Working with people who then have to work with animals can be a tricky business. Even being a person who just works with animals can be a tricky business. When working with animals, we are working with a completely different species with its own way of thinking and operating and its own language. When working with pets and being surrounded by them all day you tend to forget that you are literally working with another species and it is in no way human. Unfortunately, that tends to make us forget when we want something that behaves either in a human way or in a robotic way. This is never clearer when I am working with people wanting a dog not to bite, nip, growl, or exhibit really any undesirable and sometimes scary behaviors.
I will be blatantly honest up front. I have never owned a dog that has bitten me before. As a dog trainer, I have not received bites that have broken skin before. I can only count 3 instances that may have counted as "bites", so being up front, I will list those out. Once was working as a vet tech on a tiny little chihuahua that was very difficult to restrain for the rabies shot it only came in for once a year. It had only one tooth left and it managed to break its head free and bit onto my arm. It didn't really hurt and didn't even leave a scratch, but teeth intentionally touching skin, whether it breaks or not, I count as a bite. The second time was from a heeler that jumped up to try to grab the credit card its owner handed me at the end of our session to pay for the lesson. Didn't break skin, but did leave two bruise marks on my arm and was more startling than anything since it was completely unexpected and the dog didn't have any overt signals before it happened and was completely normal directly afterward, leading me to believe it may not have been intentional and just the dog going after the card, but still going to add it to the list. And lastly, another heeler for a very serious behavior case. This one was after being there for two hours with me in another room and I needed to see after everything we discussed what the owner was talking about so when we brought the dog in, it immediately bit my shoes and was trying to tear them off. It didn't hurt and no skin was broken, shoes remained intact and no worse for wear, but it is worth adding to the list; this is the only bite I would consider to have real intention behind it and could have became dangerous very quickly. I am not listing these out as "battle-scars" or something to brag about. In fact, when I hear of other "trainers" bragging about how many bites they have gotten, all the scars from all the bites, all I can think is that they must not be very good at what they do if they are getting bit all the time. I am listing my instances out solely for the purpose of showing how little I actually have been "bit" and even then, I wouldn't consider any of those instances as serious because not one broke skin or resulted in any medical treatment. Some may not agree with me on what my standards of "serious" are, but to me, that is what would qualify as something extremely serious for me, as a trainer. I work with dogs in group classes, dogs off-leash in a doggy daycare environment, and in personal lessons with owners and dogs of varying behavior issues, including aggression and reactivity. For all the years I have been working with dogs of varying temperaments and behavior issues and the amount of dogs I have worked with, my overall percentage of "instances" is significantly low. I do not think this is by chance. And that is why I am writing this blog post. If we were to be 100% honest, all dogs bite, or have the propensity to bite.
I mentioned already, I have two dogs and neither of them have ever bitten before. I had someone stop and see me and my dog Tesla walking out in public and they asked to pet her. I said, "yes". Then they asked if she would bite them. I honestly was a little shocked to have been asked that. But after thinking about it, I responded that "she never has bitten anyone before. But she could". If I were to be 100% honest, I could never answer a question like that with a "no". Neither dogs have ever bitten anyone before and I have never had them in a situation where I felt my dogs would bite, but I could never in good conscience rule it out. I would hate to imagine the terrifying situation my dogs would have to be in to elicit a bite, but that potential is always there because dogs have teeth and that is their strongest defense mechanism if it comes down to it. There are certain things that make my dogs uncomfortable. I can tell you for Tesla, if we were to look at her fight/flight/freeze behaviors she may exhibit if she were to feel extremely uncomfortable and I can tell you without a doubt, I would bet money her first instinct would be flight and if she felt cornered, maybe a freeze. I have never seen an instance where she has exhibited fight behavior so it would honestly break my heart to see her in a predicament where she would feel the need to fight. Phoenix is much more confident and self-assured, so I don't see much that ever does make her uncomfortable. Based on an inkling from a few small instances where she may not have been 100% comfortable, I would say her inclination would also most definitely be flight, possibly a freeze, but I also can't even imagine an instance where she would have to feel the need to fight to defend herself. So overall, if someone were to ask me if my dogs bite, I wouldn't answer with a no; that possibility is always there, but the chance of them doing that is very slim.
