Today my dog bit me
Prudence, now three years old, has been with me since she was about ten weeks old. Not a day has gone by where we haven’t worked on some aspect of training. Our focus has been less on obedience skills and more on life skills. We have a fantastic bond with one another full of trust and clear communication. And today she bit me.
The bite was entirely unintentional. It only left a small bruise on the back of my calf, regardless of intent or level of damage I feel it is essential to talk about why she bit me. Dog bites are an epidemic in our country that needs to be dissected at every level if only so we can better understand our furry companions and learn to avoid bite instances as much as possible.
Bite level and why it matters
If you look at the paragraph above you will notice that I stated “it only” when describing the physical result of the bite. This type of language is often paired when a bite leaves little damage, commonly implying that it’s not a big deal. When we look at Dr. Sophia Yin’s Bite Scale, this bite would fit in the Level 2 category, meaning Prudence made contact with her teeth but did not break the skin. Bites in this level are very rarely reported but should be a red flag, if the dog is put into the situation repeatedly their bite level generally moves up the scale causing severe damage in the future. While the context of Prue’s bite does not warrant a high concern for growing severity, it is still important to be able to gauge her ability to inhibit her bite.
The short answer-8 hours before the bite I had just returned home from a 3-week vacation in Europe, this is the longest I had ever been away from any of my dogs. It was 7 am, and Prudence was curled up in the sofa chair, I was sitting on the armrest of the chair, my legs draping over her. This is a very routine way for us to sit while I drink coffee in the morning. Jude is usually curled up by my feet next to Prue. As he approached to join us, Prudence began snarling and snapping at him. In this process, she caught the back of my calf.
The long answer- Prudence has a lot of insecurities, among those is her need to resource guard both food items and myself. When she came to live with me she already tended to guard food items against other dogs; it has been something I work on daily with her. I use both management and conditioning exercises to build her confidence. At one point her food guarding was so high that she would refuse to interact with her food toy or chewy if another dog was present (in the same room/house separated by an ex-pen) and would rather sit near it and watch the other dog. If the other dog would step in her direction or look up at her, she would react aggressively and need to be physically removed from the area. She has come so far in this training that she can trade bully sticks with her ‘brother’ Jude, they respectfully inspect each other’s dishes or food toys after a meal and choose to lay near one another while actively chewing bully sticks. They also play with antlers, Nylabones, and cow hooves and horns together. Through our training, Prudence has learned to use calmer signals to request space with items rather than snarling and lunging. I can also get her to refocus on me by just saying her name.
What is resource guarding?
Resource guarding is a dog saying “hey I love this thing and I don’t want anyone to take it from me.” It is a very normal dog behavior, and all dogs will do it to some degree, something as simple as taking a treat and walking away to eat it. Or fetching a toy and rather than bringing it back they go off to play by themselves. They may even growl when you approach them while they have the item they love so much. Some dogs will resource guard to an unhealthy level and lunge, snarl, snap or bite. We get into trouble with resource guarding when we mislabel it, leave it untreated, or treat it incorrectly causing the severity to increase.
It is not dominance. Dominance is a word we use to describe a relationship between things; it is not something a dog chooses to be. For instance, I am right handed. Therefore, my right hand is dominant over my left hand. I do not choose to be right-handed any more than my right hand chooses to be dominate over my left hand. It just is. Another misconception when a dog resource guards is that it’s being protective, but they are not trying to protect their object (person, thing, or food) from harm. They do, however, guard it against being taken from them.
What was my reaction?
When Prudence resource guards me, we are typically on a piece of furniture. My immediate response is to remove her from the furniture; I gently and swiftly shove her off the couch. Not very force free yet extremely effective. Please note that this technique does not work for all dogs, some dogs that are reacting aggressively towards another dog or person will redirect onto anyone that touches them. From past experiences, I know that Prudence does not redirect. And the moment her front paws touch the floor, she immediately begins wiggling and displaying calming signals to Jude. So for us, the shoving works quickly. If I do not feel I can shove her off, or the other dog is not Jude, I will remove myself and call the other dog away with me. The bite itself did not change my reaction, as I said it was unintentional as my leg was between her and Jude.
What do I do now?
This is not the first time that Prudence has resource guarded me against another dog, and likely won’t be the last. It has been about eight months since the last time she did so towards Jude. I was expecting that this behavior would return after my time away and I am entirely prepared to work on it again. My goal will be to make sure Prue feels like she is getting plenty of attention from me, both one on one and with Jude present. I will use management, mostly being aware of the activities we are doing and that space is always available for either of the dogs to be able to move away. I will also use counter conditioning to show Prudence that when good things happen for Jude, they happen to her as well. For instance, when we sit down on the couch to snuggle, I will invite Jude up first and get him settled on one side of me and then invite Prudence up on the other side. We will repeat this activity on the chair and in the bed.
I receive just as many inquiries regarding resource guarding as I do puppy training. If you think you may have a resource guarding situation with your own dog I urge you to seek professional help from a qualified certified dog trainer, behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist.
Amber Todd, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB