“My Dog Bit Someone–Out of Nowhere!”

aggressive dog HP blogThose are the words I heard when I picked up the telephone this morning. The caller was understandably distraught. Her 16-month-old German shepherd had bitten a visitor, a man who had not been to the home before. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured and did not press charges. But he was shaken up, as were the owners. The dog had previously shown some signs of being uncomfortable around people, but the bite was a wake-up call. Something had to be done.

The thing is, the shepherd didn’t actually bite “out of nowhere”—dogs seldom do. There are almost always warning signs. A typical scenario goes like this: a puppy is fearful of people. During group class, he hides behind his owner, and at home, he shrinks when people go to pet him. With the onset of adolescence comes a bit of confidence. Now when people go to pet the dog, he barks, growls, and makes it as clear as possible that he’d like to be left alone, thank you very much. Those who don’t heed the warning may receive an air snap, a promise of things to come.

Late adolescence into adulthood is when many dogs begin to show what many people term “aggression.” At the rescue center I used to co-run, it seemed that an inordinate number of dogs were given up right around a year-and-a-half of age. The age of dogs given to the city shelters I’ve worked and volunteered at coincide. It’s true that just as human teenagers develop selective hearing and push their boundaries, so do dogs, and some are surrendered due to a wildness having nothing to do with aggression. But this is also a very common age for dogs to begin to take the offense, to act in a way that will make the big scary thing go away. The dog may lunge and snap while on leash, or unleash a volley of severe barks at the entrance of a stranger. Now when the person advances, the dog not only does not retreat, he advances and bites in order to make the person retreat.

In most cases, even the severe ones that make the evening news, by the time a bite happens there have been plenty of warnings. Familiarizing oneself with signals such as lip licking, yawning, avoidance of eye contact, and other subtle stress indicators can not only alert us that a dog is uncomfortable, but can prompt us to remove him from a potentially volatile situation and to seek professional help. Unfortunately, in some families—particularly those with smaller dogs—a certain level of aggression is tolerated. The call to a trainer only happens once the dog has bitten someone outside of the family.

The earlier reactivity is recognized for what it is and treated, the less often it will appear that a bite came from “out of nowhere.”
Visit www.nicolewilde.com for my books, including Keeping the Peace and Help for Your Fearful Dog, seminar DVDs, and blog. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

19 Responses to “My Dog Bit Someone–Out of Nowhere!”

  1. Linea says:

    I love all of your posts. They help me to understand my wild & crazy dog a bit better & give me tips on how to train him.

    I tred clicking on your link to see your seminars schedule & was told that page was not found. Then I looked closely at it & added the “e” after nicol & there it was! For some reason the link in your blog is misspelled. Thought you’d like to know. 😀

    • wildewmn says:

      Oh, jeez. Yes, I can spell my own name! Thanks Linea, and I’m glad you enjoy the blogs. 😉

      • Linea says:

        My hope is that you will do a seminar close to me. If not, I’ll just buy one of the DVD’s or books, but it won’t be the same. Keep on keepin’ on. (Yes I’m that old)

  2. threenorns3 says:

    wild: 18mo old is when i was forced to look myself in the mirror and realize that i had created a monster and i had a choice – surrender him to a shelter where he’d be put down because he’s big, black, and out of control hyper or suck it up, buttercup, and stop thinking i actually knew what i was doing.

    i ran the gamut – both local trainers and one that was more than an hour away and it went from bad to worse. next was tamar geller’s “Loved Dog” technique – which was an epic failure as she explains about 50 pages in: “my technique works well except for highly intelligent breeds like the border collie, who are often smarter than their owners”. i looked over at my border collie mix and felt better, although annoyed about $15 down the drain.

    so i turned to the television – brad pattison: a few weeks and i was looking at my dog like he was the biggest pita in the world. if i ever meet him in person, i’m telling my dog to pee on him. i tried victoria stillwell but her voice and condescension got on my nerves. when i read that she didn’t even have dogs of her own (she only just recently got one), that was it.

    and, bring on the hate, but it was cesar that actually did the trick. the very first episode i watched, cesar was telling the owner “your dog didn’t choose to be this way” and i suddenly remembered how lovely he was as a puppy – so willing, so obedient, so attentive – clearly, he wasn’t the problem!

    now everybody can see what i’ve always seen: the best dog in the world.

  3. nivaladiva says:

    Great post, but wow, that is scary. I would die if my dog bit someone. She’s a pitbull, 1.5 years old, very sweet, but she does sometimes shy away from strangers. It doesn’t happen all the time or seem to have a pattern. Sometimes she’s shy with men, sometimes with women, so, It’s hard to know what triggers her discomfort. It does seem like she’s not a fan of hats, facial hair or foreign accents, lol.

