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Dogs Who Bite

By Christine Newman, DVM l October 19, 2021


This month I have a request to address dogs who bite. On the surface this may seem like a simple question but the reality is there is no one size fits all advice for understanding or preventing dog bites.


One of my favorite textbooks is Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals by veterinary behavioral specialist Dr. Karen Overall.

In her chapter on canine aggression she lists 13 categories of canine aggression including territorial, dominance, and food related aggression. In my experience, our canine patients who have been referred for a behavioral consultation often receive multiple diagnosis as the basis for their aggressive behavior. It is common for many factors to be involved in biting incidents, although pet parents frequently tell me that a bite was unprovoked. I think I can safely say that, in the dog’s mind, the bite is always provoked; it is our inherent inability to understand dog communication that leads us to believe we did nothing to provoke an aggressive incident.

Christine Newman, DVM, Harlingen Veterinary Clinic in Belle Mead

Current behavioral theory posits that all forms of canine aggression have their basis in an underlying anxiety disorder, which leads to uncertainty about the dog’s relative role in the social environment or what will happen in a given situation. It is beyond the scope of this column to be able to fully address aggressive dogs so I think it best to bullet point some helpful information.


►Aggressive dogs are not being spiteful or reacting to a perceived slight, which seems to be a commonly held theory. This is not the way dogs think. There is an underlying anxiety issue that needs to be unearthed. (Read Decoding Your Dog.)


► Take all incidents of aggression seriously. The earlier you, your veterinarian or trainer intervene, the better chance you will have at successful treatment.


► Don’t physically punish your dog – this may make several forms of aggression worse and may lead to injury.


► Don’t stare at an aggressive dog – this is seen as a challenge and may result in a biting incident. When we have a potentially aggressive dog in our exam room, we consciously avoid making any eye contact.


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► Teach your children about dog communication. This is especially important as children are the victims in 50 percent of dog-bite incidents. An informative resource for teaching kids dog language may be found at doggonesafe.com.


► Before purchasing or adopting a dog, please do your research on what breed is appropriate for your family as novice pet owners or for those more experienced with pets.


While many behavioral issues may be addressed by a qualified trainer, most aggression issues are best treated by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. We are fortunate to have several in NJ and PA and your veterinarian is a valuable resource if you need a referral.

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