If your dog has ever shown signs that he might bite a person, you have learned to live with fear. As with many things in life, context is key. A dog who attempts to bite after having been provoked is typically not, in essence, an aggressive dog who poses a serious risk to society. After all, a human will also respond defensively when it is warranted. But a dog who seemingly attempts to strike out of nowhere is far more concerning. How can an owner know if their dog is a risk to others and should be put down?
Why a dog might bite
Most of the time a dog bite doesn’t come out of the blue. Since dogs are expert communicators, a bite is most often precipitated by warning signals. Yet we humans often fail to catch the signs our dogs exhibit before it is too late, and disaster has ensued.
Dogs who are uncomfortable with a situation will often respond with milder behaviors intended to send the message that they would like to create distance between themselves and whatever is bothering them. These can range from yawning to rapid blinking and escalate to hard stares, turning of the head, and eventually airsnapping. Most dogs do not want things to be elevated to the point of a bite, and they will do everything in their power to avoid it. However, if persistent and frequent warning signs are ignored and a dog feels he has no other choice, he may bite.
Here is a list of some reasons why a dog might bite:
- Resource guarding
- Being startled/feeling threatened
- Illness or injury
- Overexcitement during play
- Treatable medical condition which causes unusual aggression
It is important to note that in most cases there is some sort of external stimuli the dog is responding to. It is exceptionally rare for a dog to bite for no reason, and typically when a dog does so, there are far more serious things going on beneath the surface with the dog in question.
Other factors to consider
Any dog in the wrong circumstance has the potential to bite. What becomes more concerning is a dog who repeatedly resorts to solving problems with his teeth. In addition to the number of bites, you must then consider the severity of each occurrence. Was it a small nip simply to put space between the dog and the person troubling him? Or was it a bite intended to cause serious bodily harm? Was it simply one bite to keep someone away, or was it a series of bites that could be considered an attack? All of these things must be taken into consideration.
Ending a life is no small matter. Though we don’t want our dogs to bite, we must take the time to ask ourselves if indeed the bite was precipitated by something that caused the dog to feel a bite was warranted. We shouldn’t punish a dog for being pushed to the point that he feels he must defend himself. That is not a failure on the part of the dog; that is a failure on the part of the owner. It is an owner’s responsibility to watch over and protect their dog at all times. A dog should never be placed in a situation where he feels that he must resort to extreme measures to feel safe.
A bite history should be recorded if it occurs more than once. It should be extremely detailed and must include all relevant observations. This is not to harm the dog, but rather, to help him. It is only through writing down these incidents that a pattern may occur. Through these observations, you may be able to pinpoint precisely what is triggering a bite, enabling you to get your dog the help that he needs.
How to decide
If you have owned a dog for many years and you’ve seen no signs of aggressive behavior, you can likely be assured that a one-off bite was just that. In an older dog, it may simply be a response to not wanting his body manipulated because he is in pain. If a dog bites because he has been handled roughly by a child or even an adult dog professional such as a groomer or trainer, something happened TO the dog that precipitated a bite. These are very important considerations and are situations that can be worked through, so that your dog feels supported and/or receives the required treatment to alleviate pain.
If your dog has bitten more than once, it may be wise to hire a professional dog trainer to come and assess the temperament of your dog. The trainer may be able to identify triggers and to help you develop a strategy for assisting your dog in finding more appropriate ways to deal with frustration and fear.
But the bottom line is a dog who has bitten will require constant monitoring and management, and because we are human; at some point, our management attempts will fail. We have to be honest with ourselves and objectively assess our dogs to determine just how much of a risk Fido may or may not be. After all, an aggressive dog has the potential to kill someone. When trying to decide whether or not a dog is a danger, we do have to examine the whys behind a bite, but we must also seriously consider whether or not our dog poses a real threat if our best efforts to manage his behavior are unsuccessful. In a dog who is truly aggressive, it only takes one time. One slipup…and tragedy could ensue. It is a very sobering thought.
We must also remember that dogs who regularly bite are dogs who are hurting. It is not normal for a dog to deal with regular stressors or relationships with other animals or humans by biting or attacking. There are some breeds who are more predisposed to dog on dog aggression, and proper socialization from the time the dog is a puppy is absolutely necessary to help to try to prevent this problem. But dog to human aggression is never acceptable. It has to be taken very seriously.
There are some steps you should take to assess your dog’s bite history. These include:
- A thorough veterinary examination which includes a urinalysis and bloodwork
If your dog has always been as gentle as a lamb and has suddenly turned into Jaws, it may be your dog is suffering from a thyroid condition. If so, it is entirely treatable. With the correct dosage of the correct medication, your dog’s shark-like ways can be eliminated entirely.It is also possible that your dog may be suffering from another medical condition or even an injury that is causing him to lash out with his teeth. Your vet can help you understand what is going on with your dog and what options you have to help him.
- An assessment by a professional dog trainer, preferably one who specializes in behavior modification therapy
A trainer’s assessment is vital to understanding the severity of what is going on with your dog. Because we live with our dogs, we often miss signs and signals they are giving off. A trainer can come in and give an objective opinion on what may be going on with Fido. They are trained in the subtle art of canine communication and will be able to ascertain what needs to be done to help your dog. They may also find themselves in the unenviable position of having to tell you that for the safety and well-being of your family and neighborhood that you need to make the decision to let Fido go.
- An honest evaluation of how much you can honestly manage and cope with
You need to really evaluate what you and your family are prepared to deal with because managing an aggressive dog is a full time job, and it will alter your life dramatically. Are you prepared to not go on vacation (or to take the dog with you) for the life of the dog? Finding dog care for an aggressive dog is well nigh to impossible. This may mean that you cannot take a family vacation until the dog passes away.Are you willing to deal with the consequences if your dog jumps a fence or slips out of an open door and injures or kills someone’s pet or even a child?These are hard questions, but you must ask them to help you make the best decision for your dog.
- An honest consideration of the quality of life for your dog
Knowing that your dog bites and also knowing that his world must become much smaller to protect him from himself and the harm he could inflict on others, is he truly happy? A dog whose first response is to fight not to flee is a dog in constant turmoil. This is not a dog who knows peace. As hard as it is, sometimes the kindest thing is to let a dog in that much emotional pain go.
Making the decision to end a dog’s life is never an easy thing, and it should never be undertaken lightly. The bottom line is no one can make the decision for you. But bear this in mind; if your dog should ever seriously harm or kill an animal or a child, the decision may be taken from you, and you may not even have the opportunity for the kindness of being able to hold your dog in your arms as you say that final goodbye.
In the end, only you will know what is best for your dog. If your dog truly does pose a threat to society, you need to weigh this very seriously in making your decision. If you have the resources and skill to manage an aggressive dog without room for error, this may be an option for you, bearing in mind how easily an accident can happen.
Rarely is a one-off bite reason to euthanize a dog. It is for this reason that careful and objective assessments must be made, and protection put in place to keep the situation from ever occurring again.
There are no easy answers, unfortunately. What it comes down to is fairly weighing all of the pertinent factors and information and making the most responsible and loving choice, whatever that may be.