Why Does My Dog Bite Me?

Why Does My Dog Bite Me? – Phoenix Scottsdale AZ Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
PHOENIX , AZ AREA: (602) 708-4531
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Dogs bite for many reasons. However, I have found it very unusual for a pet dog to bite a family member. When a dog does bite a family member, it is usually a “man made” problem caused by abusive training or handling.

Why does my dog bite me? There is a difference between mouthing and biting. Dogs, and especially puppies, use their mouths to investigate their world. Pups will play with your pant legs, fingers, hair, shoe laces, and any other thing they can get their mouths on. This is a completely normal puppy behavior, and is not a danger signal. Proper training will eliminate, or greatly reduce, the mouthing the adult dog will do. Mouthing is a nuisance, but it isn’t what I am referring to in this article.

Again… why does my dog bite me? There is also a difference between a dog accidentally biting a person, and the kind of biting caused by abusive training or handling I am going to discuss in this article. For example, I recently was asked about a German Shepherd Dog that had bitten a woman on the face, resulting in 5 stitches to her chin. Here was the setup. A woman entered into a friend’s house with a hamburger in one hand, while her friend’s German Shepherd Dog greeted her at the door. The dog is a very friendly dog, with people and other animals. But, the dog likes food. The woman lifted the hamburger over her head, and kept swinging it around, to keep it away from the dog. From the dog’s perspective, here was a pretty good smelling treat, and the woman was teasing the dog to get at the hamburger. So, the dog eventually jumped up higher and higher to get the burger, missed, and slashed the woman’s chin instead. I really don’t blame the dog in this instance, and it isn’t the kind of biting I am about to describe. This situation is one where the woman unintentionally teased the dog with the hamburger to the point that the dog jumped as high as it could to try and grab it away from her. She was being stupid with the dog, whether she knew it or not. She caused the problem by not dealing with the dog properly. It is also a situation where the owners should have interfered with what was going on, and also taught the dog not to jump up on guests, regardless of the temptation. You have to figure that the owners knew the dog would jump up after food. The dog wasn’t aggressive, and this kind of situation, though unfortunately painful for the woman, doesn’t warrant blaming the dog. The people put the dog in an impossible situation, and they really caused it themselves. I have also heard of dogs that have done this while someone was teasing them with a toy, and bit the person’s hand, while missing the toy. This kind of thing is an accident, and also is the fault of the person who is playing with the dog.

When I am discussing biting in this article, I am talking about dogs that bite family members, but not as a mistake or puppy game, as a result of abusive training.

In my experience, when dogs bite family members, it is almost always the result of careless or abusive training or handling. [I am excluding discussing dogs that were born with temperament problems. Some dogs are born unstable, and even with the proper upbringing, they will still become dangerous over time to the family.] Most people don’t think that what they are doing is abusive (though some do; some people are animal abusers), but if the dog PERCEIVES it to be abusive, even if you don’t even strike the dog, then the result will still be the same: fearful and/or defensively aggressive biting. Very few pet dogs are dominant (dogs that seek status over their human family members). Yet, most of the dog owners I encounter with biting dogs, use greater and greater force and threatening behavior on dogs that were never challenging them in the first place. Most of the biting dogs are otherwise pretty mild and submissive dogs. They were just pushed to the point of feeling that they had to defend themselves. One thing you are going to find, the more you work with a variety of dogs, is that “dominance” is the most misdiagnosed condition in the dog training world. Some dogs trainers diagnose every problem as a “dominance” problem. Then they go on to giving you a bunch of dumb rules (don’t let the dog eat before you, keep the dog off the furniture, don’t interact with the dog unless the dog is under command, etc.), that have NOTHING to do with the root problem, and won’t fix the problems that the people have created. People apply dominance solutions to situations that have nothing to do with dominance, and they then end up with dangerous dogs. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The next time you talk to a trainer, and their first answer is that your dog has a dominance problem, and you generally see that your dog is pretty mild and submissive in most circumstances… go get a second opinion. Better yet, whenever you get advice that your dog or puppy has a dominance problem, get a second opinion. Most of these diagnoses are wrong. Call me and set up for an evaluation. I will demonstrate to you, probably 99% of the time, that dominance has nothing to do with the problem you are dealing with.

Here are some real world examples of dogs that I have evaluated.

