Dog bites can be scary and painful, and can cause major damage. No one in their right mind wants to be bitten! But as a canine behavior specialist who also observes human behavior, I’ve seen people who, unfortunately, seem to be in pursuit of that goal. And so, if you’re in the market for sporting some impressive teeth marks, allow me to share with you a few strategies that might well result in a bite.
Dog Bites: ‘When a dog growls at you, keep right on doing what you’re doing.’
A growl is a dog’s early warning system. It broadcasts, Stay back. If you push me, violence may follow! I would much rather be around a dog who growls to share his feelings of discomfort than one who has been punished for growling. The latter are often the ones who bite without warning. At the moment a dog growls, the wisest course of action is to stop what you’re doing, whether advancing toward or reaching toward the dog, trying to brush, clip nails, or whatever. Diffuse the situation until everyone is calmer. Then, if it’s your own dog, address the underlying issue with the help of a professional if needed.
Dog Bites: ‘Show dogs affection by kissing them on top of the head and giving a nice, tight hug!‘
DOGS PREFER JUST A LITTLE PETTING
Okay, before you say it, yes, you may be able to do those things with your own dog. Perhaps your dog even enjoys them. But there are many who will not appreciate either of those things, and may bite to convey their distress. Hugging signifies affection to humans, but to dogs, it’s a form of restraint. Ask any vet tech how much dogs love being restrained. It’s true that there are some dogs who are fine with being hugged, but many more simply tolerate it; and some won’t. When being hugged, a dog may show subtle stress signals such as lip licking, turning away of the head and or gaze, or yawning. If those signals are not heeded, the dog may proceed to growling or even biting without warning.
As far as kissing a dog on top of the head, I have known of more than a few children and even some adults who have been bitten in the face for doing it. Dogs are naturally nervous about things descending from overhead. No doubt you’ve seen dogs who actually cringe when someone reaches to pet them with a palm down over the head. Approach dogs by petting the chest or other safe area first, and even better, let them approach you. As far as kissing, only put your face close enough to kiss a dog you know very, very well.
Dog Bites: ‘Take your dog’s food away regularly. After all, you’re the one in charge!‘
DON’T CREATE RESOURCE GUARDING
Creating a resource guarding issue really isn’t that difficult. Here’s an example that involves my very favorite food; pizza. Imagine that I’m enjoying my personal slice of cheese heaven. You approach and take it from me. Hmm. I’m not very happy about that! You proceed to do this often when I have a slice of pizza in my possession. Very quickly, I learn that you approaching me means I am going to lose the thing that is so valuable to me. So, the next time I saw you coming, I might say, “Hands off the cheese, please!” If you kept moving toward me, I’d say it again in a stronger tone. If you still didn’t back off, things might get ugly! You get the point. Getting back to your dog, giving him a super tasty bone or other chew item and then trying to prove you’re in charge by taking it away is a great way to create a resource guarding issue where there might never have been one. And going back to point one, continuing to push it when he warns you is also a great way to get bitten.
Dog Bites: ‘Teach your dog that you’re the boss by rolling them on their back or giving them harsh physical corrections.‘
Ooh. This one really gets my hackles up! Yes, you’re most likely bigger and stronger than your dog. That doesn’t give you the right to treat them roughly. Violence begets violence, and if you’re doling out harsh physical corrections or trying to “dominate” your dog in a way that frightens them, you really can’t blame them for using the tools at their disposal—their teeth—to defend themselves. And why use force anyway? Love, respect, and cooperation foster trust and get much better results. Trainers of exotic animals work with huge, strong animals who could injure or even kill a human. Have you ever seen someone jerk a dolphin around on a choke chain, or try to wrestle a bear into submission? I didn’t think so. Again, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I’ve worked with bad dog temperaments for many years and all my body parts are still intact. I certainly wasn’t trying to show them who was boss. It was a matter of cooperation, not coercion. Treat your dog with respect and they’ll do the same.
How to train with positive reinforcement when your dog won’t take treats (or can’t have them due to a restricted diet).
Many dogs will “work” for ordinary kibble or cookie-style treats at home. But need a higher-value treat in order to focus on you and your cues when in the face of a more distracting (or more stressful) environment. And some dogs get too stressed in public to take any treats, no matter how meaty and delicious. Finding a non-food reinforce is critical for training these dogs.
I use treats when I train. So do my clients. Now positive reinforcement training has a 25-year-plus track record in the dog world (supported by studies that affirm its effectiveness). The use of treats in training has become widely accepted and embraced.
