Updated: Jan 23
"My dog bit someone--out of nowhere!" Those are the words I heard when I picked up the telephone this morning. The caller was understandably distraught. Her 16-month-old German shepherd had bitten a visitor, a man who had not been to the home before. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured and did not press charges. But he was shaken up, as were the owners. The dog had previously shown some signs of being uncomfortable around people, but the bite was a wake-up call. Something had to be done.
The thing is, the shepherd didn’t actually bite “out of nowhere”—dogs seldom do. There are almost always warning signs. A typical scenario goes like this: a puppy is fearful of people. During group class, he hides behind his owner, and at home, he shrinks when people go to pet him. With the onset of adolescence comes a bit of confidence. Now when people go to pet the dog, he barks, growls, and makes it as clear as possible that he’d like to be left alone, thank you very much. Those who don’t heed the warning may receive an air snap, a promise of things to come.
Late adolescence into adulthood is when many dogs begin to show what many people term “aggression.” At the rescue center I used to co-run, it seemed that an inordinate number of dogs were given up right around a year-and-a-half of age. The age of dogs given to the city shelters I’ve worked and volunteered at coincide. It’s true that just as human teenagers develop selective hearing and push their boundaries, so do dogs, and some are surrendered due to a wildness having nothing to do with aggression. But this is also a very common age for dogs to begin to take the offense, to act in a way that will make the big scary thing go away. The dog may lunge and snap while on leash, or unleash a volley of severe barks at the entrance of a stranger. Now when the person advances, the dog not only does not retreat, he advances and bites in order to make the person retreat.
In most cases, even the severe ones that make the evening news, by the time a bite happens there have been plenty of warnings. Familiarizing oneself with signals such as lip licking, yawning, avoidance of eye contact, and other subtle stress indicators can not only alert us that a dog is uncomfortable, but can prompt us to remove him from a potentially volatile situation and to seek professional help. Unfortunately, in some families—particularly those with smaller dogs—a certain level of aggression is tolerated. The call to a trainer only happens once the dog has bitten someone outside of the family.
The earlier reactivity is recognized and treated, the less often it will appear that a bite came from “out of nowhere.” To learn more about canine body language, check out my DVD Talk to the Paw! Understanding What Dogs are Really Saying--and What We're Saying to Them. ___________________________________________________________________________________
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