Why do dogs bite?

Yesterday, we took our foster dog, Mia, to a meet and greet with a potential new family (fingers crossed Mia gets a real home soon!). The family included two little boys - both early primary school age - and their reaction to gentle, kid friendly, Mia was really interesting. They were both keen to pat her, but inclined to jump away or jerk hands away if she turned her head towards them.


Mia's behaviour was perfect - she didn't have wide eyes, laid back ears, or hackles up. Her mouth was open in a relaxed, happy grin. She stood and sat and lay quietly on leash while we chatted about fences, exercise and separation anxiety. Compared to the family's previous dog, a Mallie, she was smaller, looking up to the children, rather than towering over them.

None of the adults present warned the children about the dog (that I heard). Mostly, the boys were left to wander around the group without micromanagement, approaching Mia on their own terms. When I saw one of the boys trying to reach over Mia to pat her head, jerking away each time her nose came up to investigate his hand, I showed him how to offer her a sniff of the back of his hand first. His mum commented that they'd been taught to do it this way in school, although she thought the younger boy might not have reached that stage yet.

So, as far as I could see, there was no reason for these boys to be nervous about approaching Mia. No one warned them off, no one used loaded terms like "brave", and there were no cues from the dog to suggest any risk. So, why were these boys worried? 

Ive come across this attitude in adults too, with the occasional query "but they won't bite me, will they?" It's a slightly offensive question, demonstrating a lack of trust that must come from some deep seated fear of dogs. I have to stifle my shock and annoyance and reply calmly - "no, of course not" instead of "Why the effing hell would they?" I have to remind myself that it's not meant to be a reflection on our dogs, it's not a suggestion that we've failed to raise our dogs well, it's baggage that person brings from their own history. 

I guess in some cases, that baggage includes being bitten by a dog, but in general it seems more likely to come from a lack of exposure to dogs, and to be most common in people who grew up in cat only households. I have a certain wariness about cats, myself - reinforced by that internet meme about how they might ask to be patted, but they'll bite or scratch if you pat for a second longer than necessary.

Huskies, and other breeds with a wolf-like appearance, probably convey an image of more risk than many droopy eared breeds. But, dogs, more deeply domesticated than cats, and bred in the vast majority to be friendly and submissive to humans for hundreds of generations, will only bite under provocation. So let's set the record straight - why do dogs bite? 

1) Fear. 

Fear of being hurt has to be the biggest issue. An abused dog, a dog that's been backed into a corner, a dog that's had its ears pulled once too often by a small child, a dog that's nervous about strangers, a dog with chronic pain, a dog that thinks another dog will bite it. 

2) Fear. 

A dog will also bite if it fears something will be removed or lost. The higher the value of an object (a tasty bone, a special toy, something it's been asked to guard) the greater the chance that a dog will bite if it feels the object may be removed. That's why its important to teach children to leave dogs alone when they are eating, and to hand over treats without teasing.

3) Fear.

Within a pack, a dog feels reassured and comforted by having a known place in the social hierarchy. In a human-dog mixed pack, the social hierarchy can be less clear or can be threatened by changes to the pack make up, causing anxiety and uncertainty in the dog. Small dogs especially are likely to be afraid of losing their position in the pack hierarchy when we try to lift them off laps, pick them up, or do something that challenges their pack leader. Ambulance officers approaching elderly dog owners know the protective instinct of small dogs too well. 

4) Prey drive.

Many dogs, including huskies, retain an instinct to bite down on potential prey, as part of an ancient hunting reflex. Different breeds express this differently - herding breeds snap at ankles to move sheep, retrievers pick up objects (hopefully gently), arctic breeds snap at fast moving small fluffies in the hope of a tasty rabbit. This kind of biting is often modified to cause minimal harm, and can be more easily addressed with training, since it is more predictable than other causes of biting.

So, what do we do about this?

There's been some good information circulating recently online about dog bites towards children. Check out this video from StopThe77.com The vast majority of bites occur when children are playing with the family dog, with their parents nearby. Supervision is not lowering the rate of dog bites. Instead, we need to understand why a dog would bite and make sure we recognize correctly the signs that a dog will bite, rather than panic about every dog we meet.