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« On assessing blame vs focusing on solutions | Main | The costs of no kill animal control vs no kill shelters »

April 06, 2012



Jenn said "No matter how many corrections he and the trainer gave the dog over a month of intensive training, it does no good when an unpredictable situation arises. ... All that fear of my father and "training" weren't enough to overcome the pain of a broken back and the fear of a crowd of people - when he picked the dog up, it reverted right back to the bite first and my dad still wears the scars...

Two things here are major issues - the many corrections two different people gave to the dog as punishment were done in a 'gotcha' manner (as they were meant to instill fear of your dad and the punishment he gave), which teach a dog that humans will set the dog up to make a 'mistake' (as the humans see it) and then punish him for it. Otherwise, unless the dog was rabid or had a major brain impairment that caused the dog to try to bite over and over, there would be no way the dog would need to be corrected over and over. I DO understand and support the use of certain aversives (positive punishments) in training, but punishing a dog over and over, with the goal to instill fear, is a very tricky thing that usually blows up in your face. Biting - or self defense as a dog would understand it in many of the occasions it happens - happens when a dog feels threatened by fear or pain or both. Causing more fear and/or pain as a punishment to try and make the dog not react by biting is a circle jerk of senselessness. It does not train the dog to 'not bite' - it trains the dog to fear the people who have punished him for biting and not to bite THEM. They often will bite someone else if they are in a situation where they have less fear of another human, which is why children whose parent(s) (although it's more often the father) use punishing 'corrections' on the dog, will get bit when daddy's not around.

The other issue is that your dad's dog was in extreme pain and had some fear of your dad, in a situation that would cause many dogs who've never bitten (or bitten badly) to bite. I've seen it happen to others and had it happen to me (dog having seizures and dying), which is why the very first thing one learns in animal first aid is to wrap, muzzle, or somehow cover the animal's head so they can't bite you. It is pretty much 'normal' for an animal in extreme pain (and fear) to bite without thinking, often causing damage the dog wouldn't do otherwise, because they aren't in control of themselves.

You don't say whether the dog ever bit your dad after the month of corrections, other than when it was in extreme pain. While I don't think the type of training it had made it a dog that would have never bitten others, I don't think the training 'failed' to prevent the dog from biting your dad. The pain the dog was in overrode the training, just as pain can override the inhibitions of any animal to not bite, even dogs that Dr. Dunbar would say have excellent bite inhibition. Demanding that an animal not bite when in that much pain (a broken back), is just too much to expect of any creature.

Central Ohio Dog Blog

This has been a really, really interesting exchange to read-- thank you Brent and to all of the thoughtful commenters. I was particularly interested in the comment about the dog who appeared to learn bite inhibition in adulthood, and the following thought occured to me...

Perhaps the key problem with "training" bite inhibition is that the kind of set-ups that such training would require would be unethical. I mean, you'd basically have to push the dog, over and over again, to a stress level that elicits a real bite (NOT a play bite or a trained bite), you'd be asking the dog to rehearse a series of undesirable, dangerous behaviors, in hopes of eliciting a safer, although still VERY undesirable, reaction. You'd HAVE to reinforce an undesired behavior (biting at all) in order to reinforce a simultaneous desired one (biting soft).

It makes sense to me that individual dogs may even vary their bites somewhat based on stressors and context, but the key issue we continue to butt up against is, what can be done for the dog who has a known hard, damaging bite in its reportoire? If a hard bite is a known option for the dog, is it ever ethical to rely on training (which is never 100%, and always carries the possibility of failure), rather than aggressive management? And for that matter, if we concede that training fails as can management (the previous example of the dog that got loose and was hit by a car is a great one), any dog with a known, hard bite could be considered a liability.

Again, thanks for posing the questions, Brent, and for the great discussions. I may try to dig up some journal articles on bite inhibition, and what is actually known about it in more controlled experiments and trials.


This post and all these comments have me very confused. Bite inhibition, as I have understood it, and seen it defined in many places, is simply teaching a dog to bite less hard, period. For example, my family had a little terrier mix who used to take your hand off for a treat when he first came to us from an abusive situation, probably around 8 months old or so. We taught him to take treats gently, and I would even play "bitey hands" with him all the time, and he was always gentle. You can call me dumb for that if you'd like, but I do believe it helps to continuously reinforce what is too hard and what isn't.

I never understood the thought that if you let a dog mouth you they'll think its ok to tear your flesh asunder. A situation where they are playing is different from a situation where the dog is afraid or angry and biting because of those things. Why aren't police dogs who are trained to take down perps biting everyone all the time? Because they know when it is time to work and when it is NOT time to work. Dogs are different from us, but they aren't idiotic lumps of fur with not an autonomous thought in their little heads.

Looking at WHY the dog bit is much more important than haggling over what "bite inhibition" is (and making no sense while doing it). Dog bites because he is a resource guarding? Unless it is very severe, it can be fixed. Dog bites because he was hiding under a table in his brand new home and somebody tried to drag him out? Human stupidity, not the dog's fault, and the dog would likely be a find pet in a home who is patient and lets the dog warm up on his own. Dog bites randomly without any provocation (or the provocation is way out of sync with the level of bite, i.e. trying to rip your arm off for patting it on the head)? THIS is a truly dangerous animal. I have known truly dangerous dogs, and they seem like perfectly nice dogs, until they aren't. Kinda like that Mary Mary Quite Contrary rhyme, when they are good they are very very good, but when they are bad, they're horrid! Sometimes they are dangerous because they were born wrong, sometimes they have a tumor, sometimes they have slowly gone crazy from being warehoused in a no-kill shelter that just wants to feel good about itself for not killing dogs.

