What is Biting?
While some dogs can play bite past puppyhood, older dogs who bite during play or other situations can become dangerous. Watching your dog’s body language can reveal if he is playing, or is showing a type of aggression. If his body is stiff, his teeth are exposed, and he growls, he may be getting ready to bite. Reasons a dog may bite can vary, and have to do with how your dog feels about the situation that he is in, his natural instincts, and his anxiety about how he should act. A dog may bite because of:
- Social status
- Redirected aggression
- Predatory instinct
- Poor socialization
- Physical pain or condition
Why Biting Occurs in Dogs
When dealing with dog behavior, it is helpful to remember that they have descended from wolves, wild pack animals who use specific strategies to survive. Many of the reasons behind a bite can be traced back to an instinctual strategy that our dogs’ ancestors displayed.
When a dog is fearful, it prefers to run away from the source of the fear. But if a fearful dog becomes trapped, it has no other choice than to fight to defend itself from the thing it fears. This can include strangers, other animals, or a family member who is about to punish him. A bite occurs when the fearful dog feels threatened.
Imagine you have spent all day at work, then come home and make dinner, deal with the kids, and finally collapse, only to find that your furry best friend who looks up at you for love bites you. In many cases, your dog may just be frustrated that he has been left alone all day, and now when you are home, you still do not play with him. He may be bored and lonely, and desperately needs exercise and mental stimulation. A bite from frustration can also occur if your dog is held back from something it wants to get at.
In the wild, dogs have to fight for everything they get. At home, they may still feel quite possessive over their food, toys, or even their bed. Generally, a possessive dog only shows aggression when his things are being threatened.
Wolf packs mark their territory, letting other packs and animals know that this is where they live. Your dog does the same thing in your yard when he urinates around the perimeter. When an intruder threatens his territory, he may become aggressive and bite.
Dogs are pack animals, and value their family members very much. If a family member is being threatened, they may rush to protect him. This is natural behavior seen in wild dogs, and can be seen in mothers who protect their puppies.
In the hierarchy of a pack, each pack member has a specified place in the order that decides who eats first and who gets to mate with the best females. Sometimes, a domestic dog can believe he is higher in the hierarchy than he really is, and biting is a way that he aggressively supports this belief.
Owners are often victims of redirected aggression, meaning that the dog may be displaying aggression towards another animal or person, but since he cannot get at them, he may snap at the owner holding him back.
The instinct to hunt prey is so deep in the DNA of our dogs that many of them simply cannot escape it. Some dogs may chase squirrels in the yard, others may chase cars, while some even go so far as to chase down people. Dogs who cannot distinguish people from prey animals can become dangerous.
Socialization is so important in the first months of a puppy’s life, since that is when it learns what to fear and how to act. Play biting amongst littermates is essential to teaching a puppy how hard to bite and how to play nicely. If a puppy is taken away too soon from this essential family time, it may not learn how to be gentle, or know what is and isn’t appropriate.
Physical Pain or Condition
Sometimes a normally gentle dog who has never bitten anything can become unusually aggressive when it is in pain. Many different physical problems and injuries can cause pain or discomfort to a dog, causing him to bite, such as orthopedic problems, Cushing’s disease, or arthritis. Age can affect your dog, causing not only painful conditions, but also mental confusion. Medications can also alter your dog’s mood and affect his aggression level.
What to do if your Dog is Biting
If your dog is biting, it is important to determine why, as this can help you to curb his aggression and stop. It is common for dogs to be aggressive to strangers and other animals, but when the aggression gets out of control or is towards family members, it can become a dangerous situation.
Taking your dog to the veterinarian for a routine check-up can reveal a physical condition that may be causing your dog to bite. Your vet may run various tests to check on his physical health and hormone balance. If your dog does have a physical condition, your vet will recommend appropriate treatment, which may include medication. Older dogs who suffer pain from age-related degeneration may also need some environmental changes to make them more comfortable.
In the absence of a physical complaint, your dog may be displaying aggression for a behavioral reason. Fear, possessiveness, frustration, territorial, and other such reasons can be treated through behavioral modification techniques. While many techniques are meant to be done in the home, due to the dangerous nature of a biting dog, it is recommended to get help from an animal behavioral specialist.
For a dog who has had poor socialization in early life, you can help him to distinguish between playing and biting by yelping whenever he bites during play, signifying you have been hurt, and letting your hand be limp. This is similar to how littermates teach one another if a bite is too hard. Other strategies include using time-outs, providing a toy or bone to substitute for fingers and toes, and teaching impulse control through sitting and staying for lengths of time.
Prevention of Biting
You can prevent your dog from developing many of the reasons for biting behavior by properly socializing him as a puppy. This is done with consistent training techniques to elicit favorable behavior, and exposing him to new people, animals, and situations at an early age to prevent him from becoming fearful. Keep him active and mentally stimulated to avoid frustration aggression. Take him in for routine check-ups and be sure to have him vaccinated.
Cost of Biting
The cost to treat a biting problem in dogs can vary. For behavioral issues, costs can range from $200 to $1000. Physical conditions, such as arthritis or Cushing’s disease, can range from $200 to $3000.