Why do I have dogs that are less likely to bite? There are a number of factors that could go into it. A big one could be genetics. I intentionally chose the breeder I have gotten my dogs from, I had met them in person, picked out my puppy in person, and stayed in contact with them. That is not to say that a rescue dog is more likely to bite. What it does say is that I knew the history of the parents of my dogs better, so I could see if there were going to be issues. If either parent were aggressive, fearful, or timid, I probably wouldn't have gotten a puppy from that litter since those could potentially be passed on. A phrase that goes around is "it's all in how they are raised". It doesn't hold true in all instances. Just as mental illness can be passed down to children in human instances, so it can also happen with dogs. You can still know this and do your best to set the dog up to still be the best it can be, but sometimes, genetics can make it a tad more difficult. Again, I picked dogs out for specific reasons and I wanted to give myself the best chance just by knowing the history of my dog's parents. It's a personal choice and again, rescuing dogs by no means says you may get a "biter", it just means we don't know the genetic history so we can't count on that aspect of it.
Another thing that has worked favorably for me is that I did get my dogs at 8 weeks old and socialization for my dogs starts immediately the day they come home at 8 weeks. I do not wait until my dogs are fully vaccinated at 16-20 weeks because by that point, that socialization window has closed. I am smart about my socialization so my puppies can be as safe as possible, but I don't keep them at home and inside for the first 8 weeks I have them. Waiting to socialize is a mistake and if you have concerns over the safety of it, I would recommend looking up the AVSAB's statement on socialization on puppies. The link is here: https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf. I also think the type of socialization matters. I don't just count socialization as my puppy going to puppy class once a week and playing with other dogs. Socialization is my puppy learning how to experience the world I am going to have them in so that includes meeting different types of people, dogs, experiencing different sounds, environments, textures, and the puppy also learning how to handle themselves around these things. Quality is always better than quantity, but I try to make sure I have both when "socializing". Looking at the dogs I work with that have a bite history, the majority of them either never attended any puppy classes, didn't receive adequate socialization, or they may have only attended a simple regular puppy class and never did anything more with their puppy as it was going through adolescence. It doesn't really set the stage for an emotionally sound dog. A 6 week puppy class is not the end of the training with your puppy.
The last and final thing I think has prevented my dogs from being overt biters is how their environment is set up. They have always been trained using least intrusive and least aversive methods. They have never worn a shock collar, I have never used a prong or choke collar on them. They have both been clicker trained. We do LOTS of training together in various sports, manners and activities. I don't force my dogs to do anything; I teach them it is fun and beneficial to make the choices I want them to make. I don't have dogs that cower to be put in the crate because we made it a fun game using Susan Garrett's "Crate Games" DVD to teach that the crate is fun and a great place to get rewarded at. I haven't had a dog that dashes through the door and bites when I try to stop them because we did lots of training on door manners to where we don't have a door dashing problem to begin with. I don't have dogs that bite at me when I want them off the couch, because we did boundary training teaching the dogs where to be and when and how to come up when asked and get off when asked. I don't have dogs that bite when I do husbandry items like nail trims, brushing, trimming, etc because we do so much work of teaching the dogs they have a choice in what we do and if they make the choice I want, there is a big payout for it. I also make sure my dogs feel safe so they aren't put in a situation they might not be able to handle. I manage and if it seems like something they have an issue with, we train. Just in general, the fact that I do more training with my dogs I think helps because it further builds our relationship together and teaches them how to collaborate with me to achieve a goal and we train in ways that are fun and not aversive.
Again, I have a very solid foundation with my dogs that the potential for them to bite is slim. But again, they are animals and they have teeth, so that potential is always there whether I would want to fully admit it or not. Just because there is not bite history doesn't mean there is no potential in the future for there to be a bite history. But setting a solid foundation definitely sets the odds up in our favor.
In Part 2, I will discuss how working with so many different dogs I have managed to have such a small number of bites/nips I have received and what I have done on the human half to prevent myself from getting bit. In Part 3, I will talk about what you can do with your dog right now so you can work on preventing bites in your future.