I’m writing this as a mother of two small children, a lifelong dog lover, and a dog professional who is heartbroken, frustrated, and exhausted from reading headlines just like this so very often.
I’m writing this at the risk of it being misunderstood, misconstrued, and taken out of context.
I’m writing this because, right now, a wall of text is the only way I know how to get this message across. I am fully open to any suggestions on other ways to reach people. As a dog trainer and as a mother, I am desperate to get this message to the masses. ------------------------------------------------------------------------
We have gone too far. We have been swallowed whole by misinformation and fantasy surrounding what a dog is and how a dog’s mind functions to the point that it is wildly uncommon to find actual facts within the advice that people are giving and receiving on a daily basis. It’s not just social media and average dog owners - some actual dog professionals are also perpetuating myths and made-up “facts” about why dogs do the things they do. No one knows who or what to believe, so they run with what sounds good in the moment.
We need the truth.
Why do these horrible attacks happen?
These attacks happen when you forget what a dog is.
When you believe it’s all in how you raise them.
When you believe “some dogs just snap.”
When you neglect to understand the breed(s) you own.
When you ignore the signs or just don’t know them to begin with.
When you try to save what isn’t safe to save.
When you believe in “nanny dogs.”
When you grossly oversimplify the cause of a behavior.
When you point the finger at the owner.
The hard truth is that you do not have to train a dog to attack because prey drive to some extent exists within every predator. Our dogs are predators.The level of prey drive in a dog is dependent on the individual dog. Some breeds were selectively bred for a high level of prey drive in order to do the work they were originally intended to do. Terriers and bulldog types in particular were bred to take down anything from vermin to actual bulls. Livestock guardian breeds were created to be able to protect their charges against other predators. In some chapters of history, certain dogs were selected for their drive to fight each other. To win in these altercations, the dog can’t give up until it has won. Tenacity is required. A quick nip isn’t likely to do the trick. Grabbing, holding, and shaking are behaviors you can observe even in young puppies playing with their toys. These are natural, normal behaviors that mimic the actions used to dispatch prey. These are also behaviors that differentiate a dog bite from a dog attack.
Another hard truth - just because a dog bites or attacks doesn’t mean the dog was abused. I have been working with dogs that bite for well over a decade. The majority of those dogs are biting out of fear, and the vast majority of the owners of those dogs give me no reason to believe the dog was ever abused. Most dogs that bite out of fear do not take the next step to actually attack. They are trying to create space between them and what they perceive as a threat. Those are the bites most people receive and can walk away from with minimal injury. Children are often on the receiving end of those types of bites because all the warning signs were unrecognized leading up to the bite. I could write an entire article on the children + dogs subject alone, but I will save that for another time.
A bite becomes an attack when prey drive is triggered in an individual dog with an especially high prey drive. That trigger often starts with a state of high arousal (excitement) caused by a noise, a fast movement, or any other situation that gets the adrenaline pumping. We see it all the time when a dog sees a squirrel or other fast moving small animal. In some dogs, it will come out when they go on the defense, as guardian breeds are meant to do.
Tragedy happens when these instincts drift into an interaction with a human. It doesn’t have to be taught, it just has to be triggered. A squealing, squirming, baby or a fast-moving, high-pitched small child can trigger this in some dogs. In some situations, what starts as a bite can escalate to an attack because the erratic movements and sounds of the surprised victim intensify the drive to bite, hold, and shake. In that moment, the victim is just prey as far as the dog's instincts are concerned. When multiple dogs are present, the attack will often spur the other dogs to join in, even if biting is incredibly uncharacteristic of some of the dogs involved.
Regardless of breed or breed mix, most dogs do not attack their humans. Dogs were bred to work with and for us, so it would not be beneficial to have one that attacked the hand that feeds it. However, it can still happen in a small percentage of individual dogs.
So how do we stop this from happening?
We learn what a dog is and what a dog isn’t. We respect what a dog is and what a dog isn’t. A dog is not a four-legged version of a human. It isn’t and never has been a “nanny” for children - this is a myth. It doesn’t think like a human. It shouldn’t be treated as a human. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love and adore our pets. Dogs are amazing creatures who deserve love and respect because they are dogs. They can be devoted family members, but they are still predators.
Learn to read dogs and stop assigning human explanations to their behavior. Dogs communicate with their entire bodies, but the number of people who can read that body language is dwindling as we watch cute TikTok videos and drown in the fantasy of pretending their reactions are something they are not. The number of people who still believe that all tail wags are happy tail wags is shocking.
For every dog that is described as “snapping,” I can assure you that there were several warning signs leading up to the alleged “snap” that were completely missed, at least at some point. Learn to recognize when a dog is nervous. Learn to recognize misguided prey drive. Get help from a trainer at the first signs (nervousness, hypervigilance, excessive prey drive, anything you find concerning), not the last signs (growling, biting, or worse).
Stop trying to save every dog on death row. A dog with a bite history can be an inherent risk not only to those who adopt it, but to the neighbors, friends, and family of the adopters. Is it the dog’s fault? No… it’s just being a dog. And not all bites are created equally - some dogs that have bitten can absolutely be turned around. But we cannot value a dog’s life above the safety of a human, especially a child.
Stop oversimplifying dog behavior. It is exhausting to see discussion after discussion on social media that devolves into being the “alpha” to solve every problem or "loving" the dog into rehabilitation. If I had a dollar for every dog I’ve worked with that suffered from this mindset, I’d be rich. Most problems are rooted in other issues, and many of those issues can be exacerbated by a human who starts throwing their weight around and coming down hard on the dog in the name of being an alpha. If you do run into one of the rare dogs who actually sees you as if you’re another dog to be “dominated” you’re probably not going to win that fight using conflict anyway. Even if you win it, someone else in your circle will eventually lose if you aren’t incredibly careful.
Stop breeding unscrupulously. If a breeder doesn’t care about temperament (and I mean beyond what the puppies’ parents are like), run away. Temperament should be something they are looking at as seriously as they look at conformation and health. Just because a sire and dam are friendly doesn’t mean things look great when you go further back in the pedigree. With the majority of dogs going to pet homes, we need more breeders who make this a top priority.
Lastly, stop blaming the owners. There are bad dog owners and good owners, but a dog that bites or attacks can easily come from either of those. Genetics matter. Blaming the owner by saying they must have abused the dog or must have trained it to attack perpetuates the myth that as long as you don’t do those things, you’re not at risk. This simply is not true.
Nothing I have said has been for the purpose of scaring dog owners or vilifying any particular breed. My heart breed is and always will be the bull terrier - a breed known for high prey drive and for often being aggressive toward other dogs. I have fostered and worked with dogs of all types, from tiny to massive, of all temperaments. I do not assume any particular dog is going to be dangerous based on what it is. I do not believe that we’re all living with a ticking time bomb or an accident waiting to happen by any stretch. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have dogs of my own, of various breeds and backgrounds.
My purpose is to educate and do anything I can to help people understand why attacks happen so that we can make this stop.
If you’re living or working with a dog that concerns you, this is my open invitation to reach out to me. Maybe you’re having a hard time reading the behavior you’re seeing and need an outside perspective? Maybe you have children in the home and want to know how to achieve and maintain balance? Whatever the question, feel free to reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org