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Before a bite occurs, most dogs will attempt to communicate their need for space. A dog will typically start with small cues, such as avoiding eye contact and turning his body away; if these cues are ignored, he will progress to bigger warnings like barks, growls, hard stares and snarls. Most dogs will attempt to avoid a bite or full-on fight, as aggression comes with a high risk of injury.
Certain circumstances may cause a dog to display more aggressive behaviors. Some canines will be friendly with familiar dogs but may become aggressive when encountering unfamiliar dogs on walks or at the dog park. For others, aggression may occur with familiar dogs. In this case, possession of a valuable resource, like a favored chew toy or food bowl, may contribute to defensive behavior, which can lead to aggression.
In very rare circumstances, a bite may be the result of predatory drift, when a dog instinctively reacts to another (often smaller) dog as prey.
If the situation is right, it is possible for any dog to feel threatened enough to resort to a bite. In many cases, the dog’s owner will describe the bite as coming “out of nowhere” —despite the fact that the dog was most likely communicating his discomfort before the bite occurred. For this reason, it is crucial for dog owners to learn to recognize the signs of fear and anxiety.
It is important for a dog who bites to be assessed by a professional, both to evaluate ongoing risk of another bite and to determine training options. Medical issues should be ruled out early, as dogs who are in pain or are otherwise not feeling well may display aggression. In cases in which the incident was behavioral in origin, dogs who display a variety of warning signals before progressing to a bite tend to respond better to behavioral interventions than those who escalate with less provocation and fewer warnings.
The severity of the bite also influences risk. For higher-risk situations, the best solution is often an ongoing combination of careful management — in other words, consistently avoiding situations that may aggravate aggressive tendencies — and training. These components will need to continue consistently throughout the dog’s lifetime in order to prevent another aggressive episode.
Training strategies are frequently used in combination with a behavior modification plan, such as training the dog to turn away or go to a mat when there is a conflict. Training may also be used to turn a dog’s fear and agitation around other dogs into a positive association with the same situation. In other words, training can teach a dog that good things happen when he’s with other canines, which may help alleviate aggression.
For some dogs, medications or supplements prescribed by a veterinarian may make behavior modification more successful. Talk to your veterinarian about this possibility before you begin training.
In some cases, management tools, like barrier gates in the home, head halters and basket muzzles may be used to minimize risk.
Sometimes, the risk of aggression is too high and the dog must be removed from the situation. Rehoming may be the only solution in these cases. In every situation involving a dog bite, though, professional guidance is needed to provide the best future for your dog and your family.
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