He Bites Without Warning?

Henry is a very mixed-up dog. The four-year-old Staffy mix has been with the young lady for three years now and came with a good deal of baggage which we can only guess at. He was terrified wreck initially. The lady has come a long way in making him more confident.

Brindle Staffy mixHenry ‘bites without warning’ and it’s getting worse. It did, to me, ‘come out of the blue’ at the time when he went for my feet under the table because it seemed so out of context with his other behaviour and I wasn’t looking for the right things. Replaying the sequence in my head afterwards I could see there was in fact subtle warning.

Henry, between barks, had happily eaten food that I threw over the gate and made no attempt to back away, so he wasn’t unduly fearful. He was put on lead by the gentleman who took him the other end of the room while I came through the gate to sit at the dining table with the young lady. I lobbed Henry chicken and I threw him a ball. Fine. He had a couple of short barking bouts but soon stopped. I suggested the man dropped the lead.

After a while I watched Henry disappear quietly under the table towards me and he suddenly surprised me by biting first one of my shoes and then the other – hard and in quick succession. My feet hadn’t been moving. Fortunately no harm was done as my shoes protected my feet. I asked the man to get hold of the lead again.

How did I not see that coming?

This seemed very much like anger to me – anger perhaps that his barking hadn’t got rid of me and that I simply carried on sitting where I was, the other side of the table, ignoring him when he barked.

I could now see why they said their dog was unpredictable, ‘biting without warning’. We carefully examined each of the other times he has bitten in detail and found quite a few things in common including (apart from myself) it has been men he attacks and he bites always below the knee and usualy hard enough to draw blood. On each occasion Henry was already very aroused.

Why bite my feet?

Where most dogs, certainly those that have had a more fortunate upbringing, will only bite as a last resort, Henry seems to go straight into biting. It looked very much like some sort of learned behaviour to me. One time when he was held by the collar and couldn’t get to someone he actually bit the sofa instead. I would guess that, at some stage, he has been taught to bite, maybe deliberately.

If has been ‘roughed up’ to encourage aggression with the original owner from a pup, possibly tackled with feet to encourage an aggressive response, my guess is that the mere sight of feet/boots/legs/shoes has in the past had his body drenched with fear of being attacked so he will over time have built up an automatic response. If the stress of feet/shoes and close proximity to the lady he trusts and invasion of space has been niggling, then his warnings to increase distance were ignored (barking), it might have just tipped him over, resulting in defensive, fearful and what seemed a no-warning sudden reaction with no control of his actions to my feet under the table. This is the most likely explanation.

As it had happened to myself, I could re-play the scene in my mind afterwards. I believe, when we know what to look for, there is warning and a context. The usual context is one of Henry already being stressed, being in his own territory and a man being too close to himself or to the lady. The warning: he stares. That’s all. It could be easy for his owner to miss unless she’s watching him constantly.

For important reasons I won’t go into here, the lady has a deadline to make some progress with Henry.

There first thing to ensure is in place is management. He has to be muzzled when they are out, just in case. She already has systems in place for when callers come to the house, a gate, a crate that he’s used to being in, an anchor point and a muzzle he’s quite happy with, but this isn’t really the life that anyone wants with their dog. The young lady works hard to give her dog the best life possible but she unable to have friends to her home and she can’t take her dog away with her.

As stress is playing a such large part, everything must be done to keep Henry’s stress levels down in all areas of his life. Every time he goes mental when seeing a person or even barks at people passing the fence it is ‘loading the gun’.

He needs reprogramming. This is the only way in the long run that he is ever likely to be trustworthy. A process will be taught and repeated over and over, hundreds of times, so that upon a certain cue Henry will immediately and automatically, without thinking, follow a pre-planned sequence that is incompatible with stressing, barking or staring at someone. Whenever he sees a person and is anything other than relaxed, he must be taught a default alternative behaviour incompatible with his current behaviour.

I won’t go into the exact detail because it is specifically tailored to Henry, and if lifted and applied to another dog out of context could be inappropriate.

If the technique can be sufficiently ingrained before time runs out, then other people can also use the special cue if they are feeling at all uneasy.

The ‘wrong’ people taking on young dogs for the ‘wrong’ reasons can do untold harm. When they are abandoned, where do many end up? Well-meaning people like my young lady do the principled thing by taking in a rescue dog and then end up condemned to years of heartbreak and worry, unable to live a normal life because of the damage done earlier by someone else to the dog they have grown to love.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Sunny. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).