Earlier this week, I posted an overview of all of the 2009 dog bite fatalities. While such significant attacks are incredibly rare, they are tragic for the families and friends of the victims. So even if they are quite rare, the more we understand about the causes, the better off we'll all be.
While major dog attacks are quite rare, dog bites are fairly common. The CDC estimates that about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. We could quibble out the methodology they use to get this number (It is suspect), the point is, bites are pretty common. The VAST majority of these bites are nothing more than small bruises or cuts that heal quickly without incident.
But what differentiates a small bite from a major attack?
When we talk about why dogs bite and attack, often the first topic that comes up is dog socialization. Well trained, socialized and adjusted dogs are much lessly likely to suffer from different forms of aggression - -like fear aggression and severe possession aggression -- than dogs that aren't trained and socialized. So a dog that is kept as an indoor family pet that is around the family and strangers regularly, are much less likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors than dogs that don't spend much time around people and strangers.
But it doesn't stop there.
There is a second component to a bite behavior that may be more telling than even socialization: bite inhibition. While socialization is important to determine whether or not your dog is likely to bite in a given situation, bite inhibition is important in determining how severe a bite will be if and when it happens.
Legendary dog trainer Ian Dunbar says this about bite inhibition:
"Without a doubt, teaching bite inhibition is the single most important item on the educational agenda of any pup....It is as unrealistic to expect dogs never to be frightened or annoyed by people as it is to expect people never to frighten or annoy each other. However, just as it is reasonable to expect people to resolve their disagreements without physical violence, it is both realistic and perfectly feasible to teach dogs never to physically harm a person when scared or provoked."
Because dogs don't have hands, much of their "touch" communication is done through their mouth. If they want someone to leave them alone (because they're fearful or injured) and the person ignores their body language cues and audio cues (like growling) then a bite may be a dog's next option (where a human might "push" someone away). Or, for example, a child accidentally steps on a dog's tail, or hugs too tightly and injures the dog, a dog may react with a bite to end the pain. The difference between this being a "nip" or a major bite is determined by the dog' bite inhibition -- ie, their ability to control the power of their bite.
Anyone who has ever spent much time at all around puppies knows one thing -- they bite. A lot. Puppies use their mouths a lot in the playing process with their littermates about bite-inhibition. If they bite too hard, their littermate may yelp and quit playing with them, which will teach them that that bite was too hard. Through this interaction, dogs will develop a sense of bite inhibition that will allow them to "bite" but control the bite as to not be harmful. Dogs with good bite inhibition may use their mouths while playing, or when dealing with an unruly puppy playmate, but choose to not use full bite force in the process. And this is a good thing.
In the nature, puppies learn bite inhibition from their mothers and litermates. While this is often best way for puppies to learn, it can also be done with frequent playgroups with other young dogs. However, if all of that is not an option, bit inhibition can be taught at home when dogs are interacting with the humans simply by playing and interacting with your dog, and when your dog bites too hard, making a "yelp" or "ouch" sound and taking the play thing (in this case you) away. The dog will quickly learn that biting too hard causes him to lose what he wants most -- someone to play with. Remember -- teaching your puppy to bite so it no longer hurts is the first step -- then you can begin teaching your puppy not to bite at all.
Most experts say that bite inhibition is primarily learned by the age of 18 weeks. So it should be no surprise then if someone buys a 6 week old puppy, plops thepuppy on a chain in the back yard for the next 2 years of its life, and the dog all of a sudden suffers from poor socialization AND poor bite inhibition -- which is a pretty bad combination - and "suddenly" attacks someone. It was actually the perfect recipe for a major attack....if people know anything about canine behavior. This is why I think it's significant that of the 22 people over the age of 1 that were killed by singular dogs last year, nine of the dogs showed signs of significant chaining involved in their keeping.
The more we know about canine behavior, the more we can make steps to improve the way dogs are kept, and improve the safety of them in society. Ignoring behavioral experts in this area is just not using sound judgment. If we want to make society "safer" when it comes to dogs (and dogs are incredibly safe), we must focus on things that are primary motivating forces on undesirable behavior.
Some great resources on bite inhibition -- and how you can train your dog to have it:
Modern Dog Magazine - Puppy Socialization and Bite Inhibition
A great article from Dog Star Daily this week - More on bite inhibition (because it's so important) (this is an adaptation of Ian Dunbar's coments on the subject)
Ian Dubar's article -- Temperament Training, Teaching your puppy bite inhibition
Last Chance for Love Animal Rescue - Bite Inhibition Flyer
Dogspelled Forward - The most important things you can do for your puppy? Part 1-- Bite Inhibition
k9clicking - Nipping