Handling a dog that bites

Our young dog has snapped at our son a few times. How should we handle this aggressive behaviour?

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You’re wise to deal with this early—aggression is the most serious behaviour problem that dog owners face. Research shows that most bites are from pets, not strays, and children are frequently the ones who get bitten.

Not all aggression is the same

While aggression is always unacceptable, sometimes it may be understandable if we can recognize when a dog feels threatened. This is one of the reasons children often get bitten—their unpredictable and excited behaviour during play may frighten the dog and the child may not recognize the dog’s warning signals such as neck hair standing up, stiff posture or bared teeth.

A dog might also react aggressively if she is possessive of her food, toys or territory. She may growl, snarl or even bite if she is approached while eating or sleeping or if she is pushed off a bed or couch.

Prevention

Socialization is key for a dog of any breed to grow into an even-tempered and adaptable companion. Reputable breeders ensure that their puppies are well socialized through gentle handling from an early age and also emphasize good temperament in their breeding dogs.

Owners need to continue the process of socialization. That means introducing the dog to adults, children, other dogs and novel situations. Early training classes (from about three months of age, after your pup has been vaccinated) that teach basic puppy manners are good places for this to happen, as are dog parks.

Discourage rough play or jumping up—stand still, say “off” in a firm tone and turn away if the pup does jump, chase or bite playfully. Avoid physical punishment; instead, reward her with praise and a food treat for behaving as you wish. Ignoring a dog when she is acting inappropriately is much more effective than physically punishing her.

Treating aggression

If incidents of aggression are becoming more intense or more frequent, avoid the situations that trigger the aggression. This may mean avoiding your dog while she is eating, or keeping her off the furniture. Next, seek help from a behavioural specialist. (Ask your vet for a referral.) She’ll teach your family behaviour modification techniques to ensure that your dog’s undesirable behaviours are not rewarded and give you some instruction on how to teach the dog new, more appropriate ways to react.

Physical punishment has no place in the treatment of aggression and, in fact, is likely to make the problem worse. Avoid any trainer who uses techniques such as hanging the dog by her choke collar or rolling and pinning her on her back. These techniques are dangerous for both dog and owner.

Aggression is controllable in many cases, especially if you deal with the problem right away and all the members of the household are consistent in their approach. I hope that before too long you’ll have a canine companion that everyone in the family can enjoy and trust.

Dr. Alice Crook co-ordinates the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island. She also chairs the Animal Welfare Committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.