog hasn’t been trained to be obedient or that biting is a no-go zone. Or it may be because it’s reacting to the owner’s own emotional state.
And of course, not every dog will react the same way in each situation. Like people, some pups react to seemingly gentle teasing and others need lots of provocation before they get to the level where they behave aggressively.
So, while lots of dogs show remarkable tolerance and wouldn’t bite even if subjected to potentially aggravating stimuli, some will growl and snap as a defence mechanism even when exposed to considerably low levels. Some dogs might be trained to bite people who come into their territory (like guard dogs) so entering their territory is all the provocation they need.
Not every dog owner knows how to read the warning signs, so if the dog bites “for no reason” we can be taken aback. There’s always a cause but it may not be obvious to us. If only we knew how to speak dog!
Certain dogs are naturally easy-going, and often the kindest dog breeds are those who have been bred for their affection. But while personality is partly due to their breed, it can also be due to their individual experience and circumstances.
Aggressive dogs have often had bad experiences or been abused. And much like humans, they don’t know how to cope with the resulting fear and natural defensiveness.
Sometimes, a dog will learn bad habits that escalate over time. Or a dog might not have an aggressive nature but is simply in pain.
Dog attacks: Warning signs
While a dog bite may appear to come out of the blue to us, we need to understand why it happens from the dog’s perspective. If your dog shows warning signs, they’re saying “please stop” or “I’m uncomfortable” or “I don’t like this”.
If another animal, you or someone else keeps doing that thing, they may go from warning to attacking. Consider that while humans have hands, dogs use their mouths to communicate and achieve much of what they need to. That includes biting.
These warning signals vary; some harder to read and some less subtle. Here are several signs that a dog may be getting ready to attack. You might find yourself surprised to discover body language we sometimes misinterpret as friendly and relaxed:
- Licking lips or yawning
- Showing whites of the eyes
- Raised hackles
- Pinning back ears
- Maintaining eye contact (keeping eye contact with a dog is perceived as a threat)
- Baring teeth or snapping
- Wagging the tail (find out what a wagging tail really means)
- Stalking/predatory behaviour
- Rigid or stiff body
- Tail tucked between the legs
Your dog might display one or all these signs. They may even have other more subtle warning signs that an attack is incoming. Proper understanding and observation are key to recognising your dog’s important individual warning signs.
Having an issue with dog biting? Having your dog spend time with a dog behaviourist can be invaluable. Their expertise will provide insights into finding your dog’s triggers and help you discover what might cause them fear, anxiety, pain, or frustration. They can then help you both work through this.
Dog bites: Soft or hard?
Know this: even if you feel OK with an occasional nip, you’re putting at risk your dog, yourself and potentially others.
For instance, say your dog escapes or somehow has access to others then seriously bites someone through this learned behaviour. They could very well be branded as dangerous. And sadly, not only will this be a label, but in this situation the label is also true. Because what started as a playful nip with you has become a dangerous bite with a stranger.
Especially if the victim is a child.
As dog parents, we can’t afford to neglect our dog’s training and we mustn’t encourage harmful behaviour – intentionally or not. Not only can there be very grave consequences to the victim, but in a dog attack the dog is very often the final victim.
Being euthanised is a real threat. As the owner of the dog who attacks, you could very well be liable for financial damage too.
All bites need to be regarded as serious. So too the warning signs. If your dog barks or displays threatening behaviour, this is already a form of aggression. Consider it a cry for help and take steps to protect them and society.
Puppies often nip when small because they’re either teething or don’t yet understand boundaries. This is when you need to teach them biting is not allowed. Get it right early and save yourself from potential strife. Begin the ABCs of dog obedience using these puppy training tips and the best games for puppy play.
How is bite inhibition related to dog attacks?
As many pup parents know, there are different “levels” to dog biting. And in general, dogs have control over the level of intensity of their bite (with puppies usually the exception). A dog’s ability to use its mouth gently is sometimes referred to as bite inhibition.
Even if your pup has nipped without leaving marks or drawing blood, consider what led to this – it may be a warning nip. Maybe you (or someone else, or in the case of dog bites dog, another canine) was aggravating or threatening them. Ask yourself if you put your dog in a situation that gave them no choice but to bite.
If a dog bites hard and without bite inhibition, there’s a serious problem that shows an intent to harm. It also shows a possible lack of control over the level of bite. Again, your role as a dog parent is to avoid putting them in a position where it escalates to the point that they feel aggravated enough to bite. Especially if you know your dog can potentially be aggressive or dangerous.
How to train your dog to not attack
Work with your pup to make sure they’re well-adjusted and won’t be a danger to others. This is a key part of responsible dog ownership. Some dogs won’t need lots of training whereas others need plenty of training and behaviour modification.
Therefore, only very experienced and knowledgeable dog owners should consider taking on “problem” dogs or dog breeds that are predisposed to being more aggressive. If you decide to, then give your dog the benefit of sessions with a dog behaviourist too.
If you lack the skills to manage a dog’s behavioural challenges, it would be irresponsible to bring them into your home. You risk the safety of yourself and others plus put your own dog’s life at risk.
That’s why first time pet owners should always research an animal and find out about their needs to make the right choice. Once you have chosen your new furry family member, check out our dog adoption checklist and how to puppy proof your home like a pro.
Know that we don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, we just want you and your pup to be as happy and healthy as possible 🙂
Dog insurance for your pup
If your pup is showing any warning signs of being a biter bear in mind it may be injured or sick. As your first step, have them seen by a vet. If it’s a sore tooth or a glass splinter your pup’s problem can be easily resolved. Don’t let finances stand in the way of your pup’s health. With pet insurance, you can have a worry-free visit to the vet.
If your vet thinks it’s something more serious, they’ll refer you on from there.
Dog attacks – over to you
Share your experience with dog warning signs, and dog attacks in the comments to help others better understand the risks and the resolutions.