Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Aggression

Ian Dunbar does not like to call a dog aggressive. As a label, he doesn’t find it very useful, and moreover, he finds it unfair. I think he has a good point: people tend to say that any dog that bites is aggressive, even if the dog bites only once during its life, and even if it was the result of extreme circumstances. Part of the reason people are so quick to label dogs aggressive is because bites are so rare- comparatively speaking, more children are killed every year by their own parents than by dogs.

Instead of asking, “is this dog aggressive?” Ian thinks we should ask, “is this dog dangerous?” He points out that simply having a bite history does not mean that a dog is dangerous. Dogs bite for many reasons, and the damage they do varies widely. In fact, Ian uses the damage done as the ultimate indicator of whether a dog is safe or dangerous. After all, every dog has the potential to bite, and until he does, you’ll have no way of telling how dangerous the dog might someday be.

In order to help determine if a dog is dangerous, Ian created a bite scale. This objectively analyzes a dog-to-human biting incident based on injuries sustained.

Level 1: The dog growls, snaps or lunges at a person. The teeth never touch skin.
Level 2: While the dog’s teeth make contact with skin, there are no punctures. There may be some indents or bruising.
Level 3: There is a single bite that punctures the skin no more than half the length of the dog’s canine tooth. Typically the entry wounds are circular or teardrop shaped. If there are slashes, they only occur in one direction because the person pulled away, not because the dog shook his head. Bruising is expected.
Level 4: There is a single bite that punctures the skin more than half the length of the dog’s canine tooth. The dog bit down and held, or shook his head. Slashes occur in both directions and bruising is significant.
Level 5: Multiple bites.
Level 6: The dog consumed flesh or killed the victim.

Ian says that the vast majority of bites happen at level 1 or 2. These dogs have excellent bite inhibition, and are not dangerous. However, these dogs do have a problem, and the problem must be solved as soon as possible to prevent someone from becoming injured.

Dogs that inflict a level 3 bite are probably dangerous, and people working with these dogs should be very careful to ensure they have the expertise needed to treat them.

Level 4 biters should be treated like a loaded gun. There needs to be fail safes in place to prevent accidental exposure to people. They should not leave the house expect to go to the vet, and then they should be muzzled. They need to be locked up when people are over. Ian will not work with level 4 cases. Although it may be possible to help these dogs, he has found that it is too difficult to get owner compliance. People simply do not do the level of management needed to keep the dogs from biting again.

Ian recommends that level 5 and 6 dogs be instantly euthanized.

Astute readers will connect this information with my previous seminar post on socialization and bite inhibition. Without a doubt, Ian used the information on aggression to underscore the importance of both socialization and bite inhibition. Obviously, a well-socialized dog is less likely to bite in the first place, but it is impossible to socialize a puppy to every possible scenario. Teaching our puppies good bite inhibition is the back-up plan. It’s what keeps people safe when socialization fails.

Treating an aggressive dog is not easy work. Ian says that it’s on par with sticking your finger in a dike that’s leaking. It works, but it’s not pretty, and it will never be as good as if the dog had been socialized properly in the first place. Ian discussed three methods for treatment.

First, there’s the obvious stand-by of classical counter-conditioning. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t spend time on it now. However, Ian did say that counter-conditioning should never stop. If you have a dog with a bite history, you should always have a handful of treats in your pocket when you’re out, just in case.

Next, for dogs who bite when touched in certain areas, Ian recommends doing progressive desensitization. To do this, you start touching the dog far away from the problem area, and gradually move closer, pairing each subsequent touch with a tastier treat. If the dog shows and signs of discomfort, start over, both with where you touch, and with lower-value treats. Soon, your dog should want you to move closer to the problem area because it means he gets yummier rewards.

Finally, for dogs who won’t let you near them, he recommended a method called Retreat and Treat. That article has the full details, but basically, this is where you throw kibble over the dog’s head, behind him, so that he retreats away from you. Then, as you move away, drop some liver or other high value reward. The dog will likely come close to you to get the liver, and then you start the cycle over again by tossing kibble over his head. Again, the ultimate goal is for the dog to want you nearby.

Thankfully, Ian acknowledged that this was just scratching the surface of how to treat aggressive dogs. He said he’d need another three days to do the subject justice. Still, I was glad that he spent the time to give us a bit of detail.


Katie said...

Do you know what he says about the dog who bites multiple times in one incident, but whose bites, while they break the skin, are not severe? Like Level 3 but with multiple bites.

I really wish I could see Ian Dunbar speak in person. That would be so very cool.

Crystal said...

I'm not positive, but I think that any time there's several bites during a single instance it's considered a level 5, regardless of how much damage the bite does. It's a matter of inhibition- any dog might give a single bite when startled, but doing it several times indicates that the dog couldn't stop himself at just one.

Sara (and Layla) said...

Correct, any multiple bites are Level 5. My recent Chow bite was a level 5, with each individual bite being Level 4. There were 5-7 bites total (hard to tell exactly, since some bites likely left multiple punctures). Scary stuff!

I do further distinguish Level 5 bites for my clients. I'll say that their dog had a Level 5 bite, but it was composed of multiple Level X bites. A dog with only Level 2 damage, despite multiple bites, is still more treatable than a dog with one single Level 4 bite.

I really like Dunbar's bite scale, and use it ALL the time in consults. I've found it to be very predictive, and it gives owners a good additional resource when making tough decisions about their dog.

Crystal said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sara. I agree that a dog that bites 3 times at level 2 or once with level 4 is probably safer.

With that in mind... do you agree with Ian's statement that any level 5 biter should be instantly euthanized? Do you take on level 4 bites?

Katie said...

Thanks for the clarification.

It makes me feel a little bit better. The dog I euthed for aggression would have been a Level 5 in that case. He didn't just bite me, but continued to come after me and bite again even as I was retreating. He tore clothes, but the bites were not deep (didn't require medical attention).

I have so much sadness and guilt over that, still, even though I think it was the right decision.

Crystal said...

Oh, Katie. I'm so sorry to hear that. I take it this was a personal dog? I can't imagine how hard that must have been to decide, and to do. I'm glad this helps you feel better.

Katie said...

Yeah, an old dog I pulled from a crappy shelter. A houndy-lookin' thing. I only had him for a few weeks, but that was a deal-breaker. It was an incredibly hard thing to do, but it was with the advice of vet, trainer friend, and behaviorist. I wouldn't wish that decision on anyone, ever.

Crystal said...

Oh, that is so hard. I don't blame you at all for your decision, and it sounds like you did everything you could for him. This may sound like an empty platitude, but... at least he had a loving home before he died instead of being alone in a shelter at the end.