Changes in environment and its effects on dog bite behaviour


Today, the shelter accepted the fifth dog in as many weeks that had been surrendered for biting a child. It seems more and more that we are having to write “NO CHILDREN” on dogs’ files as they come into our facility rambunctious around adults, boisterous around children or unpredictably over-excited. Whilst some dogs bite out of fear, biting, mouthing and unruly over-excitement can be just as challenging: they are often the reasons given for dog bites that have led to a surrender to our shelter.

Some would argue that we are irresponsible in rehoming dogs who have bitten children, whether the bite is driven by fear or excitement. There are plenty of people who would throw their hands up and say “oh, well, but it was a child! We can’t have that!” and many, many more who would agree with them. It’s a very tough call indeed.

Sadly, a vast majority of dog-human bites are directed at children. Evidence would show that we are in fact facing more and more situations than we ever have before where children are bitten by the family pet. How is it that we are failing our dogs so badly? How is this happening in a week where my post on trigger stacking is once again doing the rounds and people are so happy to share it?

That fifth dog gave me a lot of answers to these two questions. That answer pointed to changes in a dog’s life and changes in environment.

I only had to listen to the story to know exactly what had gone wrong and how it caused an eight-year-old dog who had never bitten before to nip two children.

In fact, she is very similar to my foster dog Féfelle in many ways. Both are herding/working pedigree. He is a beauceron, she is apparently a border collie although she seems like she is crossed with something else too. Both have lived their lives in caring homes, albeit homes where they have not been taught basic commands like ‘sit’. That’s important, and I’ll come back to it later. Both have lived in tranquil environments with elderly or infirm owners and have led unstimulating, cosseted, peaceful lives. I firmly believe Féfelle had never seen animals running before. I strongly suspect that the dog surrendered today had limited experience of children other than visits or holidays. Either way, for both of them, when they have moved to a new environment, they have lost touch with the security of their owner and been placed in a more stimulating environment with owners who knew them less well than their former owners, new families who had less of a connection with them and less familiarity with them. For Féfelle, that environmental and lifestyle change was to come here, with four new dogs (albeit three old codgers) and daily walks, exercise and hours in the outside. For the dog abandoned today, that was with the daughter of the original owner, and her young family. Both dogs have had an upheaval involving the long-term illness of their owner and then been placed in a new space where they haven’t perhaps (or definitely, in Féfelle’s case) had the same rules, connections, familiarity, routine, places to escape to or places to go to cool off.

And the result of that? For Féfelle, he started stalking the lawnmower and my dogs (you can insert ‘child on a bike’ in here as they are noisy and unpredictable too and I’m pretty sure he’d be stalking whatever moves, just as he does with my dogs) and he started air-snapping my other dogs. On Wednesday evening, that ended in a shouting fight between Féfelle and my other young male, Heston. Féfelle snapped in excitement, Heston took exception. Growling escalated into a “bring it on” from Féfelle. That all ended in a lot of noise and tension. Luckily it ended without bloodshed.

The result of that for the border collie? For her, she nipped an 11 year old on a bicycle (you can insert ‘Emma on a lawnmower’ here) and she nipped a child on a swing. She has never nipped before in her eight years.

So what caused this and what is the consequence? More importantly, how do you manage it?

The cause is simple: stimulation.

Any kind of stimulation can cause fear or excitement: they are feelings of arousal that are on the same spectrum. They can be bodily, physiological reactions. Let’s be clear about that excitement. I’m not talking about Tricky Woo getting excited when they are offered a treat, maybe a gleam in their eye. I’m talking about dogs playing tug of war with leads, barking, full-frontal leaping, manic circling, mouthing hands and even nipping or biting.


This is Hagrid, who I work with at the shelter. He mostly is a wonderfully obedient dog. He can sit, give a paw, walk to heel, lie down, stay, give eye contact, hold a look. And when I take him out some days, he jumps at me, he bites my hand hard enough to bruise but not break skin. He doesn’t play tug with the lead, but he has never put anything in his mouth before other than my body parts. Sometimes, he turns around, races back to me, leaps up at me with all feet off the ground, body-slams me, grabs a body part or spare limb and tells me just how over-stimulated he is with his lovely teeth. For him, this is not a change in the environment particularly, but just a way to express those physiological changes coursing through his veins. Excitement at its most intimidating for a walker or dog owner.

Fear and excitement do the same things to our bodies in many ways. Adrenaline courses through our systems. Our hearts race. Our breathing is fast and shallow. We have a burst of energy. We stop digesting food and our blood vessels in our muscles expand. We talk of adrenaline junkies when we talk about people. I don’t know whether dogs can have the same desire to chase those feelings of stimulation and arousal as humans do, but adrenaline certainly is a key factor in over-arousal just as it is in fear.

