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.