Thursday, September 29, 2011

Good Dogs Bite, Too: Why You Need to Understand the Bite Threshold Model

There is a strange belief in our culture that says only bad dogs bite. Of course, most people believe that their dogs are “good,” and therefore, that must mean that their dog won't bite. While I really do believe that most dogs are good, I also believe that all dogs are capable of biting. It's just that it takes a lot to push most dogs to the point where they might bite.

In her book The Culture Clash, author Jean Donaldson introduces something called the Bite Threshold Model to help explain why a “good dog” might bite. This model states that each dog has a threshold at which he will bite. It looks something like this:

 Each line indicates how much stress a dog can endure before he displays silent stress signals (like freezing, licking his lips, tucking his tail, etc.), before he growls, before he snaps, and ultimately, before he bites. Of course, each dog is different, so the lines on each dog's graph will be at a different height. For example, as a reactive dog, Maisy's growl threshold is pretty low in general, and especially if we were to compare her to a more stable dog. Interestingly, Maisy's snap threshold is quite high (it takes a lot of stress before she will snap at someone), and while I've drawn a line for where I think Maisy's bite threshold might be, I honestly don't know where it actually is since she's never bitten anyone.

Donaldson also says that each dog has “risk factors” that will cause the dog to feel uncomfortable or stressed. These risk factors, taken individually, may or may not cause the dog to display any symptoms. The so-called “good dogs” will usually have risk factors that are quite low- they may not even reach the first line. Others do, but whether the owner notices that their dog is feeling uncomfortable is another matter. The symptoms are so subtle that they are often easy to miss. Here's Maisy's graph, with some of her risk factors added:

As you can see, while crowds of strangers might make her feel uncomfortable, she probably won't show any signs to indicate that. Meanwhile, she will definitely display stress if her head is touched, and the presence of children pushes her right up against her growl threshold- she doesn't always growl at them, but she might.

Most dogs- like most people- don't really want to hurt others. But given the right situation, any dog- and any person- is capable of defending himself or his loved ones. That situation happens when multiple “risk factors” converge into one single incident.

This recently happened with Maisy. Although she's quick to display stress, and even quick to growl, she very rarely snaps. Still, it happens when her triggers “stack” into one unfortunate situation. In this case, I had taken her to a group gathering. What I didn't know was that she wasn't feeling so hot (she had a bit of an ear infection starting), nor did I know that there would be a child there. So when the little one reached out to pet Maisy's head...

Yup, she snapped at the little girl. It all happened so fast that I didn't get a chance to stop the child that had approached. I felt horrible, of course. I'm always sad when I can't protect Maisy, and I hate that others saw her as a “bad dog” that night. I also want to be a good dog owner and keep others safe, and while the child (and her parents) weren't upset by the incident, I felt bad that the girl had a bad experience with my dog.

It's important to note that while the graph presents a logical, orderly progression of behaviors, that's not always the way things play out in real life. Although Maisy did stiffen briefly as the child reached for her, she did not growl. There wasn't time; the triggers stacked too quickly. Behavior also isn't linear. Our dogs are individuals, and so is the way they respond. Not only are each of their thresholds at different levels, but sometimes they will be missing a threshold entirely. For example, people sometimes punish growling, which can result in the loss of that particular line. That means that a dog could go from freezing slightly to biting without ever growling- the so-called bite without provocation.

Perhaps Maisy isn't the best example- although she's never bitten anyone, I'm not entirely sure that others would call her a “good dog.” (I, of course, think she's amazing.) The point remains, though: a series of relatively small things can stack up to the point that even the best of dogs will bite. In fact, sometimes I think these “good dogs” are the most dangerous. Because Maisy has been “bad” so frequently, I have a pretty good idea where her thresholds are, and so I can pretty accurately predict when she's more likely to snap or bite. People with “good dogs” don't have this advantage, and if and when things stack up in just the right way, they will be surprised by their dog's behavior.

If you have a good dog, I urge you to think about situations where your dog's behavior has surprised you. Think about how high each of his thresholds might be, and what types of things are likely to push him to each one. Do thunderstorms unnerve him? What about someone reaching for his rawhide or food bowl? How does he feel about children, other dogs, or men in hats? Pay attention to the times he stiffens up, freezes, tucks his tail, ducks his head, or licks his lips. These are all signs that he is feeling uncomfortable, and that situation should be put on your graph.

I hope that your dog never encounters a situation where all of those risk factors pile up into one big, scary stack, but if he does, the bite threshold model will help you understand why your good dog ended up biting. If you want to avoid such an incident- and who wouldn't?- I encourage you to be proactive. Being aware of your dog's stressors is a great start. If you see things beginning to stack,  avoid a possible incident by simply putting your dog somewhere safe, like in a crate or another room.

More ambitious dog owners might consult with an experienced dog trainer or undertake a counter-conditioning program in order to help reduce each stressor. If you lower the height of each risk factor, then when they begin to stack, the overall effect will be lower as well. Perhaps the dog will only snap instead of bite. And while a snap is still scary and something I take seriously, it is far preferable to having your dog bite.

