Fear can motivate dogs to do things that are out of character. A dog who's scared or anxious will seek distance from whatever's causing that emotion. Most dogs try to communicate this discomfort, but many people are not experienced in reading this communication. If he is not able to get relief, a dog may suddenly bite in an attempt to gain space. A dog who develops biting behavior because of such circumstances is a "fear-biting" dog or a "fear-biter." Luckily, you can help such a dog with environmental management, training and professional intervention.
Before you can train your fear-biting dog, you must learn to read his body language. Dogs are incredibly expressive. A fearful dog will try to look away from the person, turning his head completely or averting only his eyes. The dog will hold his ears high to the top of the head or pin them back tight. The dog will also hold his center of gravity back, as if shrinking away. A fearful or stressed dog may look around frantically as if seeking an escape route, then freeze if cornered or approached. If we ignore these signs, the dog may progress to growling and curling his lip. However, this final warning may not occur in dogs who have been previously punished for growling. If your dog still offers growls, allow this behavior and respect the warning it represents.
Prevention is important when working with any dog behavior problem, so avoid situations that may stress or scare your dog. Be sure your dog can run away or hide if necessary. A trapped dog is more likely to bite. If someone is attempting to pet your dog and your dog responds with any of the body language signs, instruct the person to stop, hide her hands and look away. Then ask her to give your dog space, either by letting your dog walk away or by slowly backing away herself if your dog is essentially cornered.
Triggers and Thresholds
Before you can begin to change how your dog responds to fearful situations, you must identify his triggers and thresholds. A trigger is the thing or person that causes your dog to respond with fear, particularly biting. His threshold is the intensity at which he can see, hear, smell or approach the trigger without displaying stress or fear behaviors. For example, many dogs are afraid of children because children move quickly, have high-pitched voices and smell different than adults. To work with a dog who fears children, start at a distance that allows the dog to watch a child without becoming stressed or fearful. In this example, the child is the trigger and the distance from the child is the threshold.
Behavior Adjustment Training
One of the most effective training methods for fear-biting dogs is behavior adjustment training, or BAT. The dog is presented with a trigger at a distance that does not incite fear behavior. After having a chance to watch the trigger, the dog may either shake off, yawn, sniff the ground, turn his head or walk away. When this happens, mark with a gentle "yes!" and reward him with increased distance from the person, walking the dog in the opposite direction. Essentially, the dog learns over time that he can make triggers go away by making choices other than threatening or biting. This method builds confidence and a sense of control over a frightening world, a key component to overcoming fear.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
Though it may take longer, another effective method is the use of desensitization and counter-conditioning. Again, present your dog with a person from a distance that does not elicit fearful behavior. At the moment your dog notices the person, begin to feed a steady stream of tasty treats. Then, ask the person to walk away, and immediately stop feeding your dog. With time, you will notice that the person is able to come closer before your dog responds with fear.
Seeking Professional Help
It cannot be stressed enough how valuable professional help is when dealing with biting and other fear related behaviors. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, The Pet Professional Guild and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants have free trainer search tools to help locate someone in your area.
Shelly Volsche has worked as a professional dog behavior consultant, holds a Bachelor's degree in psychology, and a diploma in canine nutrition. She has written for "The Chronicle of the Dog" and Lucky Dog Magazine and is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology with a focus on pet parents.