I was asked to evaluate an adult Golden Retriever that had bitten the oldest daughter (approximately 18 years old) on her hand. She had approached the dog to tell it to get off the couch, the dog wouldn’t get off, so she reached for the dog’s collar to drag it off, and the dog bit her hand severely. She wrote and asked, “why does my dog bite me?” When I arrived for the appointment, I was greeted at the door by the daughter, and I could see a pretty large bandage on her hand, which was applied at the emergency room the day before. She had received several deep puncture wounds (which is a clue to the reason why the dog bit her. Different types of bites indicate different motivations on the part of the dog).

Most Golden Retrievers are happy to see a stranger at the door. They have wiggly tails, wiggling butts and happy faces. Not this dog. It came up to the door, saw me, didn’t greet, and just walked on by with a lowered head and a sideways glance. Already, I knew something was seriously wrong. The next thing I did was ask the father to put the dog on a leash, because I wasn’t sure of my safety in the house. We then proceeded to go outside together to the back patio to talk about the dog. We spent a while discussing the dog and its history. They said the dog had never bitten anyone before, but they were concerned about ever owning a dog again.( Hmmm. That didn’t add up.) They had to get rid of the last dog they had for biting problems, too. (Hmmm. Another clue) This dog was pretty much unresponsive to me and the family members. It looked like the dog was walking around with a grudge (that’s the best I can explain it).

I then asked the owners if it would be safe for me to pet the dog. They said they weren’t sure. So I got a padded sleeve (the kind that protection dogs bite) to protect my arms and hands, and petted the dog with it. The dog was unresponsive to the touching, except when I touched the dog’s feet. That really bothered the dog. I asked about any issues that involved the feet of the dog. The dad admitted that they used to tease the dog by messing with the dog’s feet. I inquired further about that, but I couldn’t get more out of them. Something was seriously wrong.

Next, I asked the dad, who was holding the dog on leash to run through some of the dog’s obedience. I needed to see how the dog related to a family member. We all knew this dog had bitten before. He had told me that he had done the training of this dog, so he was the logical choice. He told the dog to Sit. The dog sat. Hmmm. OK. He then commanded the dog to lay Down. He gave the command, and the dog ATTACKED THE DAD! He grabbed the man’s hand, bit down hard, Started savaging his hand, and then let go. The dad had several puncture wounds on his hand. He went to the sink and washed his hand off, and I told him we should stop the evaluation, and he would have to go to the doctor to get the hand treated. But the dad said he was OK. Hmmm.

So, I delved further into the history of the dog and the owners. Something had gone seriously wrong here. I could not get a straight answer from them concerning how they had dealt with the dog for misbehavior. I felt that they were lying to me. I was sure they had been unnecessarily rough on the dog, including teasing the dog in some unknown way, to the point that the dog resented its paws being touched. They now had a seriously dangerous dog, and even if they got rid of the dog (the breeder was willing to take the dog back), it was my guess that they would do this same thing to the next dog. Golden Retrievers are pretty mild dogs, and for a dog to get this far gone, I was sure that the dog had been abused somehow over a very long period, and had finally started fighting back. I recommended that they give the dog back to the breeder, and before they got a dog again, that they hire a trainer from the very start. They indicated that they had had it with owning dogs, and figured they wouldn’t get another one. Good. Something was very wrong here, and no one was willing to be honest enough to explain what had happened.

Then there was the Cocker Spaniel that would bite you if you tried to get it off the couch. This case was similar to the one with the Golden Retriever, but things hadn’t gone that far. People are too rough on their pups when they get up on furniture, not knowing the correct ways to teach them to stay off. In addition, most pups are pretty sensitive, so they see your corrections as highly threatening. So, the pup is made to be afraid or worried when approached and cornered on the furniture by family members. The pup is grabbed, swatted at, shaken, has things tossed at it, etc., all manner of things to get the dog off the furniture. One day, the dog is so afraid, or so defensively aggressive about being moved off the furniture, that the dog bites when approached. Then I get the call to try and fix the dog. Really, it is the people that need fixing. I can sometimes turn these dogs around, but not if the family won’t change how they relate to the dog.

