We hear from James aka The Pack Walker about what to do if your dog bites you…
I’ve had a number of people recently ask me about dogs who bite their own owners.
Without wanting to oversimplify it there are some things you can do to turn things around. This is by no means a substitute for getting a trainer involved. DO get a trainer/behaviourst involved if you possibly can. But there are some starters which will at least set you on a course for success.
The first thing, is to recognise honestly what the situation is and not sugar coat it, or try to kid yourself or hide behind an excuse, or to reduce the significance of it. If you start off with the reality, it’s a pretty good spring block. Recognise the emotions you are feeling. You feed your dog, water it, you take it for walks, you give it a warm comfortable bed, you give it a pretty good life! But it still bit you. That’s pretty distressing right? Yep. it is. It’s personal and it’s upsetting. It feels like a personal insult. Ungratefulness. It will feel a lot more personal than if a random stranger dog bit you. For your own dog to bite you – that’s pretty disrespectful, and you will feel guilt, and anger and frustration because you know that your dog isn’t really feeling happy for one reason or another and he lacks faith or respect in you. That’s a lot to swallow. That emotional hit is going to hurt far more than the actual bite. Fair enough. I would be exactly the same. Face that emotion for what it is (it’s just an emotion) and then try to let it go, because the reality is, your dog moved on about 30 seconds later, whilst you’re still reeling from it.
Here’s the good news, and what you can do about it to at least put you on the right track. Your dog got over that much quicker than you did. Dogs don’t hold on to those kinds of emotional screw ups like you do. They are emotional beings, but they move on quick. They look at today with fresh eyes, whilst you’re still hung up on what happened last week, or last month. Rather than over-complicating it, or trying to pinpoint the exact reason why your dog bit you, just start from zero. Imagine you just today got your dog from the pound. Bin everything you think you know about him and try to look at him through fresh eyes, and leave as much of the old emotion behind as you can because that emotion is clouding your judgement. He’s a brand new dog, this is a brand new day. What does he really NEED from you? The good news is, your dog will welcome this new approach. That’s one of the gorgeous things about dogs. No matter how crappy things got yesterday, they will always be willing to gravitate back towards balance with a new day given half the chance and a little help. If you’re still hanging on to what happened last week, you’re not going to help what happens next week.
What your dog NEEDS.
Primarily and top of the list, he needs to feel safe and secure within your leadership. That sounds obvious, but it’s really mega important to a dog. Dogs in the wild have a really clear structure around them. The family unit is clear. Their job description is clear (they have a job!). Their purpose is clear. The boundaries are clear. The rules are clear. the affection is clearly understood within a time and a place. Everything is clear, including the number of decisions they are free to make, and there’s no confusion about who does what, or who’s at the helm. Those are the things which make a dog feel confident and bomb proof. You can’t fix a dog’s emotional imbalance by kissing it more.
So if you’ve really hit a wall, and don’t know how to move forward or how to improve the relationship with your dog, try to forget everything you think you know about your dog and start from scratch, and make sure you have covered all the basics. Are you really acting like a person your dog would want to follow? Would YOU want to follow you? Or are you trying to con the dog into believing what you don’t even believe yourself? Have you put a crystal clear household management structure in place? Are you acting like an unstable emotional moody rollercoaster or are you an emotional stable pillar that your dog can lean on? Think of it this way. If you were air dropped into the rainforest in the middle of nowhere and were completely clueless where you were or how to find your way or how to eat, or how to find anything that will keep you alive, and you have a choice of two people to put your faith in. One gives you loads of cuddles and emotional support and keeps telling you everything will be alright. The other person has a map, plenty of food, knows where to go, is confident, acts like he knows the rainforest like the back of his hand, and struts away saying ‘follow me, stick close, I know how to get us out of here’. Who are you going to follow? Who makes you feel more safe? Is the guy with the map being bossy and oppressive and dictatorial and “dominant” (that word that everyone ducks away from) just because he was really specific about how to proceed and limiting your options? or would it instill confidence in you? The best leaders don’t make anyone do anything. They lead, and others choose to follow because it looks like a safe bet. If your dog had a free choice – would he choose to follow you? Are you worthy of being followed?
With very few exceptions, the clients I have gone to see have been over-thinking and been over-emotional about their dog, and they’ve hit a wall and don’t know how to proceed. So think in really basic non-emotional terms: Where is your dog putting his faith? In himself, or in you? Because he NEEDS to put it in you. Not WANTS. It’s a necessity, and if you’re not up to it, he will carry that burden of leadership himself, for which he is probably ill-equipped and he will screw up, and get himself in trouble, including biting you or another dog and make life even worse for himself. Giving lots of power and freedom to a dog is like giving a heavy rucksack full of burden and it can be overwhelming and very stressful. Dogs don’t actually want that power of control and freedom. I can count on one hand the number of truly naturally dominant dogs I have met, who really want and are pretty damn capable of leading. Awesome dogs actually! But the rest have the job thrust upon them by default because no one else was doing it, and they end up stressed and making big mistakes. Would you want to be prime minister for a week starting tomorrow morning? You’ve had no training, no brief, no guidelines, no help, just given the job and its up to you to make some big decisions. It would be stressful, right? And then the prime minister comes back after a week, and says ‘hey i’ve got this, relax, go back to being a dog trainer, I’m going to fix everything’. That would make you feel unburdened and less stressed, right? That’s how a dog feels when you take over. He’s off the hook. He relaxes. He chills. He can just be a dog and have a job that he can actually handle. And you can make a dog feel like that within minutes of walking into a room. Chilled dogs don’t bite people. Stressed-out ones do.
So sometimes too much freedom and power to choose is not nice. So start from scratch – Forget what you think you know. Decide everything from where he sleeps, to when he eats, to how long he is allowed to chew a bone, to how far he can run on the walk etc. You’re not being restrictive or mean. You’re giving him what he can handle for now, and building it up. Heavily structure the basics. We’re making sure every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ crossed. Your dog will test you of course! But as I’ve said many times on this page, the testing is a little battle. They might think they want to win it, but they don’t. What they really want is to know that you can neither be manipulated by cunning cuteness, nor intimidated by aggression. They want to know that you’re solid and steady, always full of affection and discipline in perfect proportions, and that you are always, always, always fair. So grow a spine. He doesn’t need a £500 bed from Harrods, he needs you to be his leader.
When that penny drops, your dog will start to feel really grounded and secure, and self confident. The structure of this is the absolute bare wires of correcting unwanted behaviour. It’s by no means a comprehensive go-to. I do a ton of stuff on top of this, but this is where it starts. By tackling the state of mind this way, rather than going around sticking band aids on specific behaviour traits, or choosing a punitive approach, the behavioural issues will quite often start to dissolve away by themselves, because you will have rebalanced the things which gave your dog the desire to bite you in the first place.
The instinct in a dog to stay alive is really strong. It may not be as relevant today living in a household with us, compared to living in the wild, but the instinct is still there. They will instinctively want to follow someone who is demonstrating good, calm, warm, authoritative solid leadership skills, because that is the best chance of staying alive. It’s a higher priority than being loved. It’s really important to remember which tops the list. Focus on making your dog feel safe first. The love just follows on like magic anyway.
(But still get a trainer involved too!)
The Pack Walker offers:
* All-day pack walks covering up to 10 miles
* 1-to-1 intensive training
* Board and Train services
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