How to Solve Dog Behavior Problems

Handling a Dog That Bites

Each year, anywhere from half a million to one million dog-bite injuries are reported. The most likely victims of dog bites are children under 12 years old (accounting for about 60 percent of the total), and the top five perpetrators are Chow Chows, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Cocker Spaniels, and Dalmatians. In the general dog population, unneutered male dogs are the most likely to bite. In other words, keeping an unneutered male Chow Chow in a home with a two-year-old, a five-year-old, and twin eight-year-olds will probably guarantee you'll take at least one bite-motivated trip to the emergency room. This doesn't mean you should never have bite-prone breeds or that you must wait until the kids are in high school before getting a dog. It does mean you need to have a better understanding of why and when dogs bite, and take steps with your dog and your family to bite-proof your household.

How to Avoid Dog Bites
If you're facing a dog who's exhibiting threatening behavior, how you respond (or don't respond) can make the difference between getting away safely and getting bitten. Any dog can bite, so don't assume that the dog you know who's growling and staring won't hurt you. Similarly, an unfamiliar dog who isn't showing threatening behavior should not be assumed to be friendly. Since children are at highest risk for dog bites, teach youngsters in the family these basic techniques--and practice them yourself.

The most important rule to remember is: Never approach any strange dog. If the dog approaches you, don't run. Stand perfectly still (tell young children to stand like a tree), with your fists folded underneath your chin and your elbows close to your body. Keep your legs together and look straight ahead, not at the dog. (Remember, staring is a threat gesture.) If the dog approaches you while you're on the ground, roll onto your stomach with your legs together, fists folded behind your neck, and forearms covering your ears (tell kids to act like a log). Remain still until the dog goes away.

In at least half of all reported dog-bite cases, the bites were provoked by the victim -- although often unintentionally. Dogs usually give clear signals they're ready to bite -- clear, at least, to other dogs and to people who know how to recognize them. The most common dog-bite scenario involves a person or young child who misses the dog's warning sign and gets within range. The other common cause of bites is miscommunication. Perhaps the best known example is the encounter between a child and a stray dog: Frightened by the sudden appearance of a large and unfamiliar pooch, the child instinctively screams and runs away. This triggers the dog's chase reflex or is misinterpreted as play behavior. Either way, the only way the dog has of catching the child is with his mouth.

Classic canine body language that signals a dog's readiness to bite includes staring, bared teeth, growling, stiff-legged stance (it almost looks like the dog is standing on the tips of his toes), raised hackles (the fur on his shoulders, back, and rump), and a wagging tail with a stiff, rapid movement. Usually, your final warning is a more intense stare and deeper growling. When the dog's head is lowered and the ears go back against his head, you can expect the next thing you hear to be the sound of his teeth snapping together on whatever of yours he can get ahold of. Of course, it doesn't have to come to that. A wise person will back off well before it gets to this point.

When to Call a Behaviorist

If the potentially threatening dog you encounter is your own, you may need professional help. Dogs may bite out of fear, defense, pain, or to protect territory -- all reasons too subtle for you to detect without knowing what to look for. A trained behaviorist can help you pin down the reason for your dog's biting as well as develop a strategy to change the behavior. This might be as simple as giving the dog more exercise; socializing with people and other dogs; or teaching all family members to leave the dog alone while he's eating, sleeping, or hiding. However, it may involve a more extensive overhaul of your relationship with your dog.

When dogs chase cars some owners might find cute or comical. However, it can be a dangerous problem. In the next section, we will help you break your dog of this bad habit.