Another Golden Retriever. This dog would guard its food bowl, and would randomly identify some seemingly insignificant object around the house or yard, lay on it and guard it. If you got near the dog when it was in this mode, it would come flying at you, all teeth bared, and bite you. I came to find out that the owners had read somewhere that you didn’t want a dog to eat its food too fast, so they put large, baseball-sized rocks in the food bowl, so as a puppy it really had to work to get at its food. In a sense, they put the pup, from a very young age, in a situation where it had to work too hard to get fed at all. They made food a precious commodity through an artificial form of deprivation. So it was no wonder that the dog was desperate about any food in its bowl. To the dog it had become a life and death thing. Goofy training advice caused this dog to be highly dangerous around its food bowl. It is amazing to me all of the strange and weird things people do with their dogs. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, someone comes up with a new, idiotic idea. With respect to the guarding of objects, this had its root in how the pup was corrected for putting things in its mouth. Golden puppies put everything in their mouths. Remember, they are Retrievers. They are bred to pick things up with their mouths. But when you get rough on them, and you make it a test of wills over this stuff, you can make it into a fight. All it takes is a sensitive dog that has stuff in its mouth, with an owner who is too rough on the pup and sees everything as a challenge to the owner, and a pup that doesn’t know how to voluntarily drop things on command… and you are set to develop a dog that guards objects. We solved this through a modified version of my Basic Obedience class. We used the class to develop trust between the owner and the dog, to teach the dog how to voluntarily drop things and to walk away from food or objects, and by getting the owner to get out of the test of wills he was having with the dog. It took about a month, and it cost them extra (because we had to do some specialized training), but when it was over, they were on their way to a good relationship and the problems were almost completely gone. This was an especially serious problem because they had a new baby, and it could have been disastrous if the child was attacked while crawling around the food bowl or while the dog was near a stick in the yard.

I have mentioned, in a different section of this web site, about the Dalmatian that bit the owner when cornered after it wouldn’t go out to go potty when commanded. “A man wanted his Dalmatian to go outside. He called the dog and the dog ran to the other end of the house. The man went and chased the dog down to the end of a hallway. The dog rolled on its back and urinated. The man then roughly picked up the dog to carry it outside. As you might probably guess, the terrified dog then bit him severely on the right hand. I had to demonstrate to the owner that THE DOG WASN’T OBEDIENCE TRAINED AND DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. The dog was also terrified of his owner. Even after 3 weeks of daily training, the dog wasn’t yet reliably trained off leash. So there’s no way that the dog could have obeyed prior to the training! You can’t expect a dog to do what you want if you don’t teach and train them.”

I was also hired to work with a Shih Tsu that would attack your feet if you got too near to the dog. The behavior was caused for the reason that the family thought it was funny to sweep the dog around the floor with their feet. When the pup was on the floor, they thought it was funny to sweep the dog around the house with their feet. But it didn’t end there. The teenage boys would put the dog in a pillow case and swing it around and around. They also thought it was funny to put hair gel in the dogs fur to give it a “spiked” hair cut look. This dog had become aggressive as a result. I remember them telling me what they had done, with a sort of smirk on the husbands and sons faces. I really lit into them about abusing their dog. I have to admit, I was pretty offended. I told them that if they had done this stuff in public, they could have been reported to the police, arrested, put on trial, fined and possibly jailed! My advice to you if you do this kind of thing: grow up, and please give your dog away to someone that isn’t a psychopath, like yourself. You shouldn’t own a dog. You don’t deserve a dog.

In another instance, also mentioned elsewhere in this web site, I evaluated a German Shorthaired Pointer that was chased around the home with a fireplace poker. A customer “had a sharp, angry temper with his untrained, 1 ½ year old, female German Shorthaired Pointer. So, he bought a dog training book that recommended hitting the dog, or throwing objects at the dog, when the dog disobeyed or did any kind of destructive behavior. So, of course, the dog started biting him, which made the man even angrier, which made him use even more force on the dog, which made the dog even more dangerous back to him. The first mistake the man made was to get angry with the dog. The dog was only doing what any untrained dog would do. What else could the dog do? It was the man’s fault that the dog was destructive, not the dog’s. The second mistake to use only force and dominance to control the dog. Dominance should only season the relationship between dog and Master, not be the sole basis for control. Further, when dominance fails with an untrained dog, you must then resort to force and fight the dog. That’s really stupid. A dog can kill a human. You never want to get in a fight with a dog, especially with your own dog! Finally, his last mistake was to take the advice of a dog training book that recommended abusive training. The way this man was treating his dog was abusive.”

I could go on and on. I could tell you about the pit bull/ shepherd mix that was so dangerous, that no one would touch the dog except the dad. The dog was kept in a crate all day because the whole family was afraid of being attacked. A Corgi that would attack the owner when they got near its food bowl. You name it, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Why does my dog bite me? The bottom line is this: if you don’t know what you are doing, or have people in the home that aren’t going to be kind to the dog, don’t get a dog at all. And when you get a dog, IT IS TIME TO CALL OR EMAIL ME, or you might just end up with a vicious dog of your making, that might have to be put to death. Let’s set up proper training. We will start with an Evaluation, then set up lessons. Most of the time these situations can be fixed if the owner is willing to put in the effort.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.

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