So don't believe the cultural lie that good dogs don't bite. As the bite threshold model demonstrates, it's not bad dogs that bite, it's stressed ones... and good dogs get stressed, too.


2dogcrazy said...

I'm pretty lucky with Kane. He's one of the "good dogs" and I can't ever imagine putting him in a situation where he would bite, but it helps that his threshold for showing "silent signals" is so low. When he's uncomfortable in any way with anything, his ears are back and he's lip-licking, etc. I can head things off before things start piling on. And I know his one trigger (men [in particular] or people acting aggressively [whether physically or vocally with tone]) and can avoid those.

That being said, there was an episode recently which, like you said, shows that even good dogs have the potential to bite. He didn't bite; I slammed a door to hard after being chased around the house (teasingly) by the boyfriend, and Kane reacted to the (seemingly) aggressive situation by tucking his tail and peeing across the living room as he ran to hide behind the recliner. But if things had stacked up even more for him (yelling, screaming, more aggressive movements, especially towards him), who's to say he wouldn't have felt the need to protect himself by biting?

This is what is so unfortunate about one forum I'm on featuring pit bulls. These people are hard-nosed about their dogs and believe very much in the whole "APBTs were bred to never bite their handlers/humans". Any sign of aggression towards humans is dealt with very seriously and even a minor bite has them putting the dog to sleep. I've tried to ask about possible medical conditions that could cause the dog to bite, any environmental situations, etc, to give them something to think about, but they have their opinions and that's what they go with.

Sorry for the long comment. :)

24 Paws of Love said...

Completely agree. Until I got Brut, my reactive dog, I never understood how easily stressed dogs can get. While I've never had any biting incident, I am always aware of body my dogs body language, it also keeps me in check. If I'm getting stressed out in some way, then they are too. So I try to stay in low stress situations for the comfort of them and myself.

Great post.

Jette said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I have the so called "good dog" and he has never snapped or bitten anyone in his 10 years, the maximum level of showing signs being stressed is growling. But I think it's a very important message to get out there: good dogs bite too!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

2dogcrazy- re: the pit bulls. That is such a hard situation. Unfortunately, our society just doesn't get that "good dogs" can bite, and society is especially hysterical about pit bulls. I do think that pit bull people need to be more concerned about aggression and bites (and aggression and bites are not the same thing), and in a way, I'm glad to see them taking it so seriously. But... a single bite resulting in euthanasia? It depends on the circumstances and the seriousness of the bite, of course, but it does seem like a bit of an overreaction.

Kirsten (peacefuldog) said...

Great post and discussion.

What I like most about Jean Donaldson is how she gives us some cultural perspective on dog bites and why they are such a big deal today--because we live in such a litigious society. Being bitten by a dog is far less dangerous than many of the things we engage in all the time, yet inspires far more intensity of emotion than say driving, or speaking on a cell phone, or both at the same time.

2dogcrazy's comment is very interesting--I think I have encountered this sort of pit bull advocate, and I got the same sort of advice when I first got one of my current pittie fosters....that his mouthiness was a serious cause for concern. I really like your post, Crystal, in that it emphasizes how individual circumstances have to be taken into account for each dog, and how any dog can be provoked given a certain set of predisposing factors.

Kerry M. said...

Good is so relative, isn't it?

I have my first reactive dog as an adult and it's definitely a learning experience for me. I would absolutely call him a "good dog" but... maybe not to some of my relatives that he isn't so fond of.

While he may be prone to stranger danger, he doesn't bolt/run for freedom as my first good dog does or try to fight every dog he sees as my second good dog did.

The people issues definitely are a new stressor but I don't think I've ever had a dog who is more tuned in to me, and I've often thought that was because of his stranger danger issues. He knows he can trust me and that's a big thing for him.

This is probably a good time to say,"hi". I've lurked at your blog for a while and I love it. I especially appreciated your write-up of Clicker Expo. I feel like I've been there now!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Thanks for saying hi, Kerry.

Absolutely agree that "good" is relative. (So is "well-trained," but I suppose that's a matter for another post.) Maisy is probably not your stereotypical "good dog," but she's pretty awesome in her own right. Really, the problem is that we humans expect all dogs to act the same, but there are so many breeds that that is impossible! Not to mention that they are all individuals.

Anonymous said...

I believe that dogs with low enough thresholds to actually bite people when " stressed" are not suitable to live among people. The modern proclivity to treat dogs as abused mentlly deficient children who need " treatment" has resulted in a population which finds it more important to protect dogs than people. If dogs cannot go through life among people without being treated with kid gloves, "behavior modification" and medication, then they should not be taking up space from dogs which manage stresses in ways other than biting people. Biting is not an easy thing for most dogs to do. Think of it as starting a fight leading with your face. Normal, balanced dogs do this only as a last resort. I am tired of people making excuses for their nasty tempered dogs, and as I have only one life I choose to spend it with nicer dogs. I don't say no dog should ever bite, but it out to be a pretty rare and severe .
provocation.get it to happen.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Julia, I certainly don't want this post to be seen as "making excuses" for dogs that bite. When a dog has bitten, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. I want this post to help people understand what might go horribly wrong and prevent that.

