When dogs bite

2012-03-29 00:00

THE content of this article came about as the result of a man who recently received bite wounds to three fingers when separating fighting Jack Russells. One of the dogs felt the owner’s hands gripping her back legs and she responded instinctively by whipping around to address the perceived attack­.

In another incident an adult male Rottweiler lying under a dining-room table woke up suddenly as he felt his slightly intoxicated owner’s hand patting him on the head. In a split second the man heard a deep growl and felt his hand clamped in the massive jaws. Recoiling in fright he jerked back causing lacerations which required stitches to both sides of the hand.

In a similar situation an elderly woman walked into the bathroom where a cute Border collie x was resting under the wash basin. Reaching down to pet the collie she was met with a growl. Undeterred she tried to reassure the pet and instantly received a clamp bite. Recoiling in fright, she jerked her hand back resulting in injuries that required emergency medical treatment.

When a higher-ranking dog growls and places his jaws over the snout or another body part of a lower-ranking pack member, the intention is to communicate seniority. The lower-ranking dog or puppy instinctively produces appropriate submissive body language which in turn appeases the higher-ranking dog. Resultantly there are no injuries and the rank structure is reinforced.

Good social skills are an absolute necessity for canine packs to live in harmony. But to coexist peacefully with humans, the onus rests on us to behave as higher-ranking pack members. Strength, size, agility, wealth, job status and age are insignificant to the canine mind. A dog’s status in the pack is governed mostly by age and temperament. That is why an older Jack Russel can dominate a Great Dane since body mass or strength is insignificant.

In these scenarios all the dogs were brought into the home as puppies. They were given food, water, shelter and medical care. Unfortunately, these pets were not afforded the opportunity to acquire adequate social and environmental skills. But even with these shortcomings, it was still in the owners’ power to ensure functional pack behaviour. Regrettably, the biggest need of all, a well-maintained hierarchy where the humans are perceived as pack leaders, was neglected.

Our brains are not wired to recognise and respond instinctively to our pet’s attempts at dominance in the same manner as another dog or puppy would. Reacting physically to any dominant behaviour by a dog will mostly be seen as life-threatening. If we behave like puppies toward our pets and then expect to be treated as pack leaders, it will virtually always produce some sort of unwanted outcome.

In assisting new puppy owners to achieve satisfying relationships with their pets, I provide for adequate critical imprinting and environmental enrichment. But the most important aspect of an education process is to focus ahead to the time when pets reach adulthood. This can be quite a challenge with owners who are affected emotionally by their puppy’s cuteness.

It is difficult to see a clumsy, cuddly puppy as a fully grown dog which will one day be strong and quick enough to inflict injury on another animal or human, not to mention the destructive behaviour that pets are capable of resorting to.

Please contact me or your vet’s practice should you have any behavioural concerns.


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website www. dogtorsteve.co.za

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