Think how roller coasters make our normal feelings of fear into ones of excitement, or how horror movies take those same feelings and use our fears to excite us. For fear and excitement, our bodies do very similar things. That can be positive arousal in both humans and animals, like excitement, or negative arousal, like fear. Anything can cause arousal, and anything can cause fear. Sometimes those are the same things. How many people are phobic of things that are stimulating to others? Now imagine you’re a dog in car, moving to a new location. That’s as close as they’ll get to being on an actual roller-coaster! Additionally, remember that toys, food, treats and affection can be excitement triggers for dogs just as much as they can be rewards. It’s stimulation. You can’t decide as an owner whether it will be positive or negative: only the dog can do that. Thus a squeaky toy can be met with fear as well as excitement if a dog has never seen one before. It’s all just arousal.

For some dogs, those feelings of arousal can be hard-wired. We may call them dogs with a high-prey drive or dogs who have a strong genetic propensity to chase things. If something moves, it’s stimulating. Thus for my mali Tobby, if a kitten is sitting on my knee, no problem. If a kitten runs, he will be on it and it’s in his mouth. Today, I watched my super-reactive Heston race off into a wooded strip. Then there were four yips, three deer ran out and there was Heston doing his best impression of Benson, the internet’s favourite deer-chasing owner-ignoring Youtube dog. I have never taught him to chase, though I did teach him to fetch. I never taught my show-bred American cocker to forage excitedly in the undergrowth when she smells a pheasant, or to chase stags. In fact, she never plays anything. But she will chase a deer through a field or a hare along with the best of them. Add movement to arousal and several hundred years of selective breeding, and you’ve got a very good reason why lawnmowers, cars, kids on swings, kids skateboarding or other dogs running cause dogs to have a momentary spike of adrenaline. And once you have switched a creature’s reward system on, so that pleasure is derived from an adrenaline spike and the stimulus that caused it …. well, that is going to be one hard habit to break. This is why my dog Heston is like Charlie Sheen on the rampage in a cocaine factory, and Hagrid is like an over-amorous Jean-Claude Van Damme with bitey white snappy teeth.

The consequence however is those enhanced states where a dog is less likely to pay attention to you. Of course, we see that most in fear, with dogs who you’re shouting your head off at just to get their attention and they’re not listening at all. But we see it in excitement too. It’s why Heston’s recall is 100% when unstimulated and 0% when stimulated. My chance of getting him to come back when I’m competing with running deer: 0%.

Often, that can manifest in a loss of control for a dog, where their genes and dog behaviours take over rather than learning. If a dog hasn’t had any learning at all like Féfelle and the dog abandoned yesterday, well, that’s ten times more likely to happen. There’s a correlation between dogs who displacement bite and dogs who are not trained. Training opens a channel of communication between humans and dogs. It doesn’t even matter for the dogs in our shelter if that training was with some long-gone owner.

A dog who has had the training button switched on looks to humans for instructions more often than a dog who has not. You can also use those commands as a gauge for how much your dog is listening to you. Dog trainers and behaviorists do it all the time to gauge how well a dog is mastering its instincts. A dog who can sit and look at you is a dog who you can train easily to be calm around new experiences. I say easy, and it really is. Well, it’s an easy concept. It’s just time-consuming, repetitive and you have to plan it meticulously. That’s true for lead training as much as it is for your old feisty fidos who want to shout at other dogs on a walk.

And then you have Féfelle and this young lady today. For Féfelle when he’s excited, nothing is stopping him from showing you how excited he is… with his mouth. He’s not only air-snapped my dogs but nipped my elbow. He’s not the only one. A small percentage of our shelter dogs do it too when they play leash-tug, nip walkers’ legs or jump all over you mouthing you vigorously. Recently another surrendered dog also did it to a very experienced and wise handler, requiring the handler to have medical treatment. We call these misplaced energy or arousal bites and they happen fairly often in high-stress situations, like taking dogs out through narrow doorways or having to walk them down past 100 other over-stimulated dogs. For dogs and people alike, excitement can be contagious.

Sometimes at the shelter, excited dogs go for other dogs to sink their teeth into (which is why I always ask my partner to keep their dog well out of the reach of mine when we take them out in pairs) but if no other dog is available, well, you just might find yourself with a bite to the thigh, calf or ankle, or a dog playing tug of war with you.

There’s a level of energy that’s all WHOOOOOOOOOO! and if I’m a dog, I want to run, I want to hump my friend, I want to bark, I want to go mental… and a person is holding on to me. You can understand how frustrating that can be. You can see dogs bite metal fences, sink their teeth into the leash, even want to play tug of war with it. It’s all frustrated, excited energy. It’s not aggression. It’s just WHOOOOOOOOOOOO in a dog that has no outlet for their Whooing. That lead can be so exciting that it may lead to a bite. This is exactly what it’s like to take out four or five of the dogs at the shelter, including Hagrid.

And yes, this is going to happen more frequently in dogs with a strong desire for action. Collies and Australian Shepherds are known for the nipping at the ankles. Terriers – big or small – are also dogs who like a lot of stimulation and arousal. Other herding breeds are also known for that energy and love of action. Malinois are also prone to it: it’s not a surprise that Tobby my Mali got bitey around a high-energy hound pup.

So what is the prognosis for a dog like this?

