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Can an Aggressive Dog Be Rehabilitated After Biting?

Updated on December 1, 2018
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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Can an aggressive dog be rehabilitated after biting? This is a good question that many dog owners may wonder about. The truth is that there are several variables that can make a great difference in a dog's aggression "prognosis."

Never trust a professional offering guarantees about your dog's aggression being cured once and for all. All cases are different and some dogs may respond well to behavior modification, while others can be just strictly managed and some others may even sadly be rehomed (only if safely and responsibly!) or even euthanized in the worst case scenario.

While there may be several different outcomes, no dog should be ever considered hopeless, until at least given a chance or perhaps even more. Don't let anybody pressure you and tell you what to do: the ultimate decision is yours. Sometimes, all it takes is just finding the right professional for seeing marked improvements.

In this article, we will be taking a look at some variables that can make a difference in the outcome of behavior modification for aggressive dogs with a bite history. Here is a brief list of some topics that are tackled:

  • How some "philosophies" and adherence to temperament tests have weak track records and fail to provide much reliability and validity.
  • The scientific way to assess behaviors based on more objective, quantifiable strategies.
  • How a behavior history may provide a better insight on how likely a dog may be rehabilitated.
  • The importance of ruling out potential causes of medically-induced aggression.
  • Bite inhibition and its fundamental role in preventing dogs from becoming ticking time bombs with enormous liabilities.
  • A summary of Ian Dunbar's dog bite scale.
  • An explanation of bite threshold and one big mistake many dog owners make when their dogs growl.
  • The importance of finding the right professionals so to prevent the aggression from getting worse.
  • The big role dog owner compliance plays in potential success.
  • Concluding thoughts

A Word About Behavior Evaluations

There may be several methods to evaluate aggressive behavior in dogs, but several of them may not have much validity. There are currently non-standardised parameters to rely on, and in many cases, "so-called professionals" in the field, make assessments based on their individual opinion and training philosophies, more than taking a scientifically-based stance.

To make matters worse, add to the picture the fact that there are still professionals who rely on certain tests that have weak track records and fail to provide much reliability and validity. Tests that come to mind are temperament tests which may cause dogs to react differently than they would under 'normal' circumstances and that just provide a "snapshot" of a dog's behavior in a specific context.

With non-standardized parameters and testing methods with weak track records, how can it be possible to attain a better insight into a dog's aggression prognosis and whether a dog is a good candidate for behavior modification?

There are fortunately more accurate methods and these involve more objective, quantifiable strategies such as taking a dog's behavior history, excluding medical problems, assessing a dog's bite inhibition and bite threshold and considering the dog owner's level of compliance.

A Dog's Behavior History

"The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior."
"The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior."

Psychological scientists who study human behavior appear to agree that past behavior is a useful predictor for future behavior, hence the saying: "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." By taking a look at a dog's behavior history, it is possible to gain an insight on how likely the dog may be rehabilitated along with other strategies.

A functional analysis based on the dog owner's recollection of the events that triggered a bite, may help reveal the evocative stimulus (antecedent) that triggered the behavior and the potential consequence that maintains the reactivity/biting behavior in the case of a repeat biter.

While a dog's behavior history may be more accurate than testing systems that may fail to emulate real-life situations, there may be weaknesses in this approach as well.

For instance, dog owners may not be able to recall the exact events that triggered the behavior. Or there may assume they know the trigger, when the dog was actually responding to something else. For instance, a dog owner using a shock collar may assume the dog bit him because he saw another dog at a distance and redirected on the owner, when the dog was simply startled by the shock collar and the bite was an impulsive reaction.

The more clear and consistent the stimuli that evoke the behavior are, the better the chances for behavior modification. Dog aggressive behavior that is context specific, and therefore, triggered by predictable stimuli that can be managed, is much better than dog aggressive behavior that happens erratically, without any clear identification of stimuli that evoke the behavior. These are much more complicated cases and may have a poorer prognosis due to the unpredictable nature of the aggression.

A Dog's Medical History

Sometimes, dog aggressive displays may be induced by medical causes. There are several medical causes of aggression in dogs. For this reason, it's important to have an extensive veterinary exam before assuming the dog is suffering from a behavior problem. This plays a very important role in determining how likely an aggressive dog can be rehabilitated.

