When a Nice Dog Suddenly Bites Its Owner

If a dog bites a person because the dog is guarding its food, the experience can be traumatic for everyone involved.

Sharing our everyday lives with a dearly loved dog is one of the best ways to stay balanced and sane.  Seriously.  Most of us are aware of the health benefits of being with a dog, even if it’s someone else’s.

But tonight I talked to a client and friend who called about what happened with her son’s dog.  This is a nice dog who sleeps next to her owners at night and who has been nothing but sweet and gentle all her life. Why would this dog suddenly bite my friend’s son so seriously that he had to go to the ER for treatment?

The events that led to the bite followed a familiar pattern.  The dog found some chicken bones in the trash and helped herself.  Knowing that cooked chicken bones could be dangerous for his dog, the owner approached to take away what was now the dog’s “treasure”.  Dog growled, retreated under a table.  Owner advanced and dog retreated further, determined not to give up her claim.  Owner advanced, reaching in to take the bone and the dog reacted to guard her possession.

What is the takeaway here?  First, everyone should be aware of basic bite prevention rules, so that they never approach even a nice dog while the dog is guarding an object. Any dog will bite under the right circumstances so it is unwise to make assumptions.

Next, every dog and situation is different and each one should be evaluated on its own merits.  But there are some principles that apply in almost all cases.  The dog, in this case, had come upon something of enormous value to her and was unwilling to surrender it. Failing to respect the dog’s clear warnings is a mistake.

So principle number one is:

Never try to take the object away from the dog; take the dog away from the object.

Do this by trying to lure the dog with something even more valuable than what she has.  Drop pieces of chicken, steak or whatever you have, on the floor nearby and hope she will leave the bone to go for your bait.

Principle number two is:

Keep your hands out of the line of fire! If the dog goes for the treats and leaves the bone do not attempt to pick up the bone.

You won’t believe how fast a dog’s reflexes are.  The dog still wants to keep her chicken bone and you will get bitten if you grab it! Instead, use an inanimate object like a long-handled broom to move the chicken bone out of the dog’s reach.

With safety always in mind, try to redirect the dog to another activity by tossing interesting treats or favorite toys away from the area where the chicken bone was.  Avoid petting, handling or playing with the dog until everyone, dog included, is calm and relaxed.

Punishment of any kind is not advisable because it will not prevent a repetition of the same instinctive reaction from the dog.  The dog will not connect punishment to the incident because the timing will be wrong.  And worst of all, punishment will damage the relationship you have built with your dog.

The dog in this example has zero previous history of aggression or food guarding.  So her owners need to develop a management plan that ensures that the incident will not be repeated.  Simply keeping the trash behind a closed door is a simple first step.

Always give dogs every opportunity to learn new things because it strengthens their bond with you.  At the same time give them the respect they deserve as part of a species different from ours.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated!