Training 911

posted November 24th, 2012 by
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 Q. Can a biting dog be rehabilitated?

 A. Without a crystal ball, I can’t answer that.

 On a daily basis, I talk with pet owners who have dogs that bite. They don’t always disclose this information, but they must know they have a problem or else they would not have picked up the phone. They may have been told by their vet, friend, or family member that they need help. They are often embarrassed and may feel they have failed Pet Parenting 101.

Here are some recent calls:

Dog A “He has never really bitten anyone, but he has nipped at several people, even our grandchildren. Though we trust him completely not to hurt either of us.”

Dog B “My two dogs were fighting and one bit me on my thumb when I was trying to break it up. But she thought she was biting the other dog.”

Dog C “I was walking my dogs, and my neighbor was driving by. He rolled his window down and stuck his finger out and was calling my dog’s name. My dog nipped his finger.”

Dog D “A teenage girl was running from my dog because he was barking at her, and he caught up with her and nipped at her leg.”

Dog E “I was cleaning up around my dog’s food bowl, and he growled and nipped at me.”

Dog F “My dog bit a vet tech that was trying to trim his toenails. He didn’t break the skin, but they muzzled him and held him down to finish.”

Dog G “I have a 9-monthold puppy that grabs my arm when we are on a walk. When do they grow out of the mouthing stage?”

If these are not bites, then what is a bite? The owners can call it “nipping,” “mouthing” or “grabbing,” but they are bites. The owner of Dog E was smart enough not to push the dog into biting.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, PhD, BV etMed MRCVS1, has classified dog bites on a scale of 1 to 6. Through an objective evaluation of wound pathology, Dr. Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale* is a tool for pet owners, veterinarians and trainers to evaluate the severity of a biting problem and the prognosis. A Level 1 bite is classified as “obnoxious or aggressive behavior but no skin-contact by teeth,” and Level 2 is “skin-contact by teeth but no skin-puncture. However, [there] may be skin nicks (less than one-tenth of an inch deep) and slight bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of teeth against skin, but no vertical punctures.”

If the owner statements above are true, most of these bites fall into Level 1 and Level 2 classification. These comprise nearly 99 percent of incidents and most have an excellent prognosis.

Dunbar identifies Level 3 and 4 bites as punctures and bruising. A Level 3 has a fair to good prognosis (with caveats); Level 4 has a poor prognosis. Level 5 is a multiple-bite incident or a multiple- attack incident, and a Level 6 bite victim is dead—these are extremely dangerous dogs.

If we review the above scenarios, here’s my assessment:

Dog A Be very, very watchful… especially around the grandchildren. Don’t allow the dog and the kids to play chase-and-be-chased games. Nipping is considered a Level 1 bite, and while the prognosis for rehabilitation is quite good, you should not tackle this on your own.

Dog B When dogs are fighting, and a person is bitten while trying to intervene, it’s not likely that the dog “accidently” bit. More likely is he was getting you to back off, so he could continue. Your dog probably showed bite inhibition by only giving you a mild bite. The fighting is more the problem than the biting.

Dog C Was your dog off leash? If your neighborhood is within city limits, and your dog is off leash on a walk, you may be violating the leash laws. If he was on leash, you should not have gotten close enough to the car for him to jump up and nip. It sounds like a Level 1, but could possibly be a Level 2. Most likely, some management on your part can prevent this from recurring

Dog D This is a scary scenario. If your dog was barking at the girl, she was right to be scared. His bark might have been a warning to stay away, and he was not comfortable. I don’t know if he was off leash, or broke free in order to chase her, but chase/nip of a person is predatory behavior. Enlist a qualified trainer.

Dog E This is a pretty clear picture of Resource Guarding. Read the book “MINE! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding In Dogs,” by Jean Donaldson. This is a practical how-to guide, which would help a pet owner determine if this is a behavior problem he or she can tackle or should seek the help of a qualified trainer.

Dog F I have no idea what level bite this was, but if you desensitize him to the handling and actual nail trimming, you should have a good prognosis. He may have already been stressed out, and this put him over the top.

Dog G This adolescent dog still mouthing at 9 months of age is not going to outgrow the behavior. But you have an excellent prognosis with some basic obedience and the help of a good trainer.

There are many factors to consider when arriving at a prognosis:

Behavior modification is more difficult for an adult dog.

Are there children in the household?

Can the owners use solid management practices?

Poor health and medical problems can compromise behavior modification.

It is hard to rehabilitate a dog that doesn’t get enough exercise.

Is the owner even in the picture, or is someone else caring for the dog? …and so on.

Our society seems to have zero tolerance when it comes to biting dogs. The dog’s owner says, “The dog nipped her;” (perhaps a Level 1 Bite on the Dunbar scale), but the victim’s statement is, “The dog bit me.” Depending on the circumstances, I might say that the dog showed remarkable restraint and bite inhibition. I have known owners who elected to euthanize the dog to avoid litigation.

I have known owners who felt euthanasia was easier than behavior modification. And I have known owners who were in denial as to the severity of the dog’s biting problem and chose to do nothing.

It’s not possible to say with 100 percent certainty that a dog will not bite. No one can make such guarantees. We do know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The good news is that most “nippers” can become much more reliable with proper training and management and can be good citizens of society.

Veterinarian, Animal Behaviorist, and Dog Trainer, Dr. Ian Dunbar received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology & Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University) plus a doctorate in animal behavior from the Psychology Department at UC Berkeley.

*Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale (Official Authorized Version)

An assessment of the severity of biting problems based on an objective evaluation of wound pathology can be found at: http://www.apdt.com/veterinary/ assets/pdf/Ian%20Dunbar%20 Dog%20Bite%20Scale.pdf

Mary Green

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