“The Bite Came Out of Nowhere!” – Or Did It?

You'll often hear that a previously friendly dog suddenly bit a person "out of nowhere." But did she really? Or did stressors pile up till the dog just broke?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #223

Bites Don’t Come Out of Nowhere

And every human there thinks the bite came out of nowhere. But you know it didn’t. You saw Dogalini’s stressors – the strangers, the kids, the noise, and the pain – pile on one after the other. Maybe, if the too-friendly stranger had persisted in invading her space, Dogalini would have growled.

Now stack all four stressors together, and they combine to reach the threshold at which Dogalini bites. And even though it’s called the bite threshold model, the insight behind it applies to growling, lunging, snapping, and any other aggressive behavior you can name.

Using the Bite Threshold Model with Your Dog

You can use the bite threshold model to assess a given situation for your own dog. Remember that of course each dog’s individual thresholds for escalating aggressive behaviors will be different.  Start by listing the things that worry or alarm your dog. Small children? Thunderstorms? Vet visits? Having his nails trimmed? Men with beards? In-line skaters? If he hits his growl threshold when you trim his nails at home, you might be tempted to have the vet do the job. But if you add the stress of a nail trim to the vet visit that scares him in the first place, then he will be pushed that much closer to his threshold not just for a growl, but for a bite.

Again, individual dogs vary – some dogs reach their breaking point and will bite readily once they’ve been pushed far enough to growl. Others will stick with the growl even as stressor after stressor piles on. The most important thing to remember is that your dog may need your extra guidance and protection at times when multiple stressors are at work. And bear in mind that the physiological effects of a stressful experience can linger. The birthday party with champagne and clowns that took place yesterday may still be jangling Zippy’s nerves today.

Prevention Can Be Easy

In the example I gave of Dogalini biting the child’s face, catastrophe could easily have been avoided. All Dogalini’s guardians had to do that day was give her access to a quiet, safe spot where intrusive strangers and tumbling kids couldn’t get to her. Better yet, they could also have treated the arthritis that made her hips so painful, and kept taking her places so she remained comfortable with unfamiliar people and the outside world.

Finally, did you notice the body-language clues in Dogalini’s sad story? She leaves the room when kids show up. When the intrusive stranger gazes into her eyes, she cowers and looks away. And not only does she wind up hiding behind the sofa, she also pants back there. Avoidance, appeasement behaviors, and stress panting – all these should have been gigantic clues to the people around her that Dogalini was in trouble. Take a look at my episode on canine stress signals, identify the situations that stress your particular dog, and help her out when life starts to pile on. Ideally, the results will be invisible: a growl you never hear, a bite that never happens.

Stop by and visit me on Facebook, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future episodes. Thanks for reading!

If you're looking for a great gift for the dog lovers in your life, check out my book The Dog Trainer's Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet. You'll learn everything you need to know about raising a friendly, well-mannered dog that will add joy and fun to your family.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).

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