Dogs who bite when stressed should be closely evaluated to determine his long-term prognosis. Not only can those dogs be quite dangerous and pose a liability to their owners, but it's also not fair to the dog. Living life so stressed that the dog feels pushed towards a "last resort" kind of action is not a good life.

Likewise, growling and snapping should be taken seriously. I'll admit- it's not always fun living with a dog like mine. I can't take her places I'd like to, and it's expensive to pay for the behavioral consults and medications that reduce her stress to manageable levels (for both of us).

Still.. she's here, I love her, and so I find ways to help us both navigate society. As I stated at the outset, one way I do this is by recognizing that triggers can and do snap, and I do my best to both reduce the intensity of those triggers through training and to avoid them entirely.

Thank you for your comment. It gave me a chance to clarify something that I didn't realize needed clarification.

Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck said...

Julia- I just want to add that there is a huge difference with a dog who bites and barely even leaves a scratch and a dog who leaves multiple deep punctures.

If a dog has great bite inhibition, then I don't see any reason why a dedicated owner shouldn't go through behavior modification protocols and heavy management to work on reducing the likelihood of it happening again.

I think it's a very rash decision to say that every dog that bites should automatically be put down unless it was an extreme circumstance.

Chris and Mike said...

Hi Crystal -
I too have been enjoying your postings for a year or more, and am so impressed at how far you and Maizy have come. Your posts have been really, really helpful in thinking through my reactive Habi's issues. Per Julia's comment: we had no intention of getting a reactive dog, but somehow things happen, and once she came to us it became our responsibility to cope with her issues, or have her euthanized. Fortunately we were directed to a behavioral vet, who recognized the 'good dog' under the issues. Thanks to behavioral modification, Prozac, and management, today-three years later-we spent a fabulous day at See Spot Walk, interacting with hundreds of other dogs, people, strollers, bicyclists, and more. She's sleeping like a rock right now - totally mentally and socially exhausted. Your explanation of the bite threshold is right on - we've been able to help her raise her thresholds as simultaneously we've learned to read her signals.
A belated thank you for all we've learned, both from your journey with Maizy and with all the seminar information you share.
Chris and Habi

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Hi Chris,

First, thank you for your comment. I love it when people delurk and share a little bit about what brings them to the blog. And, more importantly- congratulations that your Habi is doing so well!

I totally relate to your comment that you had no intention of getting a reactive dog. I think there are relatively few people who purposely take on such a dog. I certainly don't wish to do it again. (I didn't really want to do it THIS time, either.) But... here I am for now, and I LOVE my dog. So we figure it out.

I also think there's a difference between a reactive dog and one who bites. I suspect many of us with reactive dogs have never had a bite incident. I do think that my reactive dog is at a higher risk than some of my friends' normal, stable dogs, but knowing about the bite threshold model allows me to help prevent that from happening.

Thanks again for the comment.

andrea said...

so well said
there are no (few?) bad dogs according to many (myself included) - but there sure are dogs in bad situations for them...

I suspect I see dogs appraoching or at threshold more often than many - weekly shelter visits do that and your connection to stress and threshold is right on in my view ...

Actually I got bitten by my grandparent's dog every time I visited them for awhile - poor Nikki would go under the bed - I'd crawl after him and get snapped at or bitten ... I'd crawl out - everybody was pretty clear with me that it was my fault not Nikki's. As I got bigger our relationship changed for the better - but he was certainly allowed to tell me when I was stressing him out. He was not seen as a bad dog at all. Today if Sally barks at one of our neices or nephews to get them to throw a stick (she is on the scale of I cannot imagine her biting anybody ever for any reason in anger or stress) she is scolded (or I am) and expected to be put away - no shock we don't have family over much anymore eh?

Just read the comments - I'm with you Laura - Julie I hear what you are saying (I'm in the shelters so often making choices about who lives and dies based, as much as possible, on temperment) and agree with so many nice dogs around in need they can and should beour focus.. but behaviour and temperment are not the same thing ;)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Your comment's timing is sort of ironic, Andrea- I was just musing about how our expectations for dogs are sometimes unrealistic. I have friends with "perfect" dogs, and even they bark, lift lips, or snap in certain situations. It's just normal doggy communication. Is it really possible for Maisy to NEVER react to stimuli? Of course not. And yet for a long time, that's what I was shooting for... I'm quite sure there is a full-blown post in this idea.

Jen said...

Good post! I definitely agree, most people think only "bad" dogs bite, and if a dog bites ( or growls or snaps) then it must be "bad" and need to be "fixed". Bite threshold is not a phrase that enters the consciousness of most "civilians".

Tegan said...

This was very elegantly explained. Love your work, Crystal. :)

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