It’s good, if they have tricks in their toolbox to fall back on. If you can get a sit or you can get a paw, you can build up frustration training. Thus, with Hagrid, we’re working on displacing that energy before we go out (we do ten minutes of scentwork, since he also doesn’t know how to play – tug would be great for him) and then I require him to be calm and quiet before we walk. My aim is to get him past his arousal point and slide him back down the spectrum into a neutral, calm point. Luckily, he’s really responsive and I can get a very good sit-paw-eyes-down-eyes-stay sequence even when he is highly stimulated even if I can’t get him to chase a ball. This is why he looks beautifully mannered at every single other point on that walk. People even ask me who it is, because they can’t believe it could be the same dog I was just being full-frontalled by moments before.

But if dogs don’t have those tricks, like Féfelle and the dog today, that’s when a bit of avoidance is crucial. Distance from the source of stimulation is vital. I’m going to put a lot of distance between a source of stimulation and do my best to be as far away from it as possible. I’m going to put out lots and lots of calm body language, no eye contact and zero movement (however, I am watchful of the fact that this can be frustrating too and a dog may bite to get you to hurry your own self up a bit). And I’m going to try to elicit a calmer state in the dog before I engage with them, whilst trying to ensure that I’m giving them an outlet for frustration too. I deal with frustration first, usually with something really distracting and an outlet for that adrenaline. For Hagrid, that’s two minutes of searching for high-value treats that I’ve hidden. That’s all he needs before I can get him to sit and give me eye contact. That is now all I need to stop him saying hi to my arms with his lovely white teeth.

Here’s another example. Féfelle is stimulated by seeing animals run. I keep him as far away as possible from running animals. Then I can work with him. In the meantime, I’m avoiding running animals like the plague, because I want every single occasion to be at my arrangement until he is rock solid. Counter-conditioning and desensitisation are the only tools I need here. And then, only then, will I up the challenge a little bit. For a dog who is stimulated by children’s energy, space and calm are absolutely essential. I can also reinforce and reward calm responses, or teach them a more appropriate response. For instance, when creatures run, I want Féfelle to look at me. When a dog walks by, I want Hagrid to sit and focus on me.

Here is a GREAT video of two Aussie ladies working with a reactive dog in the exact same way. I wouldn’t say the dog is excited, but it’s the exact same principle of reducing an unwanted behaviour and replacing it with a new one. I’d suggest everyone who has a trigger point with a dog finds a way that allows the dog to get rid of their adrenaline burst before trying to engage.

In the meantime, a muzzle is not a bad thing and can save your dog’s life if your dog is nipping. It can certainly save them from ending up in a shelter. If I avoid unpredictable situations, protect my dog from biting and help my dog through structured counter conditioning and desensitisation to move back to a more neutral response then I am onto a winner. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The video above shows how easy (and how structured/time-intensive) it is as a strategy.

Other things can also help: good quality physical stimulation or mental stimulation before the stimulus is a real lifesaver. For the over-excited lead-tuggers, a game of tug might be just too arousing. However, they could also learn that the toy is for tugging and the lead for walking if you go about it right, as well as when to tug and when not to. Tug is obviously a thing they are really enjoying! How wonderful would a structured teaching of tug-release-leave be to help this dog understand when to pull and tug and when not to? Anything like scentwork, chase, catch, fetch or mental puzzles can help dogs burn off that nervous energy and focus on you. As with fearful responses, you can see it happening and dogs’ body language is shouting about how excited they are. Avoiding or diffusing those moments is your goal.

Here’s the very excellent Donna Hill explaining about both counter conditioning and the arousal spectrum.

Identify the times and situations or stimuli that trigger the dog’s excitement, and then you can work easily with a good dog trainer or behaviourist to lessen the excitement at those points. But first you have to know what it is that is causing that perfect storm. For Hagrid, it’s going on a walk, but it’s also me crouching or moving my hands quickly. For Féfelle it’s the burst of energy as six dogs plough into the garden. For Angel, it was the excitement of a water hose or a lead.

Once you have identified these triggers, you can work to lower the response to them through appropriate energy outlets, desensitisation and counter-conditioning, to bring the dog back to a place of calm. You can also then build in a replacement behaviour for the dog to do instead.

As for the new arrival at the shelter, she may well have gone all her life without had she had owners a little more conscious of her obvious excitement and arousal, who then took the sensible measure of keeping her away from stimuli until they could get a bit of help. Sadly, because they ignored how excited she was, their children were injured and the shelter has yet again become a dog jail.

Should you have taken on a new dog, or changed the environment and stimuli that your dog meets on a daily basis, be mindful of the fact that the changing energy levels can be difficult for a dog to manage and that it’s up to you as the rational one in the relationship to help them manage those changes in ways that don’t hurt them, don’t hurt children and don’t hurt other animals. Just as it was true of fearful responses in trigger stacking, a calm, quiet structured environment can help overcome those moments of stimulation that can end so very badly. Leash-tug, yippy over-excited barking and Tigger leaping are other behaviours that you may also see with newly adopted dogs (or ones you’ve had for a long time!). In the next post, I’ll explore ways in which you can identify those unwanted excited behaviours, channel them appropriately and work to reduce them.