That dog-friendly dog that may be resting at your feet or on the sofa next to you has a dark and dangerous heritage. In his evolutionary past he was a predator who hunted and killed for a living using his strong muzzle and mouth full of teeth. Those same weapons could be used socially, to emphasize who was boss or had ownership of desirable goodies. Although when we domesticated dogs we toned down their aggressive tendencies, some dogs can be provoked back into those primitive behavior patterns under certain circumstances.

Domestic dogs are bred well enough so that they must have a good reason to bite and there are only a limited set of reasons that trigger these responses in dogs. First you must understand that the primary purpose of aggression is not to hurt and maim but rather to change the behavior of another creature. For that reason dogs clearly signal their aggressive intentions before acting. The idea is that the threat alone should be enough to change behavior so that actual biting only occurs if the aggressive signals are ignored. The signals indicating an aggressive threat include:

  • A prolonged direct stare
  • Raised hackles
  • Growling
  • Showing his teeth
  • Arching his body
  • Walking stiffly
  • Curling his tail between his legs or tail held very high over the back and fluffed out
  • For dogs with pricked ears having them lowered to the side to look like a wide V or airplane wings

Many dog owners might be surprised to see such behaviors in trivial situations such as when the dog wants to keep possession of pair of socks or a plush toy. Such signs are easily missed in puppies, but the play growling and nipping that you think of as being cute in a pup can escalate to a major problem as the dog matures. That is because once aggressive behaviors develop they never disappear on their own. Dogs quickly learn that by using aggression they can get what they want, or shield themselves in stressful situations. We humans must solve the problem, but first we must recognize it when it occurs.

Before you go into a panic, however it is important to ask just how serious the threat of being bitten by your dog actually is. If you believe the media reports dog bites are an epidemic and more people die because their pet went into a rage than are dying in foreign wars. Gathering statistics on dog bites is difficult, however one class of dog bites must be registered with the government, namely those resulting in death. One scientific study looked at a period of 19 years and found that there were 238 dog-bite related deaths in all of the United States during that time—an average of 12 per year. Compared to dog bites you are nearly 8 times more likely to die by being struck by lightning (90 deaths per year), 26 times more likely to die by drowning in your bathtub (322 per year), 49 times more likely to die by drowning in a swimming pool (596 per year), and 66 times more likely to die when using your bicycle (795 per year). Apparently, dog bites are rather low on the list of common hazards.

Why, then, the media frenzy about “dangerous dogs”? A professor I know who teaches journalism (but doesn’t want his name mentioned) explained it to me this way: “Good news doesn’t sell. Do you think the headline ‘Dog makes owner smile and feel good’ would sell papers? The rule that we teach aspiring journalists is ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ and nowadays we add the reminder that ‘dogs don’t sue for defamation’.”

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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