Growling, snarling, snapping, and lunging — all behaviors a dog can display to mean “back away!” It’s as if to say “the water is boiling over here…don’t get burnt!” What if professional dog trainers could recognize when the water is just getting warm? We could greatly reduce the risk of getting burned by getting the pot off the stove way ahead of time.
Dogs can use many other communicative signals that often come before the boiling stage. Most professional dog trainers can recognize the subtler signs such as freezing, hard staring, tongue flicks, or whale eye. Then there are signals that may even come at earlier stages – when the water is just getting warm. Some examples are respiration changes or a dog shifting its weight in a certain direction which can be the “just putting the pot on the stove” moments.
When skilled observation of dog body language is combined with situational awareness, avoiding an aggressive dog bite can be significantly shifted in our favor. There are a number of contexts in which a trainer may be bitten, and they go beyond the usual walking through the front door to meet an unleashed “stranger danger” case. Being aware of the many common situations where dogs may feel the need to bite is crucial for our safety.If you’re ever bored on a Sunday afternoon and have a strong stomach, search up the term “dog bite” on YouTube. You will find many obvious antecedents for biting by a variety of Darwin Award Winners, however, there are some very subtle precursors that one might observe in some of the bites.
I often say “we like dogs who breathe.” When perusing the videos, a very common theme is that dogs will close their mouth, as if to hold their breath for a very brief moment right before a bite. No growling, snarling, lunging, or snapping — just a brief pause in their breathing right before the dog inflicts a bite. This may or may not be accompanied by a number of other signals, such as a hard stare, whale eye, freeze, or even a prey bow. It’s the dogs who pause for that millisecond before the bite without any other signals that we have to be extra cautious with when handling.
While binge watching dog bite videos, one might see some very obvious reasons for the dogs to resort to aggression, and some common themes surface. Reaching towards or petting a dog giving clear signals to back off, taking a dog’s food or toy away, or getting face to face with an unfamiliar dog are some of the prevailing contexts.
What about professional dog trainers? What are the common contexts in which they are bitten?
Here is one scenario that might be familiar to you, and one that many trainers I know have been bitten:
A trainer has been working with a dog for an entire session with no issues. The dog is happily offering behaviors and seems affiliative throughout the entire hour or two, giving the trainer no cause for concern. The trainer thanks the client at the end of the session and starts to head for the door and that’s when the dog bites them right in the calf or rear end.
Here’s where that situational awareness (and a bit of experience) comes into play. It only takes a brief moment for a trainer to let down their guard and miss the subtle signals a dog is giving in that context.
Giving the dog “one for the road,” also known as a treat tossed in a direction away from the door can prevent these “don’t let the door hit you in the butt” moments.
Are you interested in learning about other subtle signals a dog may give and the contexts in which they may bite? You can learn more in this on-line dog trainer course: Precursors for Aggression: Getting the Pot Off the Stove BEFORE You Get Burnt!
Michael Shikashio, CDBC, is the past president of the IAABC and provides private consultations working exclusively with dog aggression through his business Complete Canines LLC. He is a featured speaker at conferences around the world and is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post, WebMD, Women’s Health Magazine, and Real Simple Magazine.