Dogs are rarely “nice” or “mean”. People tend to label certain dog breeds as aggressive and some, like the pit bull terrier, are often banned, but all dogs have the potential to bite.
In fact, forbidden breeds are no more likely to bite than other breeds, despite their reputation for being more aggressive. There is little evidence that breed-specific laws reduce biting.
One of the most popular dog breeds in the UK, Labrador Retrievers often feature in lists and reports of aggressive dog breeds. This is likely due to the fact that Labradors make up such a high proportion of the dog population.
But it also underscores why we need to be mindful of our interactions with all dogs, regardless of breed. Biting is not inevitable. Understanding the reasons why dogs bite is the key to prevention.
Humans have selectively bred dogs for thousands of years for appearance and behavior traits.
Some dogs, like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, were bred for their looks and as a docile companion. Other dogs were bred for an aloof and wary personality as watchdogs. Although dogs of the same breed share common characteristics, there is as much variation within a breed as between breeds. It’s hard to predict what a dog’s behavior will be like based on breed alone.
However, the purpose for which a dog was originally bred is a useful guide. Breeds favored for intelligence, problem-solving skills, and work roles may be more susceptible.
Why do dogs bite?
When dogs bite, it’s usually a last resort. It can result from fear, pain or frustration.
Dog bites are influenced by a combination of genetics, experience, and training. Sometimes dogs are intentionally trained to behave aggressively, for the handler’s status or protection. Others may have a genetic predisposition to fear and anxiety or aggression.
Human error is closely linked to dog bite incidents. We can escalate a conflict situation when we don’t recognize what dogs are telling us through their body language and behavior.
In most cases, the dog is known to the victim and the attacks often occur in his own backyard. Children under 10 are particularly at risk from dog bites. They may have trouble recognizing fearful dogs or other warning signs such as mistaking a dog baring its teeth for a friendly smile.
Are biting and aggression related?
Aggression is a normal behavior in all animals. It is a natural response to a real or perceived threat and is part of how an animal communicates its emotional state. Animals use aggression to manage interactions and usually lead to the resolution of the threat or conflict.
Think of a dog who growls if you approach his bowl while he is eating. Although this is not ideal behavior for a family dog, it is a clear indication that the dog is uncomfortable. The growl should be enough to warn you to move away.
Dogs show a range of behaviors to neutralize stressful situations, such as licking their lips, looking away, and growling. If we ignore, misinterpret, or punish warning behavior, we risk escalation.
If your dog exhibits any unusual behavior such as excessive clicking or barking, seek advice from a behavioral and professional veterinarian, especially if pain or fear is involved.
How can we reduce dog bite incidents?
We have a legal obligation to manage the behavior of the dogs in our care. We expect dogs and puppies to fit right into our lives, but the human world can be confusing and scary.
It is our responsibility to help them adapt and acquire skills for daily life in human society. This includes behavioral self-management so that our dogs can deal with any challenges they will encounter.
Negative experiences, including punishment, can increase a dog’s stress level during human interactions. Instead, reward-based training supports human-dog bonding and is highly effective. This is especially important during puppyhood.
If we want to make our interactions with dogs safer, we need greater awareness of how dogs communicate stress and fear. Educating parents to manage encounters between children and dogs is essential.
We can equip children with the skills they need to interact with new dogs and build a close relationship with pets by teaching them basic dog behavior. It is particularly important to show him how to react if he is frightened by a dog, for example by standing up straight, crossing his arms and not running away.
Choose a dog that fits your lifestyle and provide them with activities and enrichment that complement their natural instincts. For example, if you take a dog originally bred to herd sheep into a city and you don’t provide it with a suitable outlet, don’t be surprised if it tries to chase and herd runners, cyclists, or cars.
Dogs and humans have a close relationship that has evolved over thousands of years. But it’s a one-sided friendship if we don’t meet their needs.