My dog bit someone! What do I do now?
Over the course of my animal communication career, one of the most rewarding facets of my work has been transforming dogs who have bitten someone. If your dog has done this, your emotions around it are likely running quite high. The feelings can include guilt (why couldn’t I have prevented it?), bewilderment (he’s never done anything like this before!) or hopelessness (I haven’t a clue how to fix this — what if they have to be put down?) These are just a few of the many thoughts and emotions that might have gone through your mind after a biting incident. Its a very stressful burden to bear.
Firstly, I want to say that I have been personally affected by biting dogs, and I take this topic very seriously. I had a family member who was attacked as a child by a pack of neighborhood dogs, and it left him emotionally scarred. I have also been the recipient of a nasty, unprovoked bite from a large dog who sunk his teeth into me from behind. A former boyfriend also had his bare leg attacked and bitten at an intersection while merely waiting to cross the street.
Despite these personal examples, I don’t believe that aggressive dogs are actually aggressive. In my opinion (and experience), they are most likely anxious, scared, and potentially suffering from some previous emotional trauma too. Even dogs who are bred to be aggressive are not inherently bad or absolutely destined to bite — dogs personalities are in large part affected by their life experiences — good AND bad. Unfortunately, in some cases, those life experiences have been very destructive to their psyches. I have also noticed that this kind of behavior can be more pronounced with intelligent, high-energy breeds — they have a lot of strong feelings which are magnified when they don't have a proper outlet for expressing their "angst."
The first half of my job in working with clients who have “biter dogs” is to figure out what the dog’s emotional makeup is. Then I'm able to come up with the second half: a plan to heal the dog's issues and transform their behaviors. Though most people’s first instinct is usually to turn to a trainer, it’s unfortunately a bandaid solution — and it's often an expensive one at that. It usually isn't very effective with these types of dogs anyway, because trainers are attempting to treat hidden psychological problems with strictly behavioral techniques.
My approach is much more therapeutic, reconstructive, and effective. With the specific techniques I’ve developed over my years (and successes) with biter dogs, I've been able to heal their issues. It is only logical that we need to complete this task firt before any training corrections have a chance of actually taking hold.
A high rate of success helping biting dogs
My success rate in helping dogs to stop biting is very high — probably around 98%. While I can never promise my clients a particular outcome (no matter what topic we're working on), this is an area where I am particularly proud of my track record.
Success rate aside, what has made it so rewarding is the fact that in addition to transforming their behaviors, the dogs also just end up being much happier. As you can imagine, it doesn’t feel good to be on edge on a daily basis, and to become social and family pariahs. It’s not a nice way to live — for the dog OR their human companions. Frequently, the dogs become housebound because they just can't be trusted to behave out in society and their humans are legally responsible for any trouble they get into. Sometimes vets suggest heavy sedation for the entirety of the dog’s life, and that’s no way to exist either.
Many areas (particularly urban ones) have very strict laws regarding biting dogs, and there is not a lot of leeway for a repeat offender. It’s for this reason that I believe many of these instances probably go unreported. The bitten person might be very upset, but at the same time, they don’t want the guilt that comes with being the reason a dog has to be put down.
A brief side-note regarding shock collars
I’m personally not in favor of these types of collars, even when they're labeled as "vibrating." I don’t believe in causing pain or discomfort, or startling an animal because of an underlying psychological issue. I think what shock collars (and the ones with the big spiky points) do is send a message to the dog “you are BAD, and every time you have this impulse, you’re going to be punished and made to feel uncomfortable." Would you do this to a child? Can you recognize it would damage them psychologically?
While I can understand why some people think these types of collars are a viable solution, (especially if they feel they have run out of other ideas) I believe it creates additional emotional damage, compounding the problems that already exist in the dog's makeup. It just doesn't make sense to me to treat something negative with even more negativity.
Biting dogs: common red flags to watch out for
The following list includes a variety of issues I've dealt with in my practice. If your dog is already a biter — or is becoming much more “mouthy” and you are getting increasingly worried — the following are some factors to consider.
Top reasons your aggressive dog needs help; Is your dog:
nippy and excitable ever since puppy-hood, but has never calmed down?
a previously well-behaved dog but has somehow changed — has something shifted in their personality and behaviors?
a rescue, perhaps with a known history of abuse and/or repeated returns? (Or he/she has an history unknown to you?)
a “Covid” dog — adopted during the pandemic?
prone to “resource guarding”?
a high-energy breed, possibly needing more exercise than they are getting?
resistant to any corrections or training you give?
needing to be left at home for the safety of others?
not to be trusted at a dog park?
needing to be muzzled in private or public?
exhibiting signs of anxiety in general?
intended to be a watchdog but now it has gone overboard?
scaring neighbors and delivery people?
exhibiting a reactive, hair-trigger personality unlike any dog you’ve known before?
generally just moody and/or unpredictable?
mistrustful of everyone, not just strangers?
exhibiting aggressive behaviors towards you, your family, or other animals in the house?
Success stories: how I've transformed biting dogs into good dogs
Here are just three of the cases I’ve worked on, illustrating how varied the circumstances, causations and approaches can be:
Case 1 — "Family Juggling": Rocky, a biting Aussie Shepard rescue, had sent two different family members to the hospital for stitches. My client’s husband was particularly fed up and declared that if the situation wasn't rectified — and soon — he would definitely have the dog put down. That thought filled his wife, my client, with dread.
