It's a lot more common than you might think. Dogs that bite are reported every day: to dog trainers, in hopes of some kind of solution or guarantee that this terror will never happen again; to city authorities by owners of dogs or humans at the receiving end of a dog bite event; and to loved ones, when an owner has to explain why their dog is no longer a part of the family.
Dog bite events can be as heartbreaking as they are concerning. These wonderful companions of ours are known for their friendliness, their loyalty, their love, and their tremendous abilities, both cognitive and physical. The reality is that, in addition to all of these traits, dogs are also capable of causing tremendous harm, both to other animals, and to the humans they co-exist with. They can be territorial, reactive, and possess a formidable set of teeth and jaws. They are also designed, at the genetic level, to have a "bite-or-flight" response to extremely unpleasant stimuli - even when the nature or cause of that stimuli is not readily apparent, or comprehensible, to us.
If we are going to live with these animals, it is important that we have a fundamental understanding of how they operate. For dogs, biting is a form of communication. It says any one or a number of; "I am not comfortable with this. This has gone too far. I do not accept these conditions. Give me space."
As dogs are incapable of understanding, on a cognitive level, that biting a human or another animal is unacceptable. What's more, punishing a dog for biting with aggression or threatening behaviors increase the likelihood of the dog biting again. This cannot be overstated. And the reaction can be unpredictable, meaning that the dog may bite a known or unknown entity at an entirely unpredictable time.
Only when we truly accept that biting is a natural function of the simple virtue of being a dog can we start to understand how to reduce a dog's propensity to bite. This requires a kind of humility on our parts. Seeing and respecting our dogs for what they are ultimately capable of does not come easily or naturally to us. We want to anticipate only the best, when this attitude is often not realistic when faced with the fundamental capabilities of a dog. Instead, let us prepare the tools and skills we need to condition and recondition our dogs to accept that which causes them distress.
What's more, let us do this work alongside our dogs in a preventative sense whenever we can, as a part of the contract of care we entered into the day we adopted our dogs. This contract is lifelong. Our dogs know it, and they honor it. Can we?
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.