Dog in an aggressive stance

Q. Our new adult dog is great with us, but he has snapped at and bitten a couple of other people with zero warning. We just found out we're pregnant. What should we do?

A. A dog who has broken skin is of far greater concern than a dog who snaps or growls. Snapping and growling are typically warning signs from a dog who doesn’t really want to bite but is reaching the limit of his tolerance for a situation, whether he’s in pain, frightened or protecting his turf. Few dogs truly show “zero warning” in advance of a bite; usually the dog is sending lots of signals that people aren't recognizing.

Though you do have the option of returning the dog to the shelter or rescue group, it sounds as if you like the dog and would be willing to give him a chance. If you return the dog, though, you must be honest about why. People often feel guilty about returning a dog who has bitten, especially if the dog seems “nice” most of the time. It may seem you’d be giving the dog a better chance at adoption by not being open about the problem, but by keeping quiet about these bites you may be responsible for someone being severely bitten by this dog when he’s adopted again.

If you decide to keep him, ignore any advice to be dominant over the dog or to “show him who’s boss.” If you try those tactics, you're likely to end up being bitten. And don't fall for anything that promises to be an easy fix. No one can guarantee a dog will never bite, especially one who has already bitten. But it’s very possible to minimize future risk by teaching your dog a different way to react to the triggers that provoke a bite and by managing his exposure to those triggers. 

Start by taking your dog to your veterinarian. You’ll need your veterinarian’s help to rule out possible physical problems, typically conditions such as severe, chronic ear infections or other health problems that leave a pet in constant pain. Once your veterinarian has cleared your dog of physical issues or treated him for anything wrong, ask for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist (a veterinarian with additional specialized training in behavior) who can help you understand why your dog is snapping and biting and provide you with a plan to change the behavior in a way that’s safe for you, your dog, other people and your new child.

If there isn't a veterinary behaviorist in your area, or if you aren’t close enough to a school or college of veterinary medicine to get help there, ask your own veterinarian instead to refer you to a trainer with experience in helping dogs and their owners work through biting. And regardless of the progress your dog makes with a trainer, keep in mind that children should never be left unattended with any pet.