There are several medical conditions that have been known to trigger aggressive displays in dogs. For instance, hypothyroidism, a condition known for affecting the dog's endocrine system and that causes a low count of thyroid hormones, is a known culprit for aggression.

Affected dogs develop weight gain, hair loss, lethargy, low tolerance of cold, and behavior changes such as anxiety, fear and aggression. While it's a bit unusual for hypothyroid dogs to develop aggression as a stand-alone symptom, running a thyroid test is still worthy.

Other possible conditions known to cause medically-induced aggression in dogs include acute or chronic pain, sensorial impairment (deafness, loss of vision) and neurological disorders such as seizures or certain brain conditions.

If a vet determines that a dog's aggression is medically induced, there may be good chances that the aggression may regress once the underlying medical cause is managed and/or properly treated.

Level of Bite Inhibition

How much pressure is exerted by the dog's jaw when a dog bites plays a very important role in whether an aggressive dog can be rehabilitated successfully. Truth is, if a dog has bitten in the past causing a great degree of damage, there is great concern in protecting the owner, his family, the professional helping rehabilitate the dog and the public, considering that it is difficult to attain 100 percent reliability when implementing behavior modification.

How do dogs attain good bite inhibition? It's the result of nature and nurture, that is, the genes and the environment in which a dog is raised. Genetically, some dogs breeds were selectively bred to have a soft mouth so to not put pressure on retrieved downed birds that were meant to be consumed on the table with the meat intact, but even within dogs of these breeds you can occasionally stumble on a hard biter.

Even within a litter of pups of the same breed there may be dogs who bite softly while others puts excessive pressure. It's yet not clearly understood why under similar context two dogs would bite using different pressure.

To a great extent, good bite inhibition is taught when the puppy is in the litter in his interaction with his mom and siblings. Any rough mouthing evokes a strong yelp and withdrawal from play. Soon, this repeated feedback teaches rough pups to play more gently if they want to keep playing with their littermates.

Bite inhibition should then be further refined once the pup is in the new home and learns that humans have even more sensitive skin. Continued play with other puppies is still important at least until the puppy's permanent teeth have erupted . Generally, puppies should have attained a good level of bite inhibition by the time they are 5 to 6 months.

A dog with good bite inhibition, therefore, is more likely to have a good prognosis risk-wise compared to a dog who has a history exerting mutilating force with his jaws. In this case, the key factor is pressure exerted with the jaws. And of course, a large breed dog compared to a toy breed dog is more likely to cause damage which also plays a role in prognosis.

Summary of Ian Dunbar's Bite Scale

Level 1:No skin-contact by teeth.

Level 2:Skin-contact but no puncture.Skin nicks (less than 1/10th of an inch deep) and slight bleeding is possible.

Level 3: 1-4 punctures from a single bite not deeper than 1/2 the length of the dog’s canine teeth with possible lacerations.

Level 4: 1 - 4 punctures from a single bite with one puncture deeper than 1/2 the length of a dog’s canine teeth with possible deep bruising/lacerations

Level 5:Multiple-bites with at least 1 to 2 level 4 bites

Level 6:Death

Level of Bite Threshold

Level of Bite Threshold

All dogs (even the most mellow ones!) have a bite threshold. Given the right, circumstances, a dog will revert to biting once a certain level of stimulation has been surpassed. A bite threshold is, therefore, the quantity and level of intensity of triggers necessary to evoke a dog to bite.

Does the dog who resource guards charge anybody who enters the kitchen or just when people attempt to grab their food bowl? Does the dog with a history of biting children charge when the children are playing nearby or when he is cornered with no escape route? Dogs with a low bite threshold are dogs who are more likely to bite with little provocation, and therefore, are deemed more dangerous, especially if the low bite threshold is accompanied by poor bite inhibition.

On top of this, worthy of consideration is whether the dog emits any warning signals before biting. A big mistake many dog owners inadvertently make is punishing dogs for growling or air snapping. This potentially leads to dogs who bite without warning which makes them more of a liability. We want dogs to growl because that's their warning system that may help prevent a potential bite.

