A Maltese dog can be a sweet fluffy angel, but he or she can also be a tiny Jekyll and Hyde. If you own a Maltese, you may have experienced the moment when your cute little powderpuff turns and literally bites the hand that is petting him (or her). These moments can be scary not only for the person whom the dog bites, but also for the dog owner. You don't know how the person will react or if your dog will be in trouble as a result of the bite. It is important for owners of dogs who bite to put a stop to the behavior, and this starts by understanding what is behind it? Why do Maltese dogs have a predisposition to biting? Part of the tendency is related to the dog's size, but much does depend on the individual dog's temperament and history.
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The Root of the Behavior
Although a dog's size does not necessarily predispose him or her to bite, it does lead to human-dog interactions that change the dog's self-perception. Owners of smaller dogs are more likely to pamper their pooches, which tells the dog that he or she is the leader of the “pack.” Dogs who believe themselves to be in charge are more likely to become aggressive if they feel that status to be threatened. Aggressive tendencies may also come from the dog's relationship to the world as a smaller animal. Studies of other species in nature have shown that smaller animals are quicker to attack intruders and more vicious in their aggression. There have not yet been studies on whether this holds true in dogs, but statistics do show that smaller breeds tend to show more aggression toward their owners. Many owners also report that their smaller dogs are aggressive toward larger breeds, which suggests a potential defensiveness.
In some Maltese dogs, however, biting is unrelated to status image but rather comes from the dog's individual history. A dog who has experienced abuse or trauma may show fear-based aggression if they feel cornered or otherwise triggered. Another dog may have been abandoned and may feel particularly sensitive to threats against his or her home, food, or family. Such fear-based aggression may show up in dogs without trauma histories as well, as there are dogs whose personalities predispose them toward these kinds of reactions. Some dogs will bite when they are frustrated or uncomfortable with an interaction, and many dogs turn to biting if they are in pain. Some dogs have strong territorial instinct and may act out against someone who enters their home or appears to be threatening a member of the family. This is particularly likely when a female dog has had puppies. There are also dogs who have a strong predatory instinct and will bite when it mistakes a running or cycling person for prey.
Encouraging the Behavior
Whatever the reason for your dog's biting behavior, it needs to stop. Even though your dog is small, he or she can still do some damage, especially to a child. In fact, approximately half of all victims of dog bites are under the age of 13. You can reduce the risk of your dog biting by having him or her neutered or spayed, and by making sure that your dog responds to basic commands like “sit” and “stay.” This can serve the secondary purpose of teaching your dog that you, not he or she, are in charge. You should also be making sure that your dog is getting plenty of exercise, so that excess energy doesn't build up as frustration or anxiety, and that he or she is well socialized to different people and situations.
You may also need to put your aggressive Maltese through a behavior modification program, which can help to mitigate the dog's aggressive impulses. However, because triggers can still call up the old behavior, it is important for you to know your dog's triggers so that you can take him or her out of a situation if necessary. You should also be aware of the non-verbal warning signs that dogs use to show their discomfort. If you see ears that are flattened backward, eyes that are wide, and back fur that is standing up straight, your dog is very nervous and may bite if the threat continues. The same is true if a dog is interacting with a person or other dog and suddenly freezes in place and makes direct eye contact. Watch your dog carefully so that you can learn his or her individual warning signs.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If your Maltese dog's biting behavior is new, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. Sudden onset of aggressive tendencies is often due to a painful medical condition or an illness with behavioral symptoms. These include seizures, hypothyroidism, and adrenal dysfunction. Dogs may also become more prone to fear-based aggression as they get older and lose their sight or hearing, which can cause disorientation. You may even want to consult with a veterinarian if your dog has always been aggressive, particularly if you intend to try to train him or her out of the behavior. Behavioral training can be harmful to a dog if not done with expertise and finesse, which is particularly necessary when one is dealing with an aggressive dog.
Just because you have a biter on your hands doesn't mean that you always will. Dogs bite as a way of protecting themselves, their pack, or their resources. As soon as you find out what is causing that self-protective instinct, you will be able to help your dog deal with it and feel more secure. Your dog will appreciate it, and so will you and your family and friends!