    She also barks/growls at night, sometimes because she hears something outside (that I cannot hear), sometimes for no apparent reason. She knows I don’t like it, and often if I just place my hand on her stomach, she’ll stop.

    In general, she is very friendly and happy, and comfortable in public. With people she knows, she is extremely affectionate, licking, “hugging” and wagging her tail/body.

    Anyway, I’m going to pay more attention and see if I can figure out what triggers her fears. Thanks so much for your post!!

    • threenorns3 says:

      don’t bother trying to predict her fears – you’ll create them.

      just pay attention to what she’s telling you. instead of being embarrassed, tell her “i got your back” and back her away, block whatever it is, or just leave the situation. if the opportunity comes up, try it again. above all, don’t make a big deal out of it – if you have faith that your dog is a good dog, then your dog will be a good dog. if you dwell on fears about your dog’s behaviour or you don’t trust your dog, she’ll pick that up, too.

      • nivaladiva says:

        Thanks for the advice. It’s not that I don’t trust her. The post just got me thinking about paying more attention to her behavior, you know as she continues to grow/develop. She is absolutely a good dog, but there’s always room for more dog training.

    • wildewmn says:

      Nivaladiva, it sounds as though you already have a good idea of some of your dog’s triggers. She sounds wonderful, and paying more attention to what stresses her is always a good idea.

  4. pepaulmier says:

    I have 2 small dogs and my no.1 rule when people come over is, (I got this from Cesar), No touch, no talk, no eye contact, until the dogs are calm.

    • threenorns3 says:

      i do that, too, and it’s amazing how stroppy ppl get when i tell them “thank you, but he needs some down time right now. just ignore him and when he feels like it, he’ll come say hi”.

      one person was so ignorant about it, i finally said “hey! how would you like it if i walked up to you and stuck my hand down your pants? cause that’s what you’re doing to him!”

  5. Excellent article! One of the first things I was told by another husky owner, learn their body language … because they were reading me. Best advice I received, and rewarding. I feel closer to them when I feel we can communicate on another level.

    Understanding some of our huskies body language helped a lot with training, meeting new people, entering new environments, and catching them from leaping into a chase to catch the rabbit I can’t yet see. 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on K9 Kelts Dog Training and commented:
    Good article. Well worth the read.

  7. Suzanne Schiavoni says:

    I read this post with such interest! That described my situation to a t! Well, everything except that it happened out of nowhere. My nearly two year old saint bernard, Henry bit a neighbor at our front door. It wasn’t out of “no where,” but being a new dog owner, I didn’t know the signs. Now I do. I was devastated and immediately called our trainer. She’s been helping us and assuring me that Henry is a good dog, but I need to show Henry that I do not need his help/protection. He attends day care at her business three times a week with absolutely no problems with employees or other dogs. I now understand the signs, but am having trouble NOT being anxious when approached by a stranger. I think Henry feels my anxiety. Any suggestions would be sooo appreciated. We have yet to have any friends over to our house since September. (Well, new friends, that is. He is a sweetheart to the people he knows). Thanks for the blog, posts and responses.

    • philospher77 says:

      My greyhound is best described as a spook (but much much better after several years of work), and one thing I do, because of my concern that I was telegraphing my emotions about what I thought she would do to her, is walk her on a waist leash. She freezes when scared, but is otherwise a good leash-walker, and that kept me from tightening up on the leash when I saw what might be a potential trigger, so she didn’t get stressed because I was. It may help, but do consider the size of your dog and if he is a bolter or freezer before trying it.

  8. Frank Avila says:

    Excellent article, and explanation.

  9. philospher77 says:

    Nicole, how do you distinguish between territoriality and aggression? I have a rat terrier, a little 9 pound dog, who sometimes barks ferociously at strangers in the house (generally workmen). I find if I go out to meet them and take her with me (the yard is fenced, so no concern with her running away), and then bring the person into the house, she is generally ok. She’ll bark at them at first, but then will go over and sniff them and generally wander off. But there has been a person that she would just keep barking at whenever he came inside the house, which he had to do several times as he got equipment out of his truck. I don’t want to be one of those owners who ignores a problem just because she is a small dog, but I also do like her doing alarm barking since I live alone at the end of the street, and would like a warning if someone is in the yard.

  10. gemmelman says:

    Reblogged this on geri emmelman and commented:
    Who hasn’t heard – or said this?

  11. Kelsie Scheeler says:

    Thanks Nicole, great post! Here is my question- when you do recognize the warning signs (pre bite), what should you do? And I don’t mean just to avoid the bite from happening, but to actually work on the problem. Ie. new person comes in the house, dog is staying back and barking. Do you re-direct with a short training session, like sits etc. and reward those behaviours?
    Thanks again!

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