When your dog bites
Updated: Jun 10
I am the proud carer of a Romanian rescue called Nutmeg, she was left by the road in a banana box with 3 siblings aged around 8 weeks, all with Parvovirus. Sadly her 3 siblings all died but Nutmeg was nursed back to health by Amicii Dog Rescue Romania and a wonderful foster, she came to me in the UK aged 4 months. Not surprisingly, given her background, she has had some behavioural issues, she was extremely sensitive to the world around her and would be nervous in many situations. Her tendency was to react to anything she wasn’t comfortable with: lunging, barking and appearing aggressive while for those she trusted she was such a loving dog.
We have worked to improve her self-confidence, keep her stress levels down and get her more comfortable with the world. She loves decompression walks, we avoid those things that trigger her where possible and we do fun training, we allow her to make choices and provide plenty of physical, mental, and emotional enrichment. Generally, she is now a much calmer and happier dog, rarely showing signs of stress, and reactivity is much reduced. However, every now and again we are reminded that there is still a dog capable of becoming stressed and over-reacting, and just before Christmas last year we had a bite incident. My unfortunate partner took a nasty bite to the face.
When your dog bites you it's scary, it hurts physically of course, but emotionally it is tough, you spend so much time giving the dog love how could they bite you. You feel sad, shocked, and confused. It leaves you feeling wary of sharing close moments, afraid it will happen again. However, it's important not to take it personally, to take a breath, let things calm down and consider what happened rationally.
I was not at home when the incident happened and was surprised when I heard about it, Nutmeg had been calm and showing no signs of major stress for some time. She had bitten me a couple of times before, redirected bites when she snapped at my other dog Luna in response to some stress stacking and resource guarding of me, and I intervened carelessly throwing my arm in-between them. A bite which wasn’t redirected was out of character. We know that Nutmeg didn’t bite because she wanted to hurt anyone, she wasn’t acting out of malice, and she clearly loved spending time with my partner.
There are two key aspects to incidents like this and considering both rationally there are likely answers to be found:
What happened immediately before the bite, what was the trigger for such a strong show of emotion?
My partner was leaning over her to pick up a bowl she had been eating from, they were in the hall which is quite an enclosed space. Her emotional response to that could have been fear, a sudden sense of being trapped with him leaning over her and the lack of escape paths from the hall.
Her emotional response could have been rage and frustration, that he was taking away something she wanted to keep, the food was gone but maybe she wanted to keep snuffling to be sure there was no trace of food left.
There is a chance Nutmeg gave a warning signal to him to move away. It may have been subtle like a stiffening of the body, moving her ears back, licking her lips: my partner is not good at reading her, as I am, and could have missed a sign indicating he should move away.
What happened in the days or weeks leading up to the incident, what was Nutmeg’s general state of physical and mental health?
I had been away for a few days in hospital, and she could have missed me as we are very close, leading to some build-up of anxiety. Dogs, particularly sensitive ones, may not cope well with changes in routine and that week was different with me not being there.
As I went into hospital, she was put on some medicine by the vet in response to what appeared to be an allergic reaction to something, possibly an insect bite. When I returned home I looked at what she had been given, ‘Prednidale’, and found it contained prednisolone which lists amongst the possible side effects increased appetite, which my partner had noticed, and aggressive behaviour. Nutmeg bit him when he went to move her food bowl, normally she would not be aggressive about food, you could comfortably move her food bowl even if it were still full. I strongly suspect the incident was linked to the tablets making her quicker to react with aggression and causing her to resource guard the food bowl as she felt the increased appetite.
Once home I could see she was behaving slightly oddly, certainly showing some signs of stress. I have become quite expert in reading her body language and noting when she is showing signs of stress, while my partner misses the signs. Had I not been in hospital I think I would have noticed her behaviour changing and checked the tablets the vet prescribed before the bite incident.
Any build-up of stress, keeping in mind it can take a few days for stress to be released from the body, will make a dog more likely to over-react when faced with a trigger. Humans are the same, some days we can cope with minor annoyances and some days when several other things have gone wrong we can't, and are more likely to snap at people.
Nutmeg returned to her usual happy and loving self quickly, and my partner survived - albeit with a scar he will never forgive me or the dog for! I understand that there were reasons for Nutmeg biting, of course it would be great if she was a dog who didn't do this, it’s hard to imagine my other dog Luna ever biting, but we just need to keep our awareness up and strive to avoid it happening again.
It is sad that some dogs are put to sleep after a bite incident like this one, or surrendered to a rescue, when there would have been reasons behind the bite and by understanding those reasons, the right actions can be taken to avoid future incidents. A bite doesn’t automatically mean you have an 'aggressive dog', it means the dog felt a strong and negative emotion (often fear) to something and responded to try and make it go away, for the dog their action could be basic survival instincts.
Some dogs are quicker to react, more likely to jump up the aggression ladder to a bite rather than just a growl, more likely to 'fight' than 'flight', 'freeze' or 'fool around' all of which are possible reactions to that desire to make something stop. The tendency to react more strongly could come from their genetics, maybe past experiences, bad experiences as a puppy, perhaps they were taken from their mother too soon or have inherited the tendency from the mother’s bad experiences through epigenetics.
We should make sure we understand the dog we have, what may make them angry, frustrated, or fearful, what are the triggers for this dog. We should manage our dog’s environment to avoid issues and learn to recognise early signals that something is wrong and keep the dogs stress levels under control. A normally calm dog showing unusually high emotional responses may be feeling pain so a vet’s trip would be called for.
Of course, any bite must be taken very seriously, particularly if there are vulnerable people in the household. Help should be sought as needed to understand why it happened and how to avoid a reoccurrence. What was the likely emotion behind the incident, what happened to trigger that emotion, what needs doing to prevent it from happening again, which could involve practical management in the dog’s environment and a behaviour modification plan.
It is normal and ok to feel angry, disappointed, and emotionally hurt if you get bitten but don't give up on them too quickly.