There are times, however, when you can’t use treats. Perhaps your dog isn’t particularly motivated by food. Maybe there’s a medical reason your dog can’t have food right now. Or perhaps (horrors!) you ran out of treats.
The good news is that food isn’t the only form of reinforcement we can use in training. There are a number of others ways you can reinforce your dog’s behavior.
NOT FOOD MOTIVATED? Try Positive Reinforcement
The fact is, all dogs must be food motivated, at least to some degree, or they truly will starve. We all have to eat to live.
But it’s true. Some dogs are more interested in food than others. Labrador Retrievers are notorious for being “food hounds”. In fact, a recent study found this breed is more likely to have a very strong interest in food because they have a specific gene mutation associated with food obsession. (Flat-coated Retrievers have it too, but it has not been found in any other breeds.)
Still, all dogs must eat, so the first questions we need to ask are:
Why is my dog not more interested in training treats?
Are there things I can do to increase my dog’s interest in training treats?
If I can’t get him to be more interested in treats? He can’t have treats right now for some reason. Inexplicably, I ran out! Are there other reinforcers I can use in my training program?
There are several reasons why your dog might not appear to be motivated by food during training:
We always want to consider and rule out or treat any possible medical causes for or contributors to a behavioral challenge, including anorexia. If your dog truly has little to no interest in food (if you have not already), please discuss this with your veterinarian as soon as possible.
There is a long list of possible medical reasons why your dog may not be interested in food. Some of them are very serious.
Treats are low in value to your dog.
Perhaps you’ve heard the suggestion to use your dog’s regular kibble for training. This could well work for a Lab and for other very food-focused dogs. But for dogs who aren’t as interested in food, kibble just might be too boring.
Easily bored with your high-value treat.
Some dogs get bored with (or just too full to be very interested in) a great number of the same delicious treat. Be prepared with a list of treats your dog considers high-value. When their interest in one starts to wane, switch to another.
Most dogs love chicken (baked, boiled, or thawed-out frozen chicken strips), and yet we often see dogs tire of it at our academies. They are plied with training treats throughout the day.
Other treats dogs tend to love include roast beef, cheese, cooked hamburger, meatballs, peanut butter squirted from a tube, ham, baby food – the list is endless.
If your dog is less than enthusiastic about food, the longer your list of potential high-value treats needs to be.
Your dog is easily distracted, or the environment holds too many or too highly disturbing distractions.
If your dog is on the mild-to-moderate end of the food-interest continuum, environmental distractions can serve to deflect their desire for treats. Especially if they are easily distractible, and/or if you haven’t done your homework to generalize her behaviors to a variety of different locations.
If this is the case with your dog, try higher-value treats. Do more training in a less distracting environment before generalizing to more distractions. (Your backyard might seem perfect – but not when there are squirrels racing around the trees, or the neighbor’s dogs are barking at you through the fence.)
Your dog is not hungry.
This is a concept totally foreign to your average Labrador. A lot of dogs who are not as crazy about food as the Lab will be less enthusiastic about working for treats if they just finished a meal.
This is an easy fix. Schedule your training sessions before mealtimes, not after, and don’t feed your dog just before training class.
Your dog is stressed.
This is one of the most commonly overlooked reasons for dogs to turn up their noses at their training treats. It is biologically appropriate, for survival reasons, for their appetite to shut down when your dog is stressed. When the brain signals “danger,” the last thing an organism should do – if they want to survive – is stop for a bite of food. The part of the brain that controls appetite turns off until the danger is over.
Reluctant to Take Treat
If your dog is reluctant to take treats because they are stressed, you may be able to tempt them with higher-value treats. The best solution is to figure out how to make the stress go away – or at least decrease enough so they can happily eat again. (If they can normally take a treat gently, but in a stressful situation goes from not taking the treats to blindly grabbing at the food, sometimes getting your fingers in the process. Their stress level is still too high for effective learning. Move farther from the stressor.)
Sometimes a dog will learn to take treats in the face of their stressor just through habituation (they just get used to it). Although a concerted effort at counter-conditioning and desensitizing her to the stressor tends to be more effective and faster.
In some cases, if the dog’s stress levels are persistent, behavior modification drugs are in order. This calls for another discussion with your vet. If your veterinarian is not behaviorally knowledgeable, she can schedule a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist for assistance in determining what medication(s) might be appropriate for your dog. Your vet can find a list of Certified Veterinary Behaviorists at dacvb.org/search.