And that example about the dog who bit because his back was broken, what a horrible example! I don't care how much "bite inhibition" of whoever's definition we're using, if my BACK IS BROKEN and somebody picks me up, damn straight I'm going to bite your ass! Are we trying to make dogs little robots who never bite anyone anytime for any reason no matter how much pain or fear or stress they are under? If somebody actually sues because they handled an imjured dog and got bit, they are just idiots and I'd hope they'd lose that case.


As a shelter worker, I find this conversation quite interesting. When assessing dogs we consider two different concepts when looking at dog bites: bite inhibition and bite threshold. "Bite threshold" refers to the situations in which a dog will bite (how far do they need to be pushed/stressed/frightened/in pain before a bite) whereas "bite inhibiton" refers to the force exhibited in a bite situation. I have noticed in some of the posts that these two ideas seem somewhat confused.

I think that Ian Dunbar's point is that he would be much more concerned about a dog with poor inhibition who bites infrequently than a dog who bites in a variety of situations but exhibits good control of his mouth and does not do severe damage. In my experience, you can address a dog's bite threshold through training (and decrease the likelihood of a bite incident) but have yet to find any protocols that address bite inhibition in dogs over 6 months or so. I would be certainly open to checking out anything out there..

When it comes to assessing and placing shelter dogs, I have found that there is usually no clear black and white, right or wrong. But the reality is that there are more dogs than there are adoptive homes and that most people are looking for a pet, not a training project. What I do know, is that you don't go into animal welfare as a career unless you care about animals and sheltering is a very difficult profession. Shelters are faced with the difficult task of caring for and trying to successfully rehome the animals who have been given up or abandoned by their owners when they no longer fit into their lives for whatever reason. We are at the mercy of potential adopters- what behaviors will the typical family be willing/able to safely take on- and a host of liabilities and blame if we "get it wrong". It is easy to judge and insult those who are "killing" the wrong shelter animals, but please know that there are many of us who do the best we can to save as many as as we can, and also to provide as much comfort and dignity as possible to those we cannot.

The more that we can all engage in thoughtful, nonjudgmental and open dialogue, even in situations where there is diagreement, the better off we will all be.



Thanks for the comments - well thought out and articulated. I agree that I think "bite threshold" and "bite inhibition" has been confused here -- and I agree with your definitions. I also agree that behaviorally challenged pets are one of the hardest to gauge in a shelter environment which is why I posed the question - -because yes, most people want a pet, not a project, and many shelters have few resources to deal with projects either. It's a tough challenge, and I do think good dialogue is important. Thanks for providing that.


Robyn, please be good enough to admit that while YOUR shelter may actually try to learn, understand, and work with dogs that have different 'styles' of biting, most shelters don't bother, just because it does require learning skills that many shelter workers don't find important. And, really, to say that people only go into shelter work because they care about animals is something that is easily proved wrong, over and over, all across the country. Just check out Memphis Animal Services, for one shining example.


The information cited in this interview breaks my heart. Two days ago, my normally kid friendly 2 year old dog suddenly attacked the 5 year old neighbor boy. I am confident that there was a provoking incident though despite being present the whole time, I didn't see what started it. We are outside with the kids and the dog every day. He was a big dog and it was a scary attack. Our dog did exercise bite inhibition - the boy received bruising on his cheek and shoulder but no puncture wounds - but it seemed to me that this attack crossed a line that there was no going back from and we sadly had him euthanized. He was a great dog but imperfect. We did a lot of obedience training with him but still had a lot of trouble with resource guarding and some aggressive behaviors in his teenage months. We hired a behaviorist and eventually sent him to doggie boot camp as a last-ditch effort after he attacked me at 10 months of age. Boot camp worked wonders and though it seemed we would always have to be extra cautious and vigilant with him he was overall finally the good dog we knew he could be. Although this attack seemed to occur out of the blue he did have a history of being "complicated" and a phone consult with his trainer reinforced that euthanasia was the most responsible option at this point. We have young children (still don't believe he would ever, ever have turned on them) and there are kids around in our neighborhood all the time. The trainer said that although we can try to control his situation all the time, there will be more kids and he could feel provoked again. I love this dog and have been so dedicated to him throughout his life but felt I had to choose child safety over my love of my dog.

But he did exercise good bite inhibition. Does this mean I shouldn't have euthanized him? :(


Rachel -- it's always really easy to second guess decisions like this -- but it does sound like you made what you felt was the best decision for the dog and the people around him based on advice from experts around you and tried your best to fix some of his challenges before they became obvious problems. Sometimes it's the best we can do and there are no "right" answers...

Daniel Thomas

Do we really have to ask this question when being bitten: "When it reacts, does it cause damage?" When we are bitten, we should go directly to the most authorized person to see the wound.


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