Recently, I read an article in my local paper that my state, Ohio, is number two for dog bite insurance claims (“Ohio 2nd in insurance claims for dog bites,” The Plain Dealer, 9/5/15). It included a list of breeds insurers shy away from which is full of the usual suspects, ranging from #1 “pit bull” (which is not a breed but a description) to #10 Siberian Husky. 

Having had a biting dog for 17 years, now living with a reformed snapping dog, plus having dealt with a lot of biters, fighters and snappers over the past 12 years as a DogLife Skills Instructor (aka “trainer”), I have a few pointed comments about this statistic. 

There is absolutely no excuse for this. When a dog bites, we parent/owner/guardians (POGs) have failed. I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people that, when their dogs bite, they should apologize to the dog for putting him in such a bad position. He either felt it was acceptable or necessary to bite, and I never want a dog to think that. 

However, this is exactly what we often inadvertently teach our dogs, that under certain circumstances, they can, should, or must bite. How does this happen? 

POGs fail dogs by:

• Ignoring or minimizing the behavior, assuming the dog will “grow out of it.” To paraphrase a wise trainer whose name I have forgotten (please ID yourself and I will amend this post), dogs don’t grow out of aggression, they grow into aggression.

• Not educating themselves about how dogs think, learn and express themselves. There is a lot of old, outdated, completely wrong and very harmful information out there (e.g. the dominance thing, a wagging tail means a happy dog, he knows it’s wrong but does it anyway) that current research shows should be jettisoned for good. Using this stuff can escalate the behavior.

• Assuming the way to train is to strongly correct “bad” behaviors when they happen instead of concentrating on prevention, management and giving them “right” behaviors that are well rewarded. Behaviors fade away when they are not practiced, so allowing the “bad” behaviors to happen and then attempting to walk them back can actually encourage the dog to repeat the behaviors (if you are still trying to get rid of jumping, having tried “everything,” you are a victim of this thinking). This assumption makes biters even more dangerous.

• Assuming all trainers are the same. Sadly, it is the wild West out there for POGs looking for help. Anyone can put up a trainer shingle! There are people out there who have trained exactly one dog — their own — and believe that gives them the chops to do it for others. Others have trained for years but have stopped learning and are using old, outdated harmful methods. There is no national certification for trainers. Terms are tossed around like confetti; an alphabet’s worth of letters trail some names. None of it guarantees they can help you or know what they are doing. (Note: Vets, groomers, daycare providers, petsitters, etc. are usually not trainers. Unless they are, do NOT ask them for training advice! But do ask them for a referral.)

• Assuming some dog breeds are more likely to bite, have stronger bites, and/or should be allowed to bite under certain circumstances. I will be extra careful with my words here. Some breeds have certain tendencies that could make them more likely to bite under certain circumstances. Most of the dogs on that insurers list fall into that category: these dogs tend to be smart and sensitive; they process quickly, and react quickly and often strongly. But these are only tendencies that may never/don’t have to ever develop in your dog. No dog should be allowed/encouraged to bite a human, even in play. Between dogs, I discourage roughhousing/wrestling (it so easily can erupt into a fight), preferring instead object-oriented play (i.e. a toy is always used so they grab the toy instead of each other). My exception to this rule is the dog who has not learned how to inhibit his bite (e.g. a dog who left the litter too soon sometimes bites hard all the time), so some contact is necessary at first to teach him that valuable self-control.

Oh, and no dog’s bite is substantially stronger than any other, and there is no special “locking” bite out there. “Pits” are terriers, which tend to grab and shake prey. 

• Getting dogs for the wrong reasons. Some people want “tough-looking” dogs so they can feel tough. (The irony here is that many of these tough-looking dogs are actually big mooshpits inside.) Others want a dog “for protection.” I cannot say this strongly enough — you never want your companion animal to be trained as a protection or guard dog. They are taught to attack, and they are not perfect, which means there could be a catastrophic mistake. Not worth the risk. Most dogs will bark if someone they don’t know comes into the house, and come to your assistance if you cry out. If yours doesn’t, get a security system. It’s cheaper than a lawsuit. 

Professionals fail dogs by:

• Clinging to old, outdated, completely wrong and very harmful information that current research shows should be jettisoned for good. One of the biggest responsibilities we have as professionals is to continue our education so we have all the best tools at hand when trying to help a dog. Just because it works for you doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. The end does NOT justify the means.

• Assuming the way to train is to strongly correct “bad” behaviors when they happen instead of concentrating on prevention, management and giving them “right” behaviors that are well rewarded. (See above.)

• Giving POGs the how but not the why. “Do this and this” fixes one problem. “She’s doing it because” fixes many problems. If you don’t know why, you should find out why before you get into how.


Turn failure into success by:

Changing your perspective. I often find it helpful to explain a dog’s behavior by making a comparison to humans. If this dog were a child, how would you handle this situation? If you wouldn’t do it to a human, you shouldn’t do it to a dog.

Learning to read body language, and by that I mean going beyond hair up or snarling. Find out the subtle signals that will tell you your dog needs help before there is any outward display. There are some super books and videos out there (check out my Recommended Reading [] page for some), or you could schedule a single session with an experienced pro who can read your dog for you (I always do this in my first session; the more the POG sees, the better the result). 

Socializing your dog properly. The well-socialized dog understands his environment, isn’t scared of it, and knows how to act in it. To accomplish that, she needs help from us. That means not only exposure to a lot of different situations, but proper exposure (i.e. not just taking her places so she can “get used to it,” because that may never happen!). Read more about socialization in my book, Reverse Dog Training: A Fresh Perspective for Solving Common Problems.

Searching for a trainer who will help you change your dog’s behavior using the latest science-based methods, not perpetuate old, intimidation-based techniques. See my article How to Choose the Right Trainer for more pointers.

Never saying never! I searched for years before finding the solutions for me and my dogs. My 17-year-old boy died before I found the right stuff. Yet, because of him, I am a trainer, my current girl (still developing at the ripe old age of at least 12) has become the dog I always wanted, and I get to help other dogs and POGs experience the same joyful success. If I had given up, I would not be in this great situation now, doing work I love. Sooo worth it.

Lowering the number of dog-bite claims depends upon the actions of the humans, not the dogs. Let’s get on with it.