One of the great things about using food as a reinforcement in training is that the dog can eat the treat quickly and immediately go on to the next behavior. But anything your dog perceives as “good stuff” can theoretically be used as a reinforcer.
Play, for example, is an excellent, very strong “other” reinforcer for many (but not all) dogs. Keep in mind, however, that other reinforcers can take more time to deliver and regroup from. Thereby are more likely to interrupt the flow of training.
Now that the use of food in training has become so widespread, it’s easy to forget that there are a multitude of other ways of reinforcement your dog’s behavior.
The definition of a reinforcement is “something that causes a behavior to increase“. In positive reinforcement training we teach our dogs that certain behaviors make “good things” (reinforcers) happen. So our dogs learn to offer those behaviors in order to make good stuff happen.
It is what we call a primary reinforcer, meaning it has innate value to the dog. Dogs don’t have to learn to like food; they are born looking for their mother’s milk.
Verbal Praise Reinforcement
A scratch under the chin feels good – it has innate value – so that’s another primary reinforcer.
Verbal praise is a secondary reinforcer. It takes on value through its association with a primary reinforcer such as food treats, excitement, and scratches under the chin.
Toys as Reinforcement
Toys are also secondary reinforcers; they take on value through their association with the predatory chase response. (Doubt this? Have you never met a dog who was initially mystified and uninterested in toys? But learned to play with them over time?)
HOW TO USE A NON-FOOD REINFORCER
If you want to (or have to) make use of reinforcers other than food in your training, try this. Start by making a list of all the other things your dog loves. Here are some potential non-food reinforcers:
Tennis balls, or balls with a pleasing squishy texture
Playing “chase me” games
Going for a ride in the car (a chief pleasure for some dogs, aversive for others; know your dog!)
Swimming (again, it’s important to know your dog; some hate water!)
Sniffing Performing a favorite trick for an appreciative audience
For each item on this list, write down how you might be able to use that as a reinforcer in your training program. Some are easier than others. Here are some examples:
Use sniffing to reinforce your dog’s polite leash walking.
Have your dog walk politely with you for a reasonable stretch (short enough that they can succeed!). Then give them a release cue and say, “Go sniff!”. (This works especially well at first if you give them the “Go sniff” cue when you know you are near something that they would like to sniff.)
Use tug to reinforce your dog’s “Stay.”
Have your dog stay for whatever length of time they are able (set them up to succeed!). Return to your dog, mark them for staying, give your release cue, then invite them to tug.
Remember to pause various lengths of time before your release cue, so they don’t start anticipating the release. You can even remind them to stay. Hold up the tug, put it behind your back and hold it up again, several times, so the mere sight of the tug toy doesn’t become the cue to release from the stay. This, by the way, is a great impulse-control exercise.
Use a squeaky toy to lure and reinforce sits and downs.
To lure a sit, hold the toy over your dog’s head the way you would a treat. When they sit, squeak and toss the toy.
To lure a down, slowly move the toy toward the ground and, when she lies down, squeak and toss. If that doesn’t work, move the toy under your knee or a stool, so they lay down to crawl after the toy. When she does, squeak and toss.
Use a tennis ball to reinforce your dog’s recall.
They come when you call, you mark them for coming, and then throw the ball for them to chase. If they are one of those who won’t bring it back, have several balls within reach so you can call them back and toss the next ball when they come. If you want them to sit in front of you as part of your recall, wait for them to sit before you mark and throw.
Your Dog’s Reinforcers
Now take your own list of reinforcers and write down scenarios that incorporate them into your training program. You will likely find some reinforcers that are impractical for training (say, the dog who loves to roll in deer poop). But you should end up with a treasure trove of possibilities!
Your Dog’s Secondary Reinforcers
There are secondary reinforcers that you would like to use that your dog isn’t already enthusiastic about? You can “charge” them by associating with something your dog already loves.
Want your dog to be happier about your verbal praise? Repeatedly praise them and then throw them beloved ball. They will begin to associate praise with the joy of chasing a squeaky ball.
When they are not crazy about car rides, start taking short car rides that always end up at someplace wonderful (such as the swimming hole, if they love swimming).
You get the idea. Whether your dog won’t take or can’t have treats, if you look for and create a good long list of other high-value options, you will always be prepared to reinforce your dog. They will love you even more for that.