Using the Right Professionals 

Behavior modification for dog aggression requires a high level of expertise and the ideal professionals are those who focus on the observable, quantifiable behaviors emitted by the dog rather than applying labels and adjectives as to why the dog behaves in the way he does. There are also considerable risks when outdated dog training philosophies with no foundation in science are utilized and these often include the use of confrontational or aversive methods.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science, has demonstrated that confrontational training methods, such as staring down dogs, striking them or intimidating them with physical manipulation, has little effect in correcting improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.

Several surveys completed revealed that confrontational methods such as hitting or kicking a dog when performing an undesirable behavior, growling at the dog, alpha rolling the dog, staring the dog down or grabbing the dog by the jowls and shaking, evoked an aggressive response from at least 25 percent of the affected dogs.

It's therefore important to work with professionals well-versed in using humane, force-force-free behavior modification.

"“This study highlights the risk of dominance-based training, which has been made popular by TV, books and punishment-based training advocates. These techniques are fear-eliciting and may lead to owner-directed aggression.”

— ~ Meghan E. Herron

Dog Owner's Level of Compliance

Can an aggressive dog be rehabilitated after biting? The answer to a good extent also depends on the dog owner and his/her level of commitment in managing the dog's environment and his/her level of competence in carrying out the assigned exercises for behavior modification. It is often critical that family members participate as well.

An important role of behavior modification is management which requires strict adherence to preventing the dog from rehearsing problematic behaviors. This is not easy and is not surprisingly one aspect of behavior modification that dog owners most often struggle with.

For instance, in a dog prone to resource guarding from people, successful management would entail feeding the dog away from people. In a dog prone to reacting aggressively towards children, the dog is locked up away when neighbor kids come to visit. Management may require a lifelong commitment for safety.

Several behavior modification exercises often entail implementing some form of desensitization and counterconditioning which require skill, good timing and correct execution. Many setbacks in aggressive dogs are due to incorrect implementation.

So Can an Aggressive Dog be Rehabilitated After Biting?

Can an aggressive dog be rehabilitated after biting? As seen, there are several factors and variables to consider. These are just a few of the many variables that may play a role.

Other variables may include the age of the dog (younger dogs are generally more malleable) how long the aggressive behavior has been rehearsed (the longer, the more difficult to eradicate) and whether there are children in the home (some dogs are better off rehomed in homes without children if the aggression is mostly directed towards them).

The ultimate answer to the question "can an aggressive dog be rehabilitated, is therefore, "it depends." The prognosis is definitely graver in a dog who is large, has little bite inhibition and a low level bite threshold compared to a smaller-sized dog with good bite inhibition and a higher bite threshold.

Rehabilitation often takes extensive time before the dog appears to be nonreactive in specific circumstances. There are chances that an aggressive dog with a bite history may never be entirely cured and management in those cases may need to be a lifelong commitment.

The saying "where there is a will, there is a way" though should be kept in mind too. Dog owners who are highly motivated to rehabilitate their dogs have been known to attain stellar results with some even severe and complex cases, so this is something to definitely keep into consideration.

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is aggressive, please consult with a behavior professional for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification.

"It is helpful to start thinking about behavior problems as being like diabetic conditions. We do not cure diabetes, but we do an excellent job of controlling it. Regardless, after diabetes is controlled, no one would dream of withdrawing the insulin."

— Dr. Karen Overall

References:

  • Summary & Analysis: Investigating behavior assessment instruments to predict aggression in dogs, by National Canine Research Council
  • Evaluation of the Aggressive Dog: What is a Really Dangerous Dog? World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2004, Patrick Pageat, DVM, PhD, Dipl Behaviourist FVS, DECVBM-CA
  • University of Pennsylvania. "If You're Aggressive, Your Dog Will Be Too, Says Veterinary Study." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 February 2009.
  • Herron et al. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2009
  • Oh Behave, Dogs from Pavlov to Premack t Pinker, Jean Donaldson, Dogwise Publishing
  • The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson, James & Kenneth Publishers
  • Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale (Official Authorized Version) An assessment of the severity of biting problems based on an objective evaluation of wound pathology
  • Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Dr. Karen Overall, Mosby 1997

© 2018 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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