Rocky was a nervous, largely untrained dog, who had been returned to the shelter several times prior to his current adoption. He was scarred by his shelter experience, didn’t appear to understand where or how he fit in to his new “pack,” and seemed in the dark about what was expected of him too. The family included teens and kids in their early 20’s; people were constantly coming and going, and it was a busy, lively house focused around energetic young people and their friends,
Rocky originally belonged to one of the daughters; she spontaneously adopted him at college and brought him to live with her in her dormitory(!) until she realized it was no place for a large, high-energy dog. Her classes, homework and social life were becoming increasingly busy and absorbing. Needless to say, Rocky was very unhappy with his living situation. She hated to say goodbye to him, so like a lot of young people might do, she asked her parents to solve the crisis for her by taking him in.
At their stage of life, they hadn’t planned on or even wanted the responsibility of a dog of any age, let alone one who could have 10 or 12+ years ahead of him. Feeling pressure (and not realizing how difficult Rocky would turn out to be), they agreed to let him live with them.
I worked with Rocky's traumas and also with the family to help them become more sensitive to his different issues, including his startle reflex. The kids had to learn they needed to let him wake up slowly and on his own terms and timeline — they had been excitedly pouncing on him for snuggles every time they came home from school. In his groggy state, Rocky had thought he was being attacked and smothered, and this was what made him protect himself with the two biting incidents.
It was also clear that someone needed to step forward to become a daily “point person” responsible for working closely with Rocky. My client was the logical and willing choice within the family to provide the loving direction and consistency to carry out the plan we would devise.
Immediately after the first session, she was surprised that Rocky was already starting to become less anxious; for the first time ever, he reached out to her in a trusting, sweet and vulnerable gesture that made her realize he could be (and wanted to be) a good dog. Upon concluding our work together, he became a fine member of the family and even started to bond with the previously-alienated husband on some fun outdoor adventures.
Case 2 — "Lifestyle Changes": Loki, a small mixed breed, had lived with my young clients his whole life. He had always been extremely needy for attention from his “Mom” and was getting old and even more set in his ways. He was habituated to being the center of her world, but when a boyfriend suddenly came into the picture, he became jealous and would growl and try to bite him. Eventually, the boyfriend turned into a fiancee, but even after a couple of years together, he and Loki hadn't been able to create any kind of bond, and the man always had to keep himself at a healthy distance.
The couple then found themselves pregnant, and during their baby shower, Loki suddenly lashed out and bit a guest. Of course it ruined the shower and my clients were horrified, embarrassed, feeling guilty, and unsure of what to do. I was also made aware that Loki had bitten my client's mother in the past and she was very wary of him every time she visited because he would consistently lash out at her. She particularly wanted to visit her new grandchild and help out after the birth but the idea of staying with them filled her with dread. Everyone was on edge.
A few months later, their now infant daughter was crawling on the floor under a table where Loki was hanging out, and he bit her on her face. They all thought they’d have to find him another home, but with his age, personality and general history, they were pretty sure he’d be un-adoptable. Protecting the child was their highest priority; it was then that the mom hired me to help them solve this problem. In working with them, I discovered that in addition to his general neediness and crabbiness, Loki had previously been on prescription medication, but they had stopped giving it to him soon after, thinking it wasn't making any difference. I knew that it needed patience and a longer time period to achieve the desired therapeutic effect. I encouraged them to follow their vet’s original recommendation and get him back on this particular medicine, as I believed it would factor into the overall "recipe" of things that would help him. I also worked with Loki’s strong emotions.
A few weeks later, I was so pleased to receive the photo below; "Grandma" had captioned it “A very well-behaved client of yours!”
Case 3 — "Everyone Is Terrified": Louis was a purebred French bulldog, who bit yet another client's grandchild when the toddler innocently reached out to touch him. The family was totally shocked because he had always been a really well-behaved dog, even around the young child. They just couldn’t understand where this aggressive streak was coming from.
In speaking with my client, I discovered that Louis was with her one day at the cannabis dispensary where she worked. Dispensaries are cash-only businesses, so there's always a lot of money on hand. That day, a team of robbers stormed the store and held everyone at gunpoint. Then the thieves — recognizing that Louis was quite valuable— kidnapped him. He was later found and returned, but as you can imagine, it was still a horrific experience.
In talking with both my client and Louis, I recognized that this was at the root of his dramatic shift in personality. My client had received help for her PTSD and had done her best to put the awful experience behind her, but months had gone by with Louis not having that same opportunity — he was still absolutely shattered by the experience and not at all the happy dog he had once been.
To make matters more complicated, when not at her dispensary job, Grandma was also responsible for the grandchild's day care, so it was particularly important that this problem get solved.
I worked through everything with Louis and I also did a concentrated healing treatment so he could go back to being the sweet dog they had always known. With the combination of our conversation and the specially-designed healing I provided, he recovered quite quickly.
Sessions like the ones I've described above can be intense and very powerful — I’ve done many where profound shifts have taken place quite rapidly. It’s always exciting to be a facilitator in this process and to see everyone finally start to thrive.
As these three stories illustrated, the causes and the way they manifest are always a unique mix of factors — no two cases are ever the same. Clients come to me because they know the help they get will be specifically designed for their unique animals and household situations.
If you’ve got a “biter” (or even Mr./Ms. Nippy) on your hands, I urge you to take advantage of my complimentary Discovery Session to find out more about how I can help turn around — and save — your “aggressive” dog.