Do Dogs Bite Out of the Blue?

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I prepared this slide for my Dogs and Babies – Play It Safe! class as a way to illustrate one reason why dog bites to children might seem to happen “out of the blue.”

Before thinking more closely about it, we tend to think that “Good Dogs” live on the left side of the continuum and “Bad Dogs” live to the right.  That’s because good dogs don’t bite children, do they?  Once you determine that you have a “Good Dog,” you tend to leave it at that and just go about your life with dog and baby.

What we forget to consider is that just like us, dogs have good days and bad days.  On any given day, at any given time, your dog is somewhere along that continuum.  Have you ever had one of those days?  You know…bad day at work, skipped lunch, lots of traffic, big headache?  You come home and even something minor goes wrong and isn’t it possible that you may “snap” at someone you love?

It’s the same with dogs.  Even over the course of a single day, your dog may go from feeling relaxed and easy-going to tense and cranky — just like you.  Living with babies and small children can make for a grueling day.  That 4:30-6:30 time that used to be known as Happy Hour?  It’s often the LEAST happy time with tired parents, babies crying, kids squabbling and a parent trying to make dinner.  Everyone is a bit on edge and that includes the family dog.

The trick to preventing bites is to really look at your dog.  What does he or she look like when relaxed and happy?  What changes when your dog is getting a little worried or overwhelmed?  Where is your dog right now on that body language continuum?  Take mental snapshots throughout the day and place your dog along that line.  Learn the body language changes that signal moves in one direction or another.  (See “Look, Ma!  My Body Is Talking to You!“)

From For the Love of a Dog, by Patricia McConnell, PhD:

I don’t know how many times broken-hearted clients have told me that Barney had been doing so well; he’d handled the noise and chaos of the family picnic all day long, but just when everyone was about to leave, he fell apart and snapped, or nipped, or bit…If people could just see the signs of exhaustion or worry on their dogs’ faces, there’d be a lot fewer bites in the world, a lot fewer tears, and a lot more dogs living to old age.

At every moment of the day, your dog is giving you a status update.  You just need to look and your dog will tell you.  (See post to follow on steps you can take to move your dog more to the relaxed side of the line.)

Snaps and bites seem to surprise parents because parents consider that vast in-between area of increasing discomfort as “Fine” because the dog is not overtly growling or running away, leading to conclusions such as, “The dog was fine and then he bit the baby.”  Really, unless the dog clearly looks relaxed and happy, he is not “fine.”   This doesn’t mean your dog is going to bite your child right then or ever, but it does mean that your dog needs some help to better manage in that situation.  Otherwise, he’s just going to follow down the path of becoming more and more uncomfortable as his body language requests for help go unheeded.

How far down the path does your dog have to go before he “falls off the cliff” and responds in a way that makes sense for a dog but changes everything for your family?    You have to know where your dog is and you have to know what causes your dog to move down the path.  For example, when your child crawls by, how does your dog’s body language change?  Are there times of day when your dog is more anxious?  Activities that may put your dog on edge (like kids running through the house shooting darts at each other)?

Your dog needs extra help at these times.  Your dog’s body language progression is his or her way of telling you, “I can’t handle this and I don’t know what to do to make it better.”  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a family to make accommodations for the dog.  There have been many times I’ve said, “Our dog is getting worried.  You must walk slowly in the house and speak quietly or take your game outside.”

I know I’m a little hyper-vigilant because of my work with dogs and babies (and the career-limiting issue it would be if my own dog bit my children!), but, really, wouldn’t you like to know where your dog is, too?

Rarely should it ever be a surprise when a dog bites a child.  But, of course, that’s why the bites are happening in the first place, right?  Because parents didn’t notice the early warning signs that would have prompted them to move the child or change the situation .  Once you know how to look, you’ll spot them every time and you will have the power to intervene long before anything happens.

P.S.  Remember to look at other people’s dogs, too.  Don’t rely on someone telling you their dog is “fine with children” — because now you know that “fine” is never good enough.

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