This is part four of a four-part series on dog bites
Each age range of child has different specifics to watch out for, so as a parent or a dog owner you have to constantly be shifting your management strategies to match the child’s development. However, all age ranges can run into some common danger zones. These are areas where the dog may feel trapped, and as we know when the fight or flight instinct kicks in, if there is no option to flee there is only one option left- and it can lead to a bite. These areas include the tops of stairways, corners of rooms, doorways, ends of hallways, under the bed, and between the couch and the coffee or end table.
Additionally, dog owners especially should be aware of the stresses the dog is under. The more stress you are under, the more likely you are to snap- and the same is true for a dog. Every dog has a so-called “growl threshold” which is the point at which the stress is high enough to elicit a growl. They also have a “bite threshold” which is the point at which the dog will bite. These thresholds are different for every dog and may be close together or far apart (although the growl threshold is generally hit first). If the dog is under a lot of stress, they are more likely to cross their threshold, either growl, or bite.
For instance, let’s consider the theoretical dog “Buddy”. Buddy has been well-socialized, is well cared for, and is fully integrated into the family. He does not live with kids, but he does well with them. The presence of children doesn’t bother him unless they are running and shrieking, in which case it gives him a stress level of 15 (arbitrary number simply used to make my point). Buddy has a high prey drive, and seeing rabbits and squirrels he can’t get to frustrates him, giving him 20. On this particular day, Buddy was on a walk in the spring and was constantly trying to get at various critters. He had a stress level of 20, when he went past a yard where 4 unsupervised children were running around shrieking and enjoying a game of tag. That gives him a stress level of 35 total. Now, Buddy also hates water sprayed at him, so when the sprinkler in the yard showered him unexpectedly with water, his stress level spiked to 60.
If Buddy’s growl threshold and bite threshold are both above 60, he will be able to handle this when a child races past within reach of his leash. If his growl threshold is 45 (for instance) but his bite threshold is 90, he will growl but not bite. But if his growl threshold is 45 and his bite threshold is 55, he will growl and bite.
Now, keep in mind that this situation is stripped down and the numbers are arbitrary. No one really knows what number any given dog’s growl or bite threshold is at- it’s only a way to quantify it that makes it easier to think about. What you can know is how likely your dog is to growl (how low the growl threshold is without using any numbers), how likely your dog is to bite, how close those two likelihoods are (how close the growl and bite thresholds are, which tells you how much of a warning the growl is for your dog), and what things stress your dog out (making him more likely to growl or bite). I know that my Lab’s growl threshold is fairly low compared to her bite threshold, which is quite high. My Rott’s growl threshold is fairly high, but his bite threshold is lower, and his growl and bite thresholds are fairly close together. And I know what stresses them out, so often times I can tell if one of them is having a bad day before any growling even happens.
Growls are warnings and should be taken seriously as such. That said, given my two dogs’ growl and bite thresholds, I take Lenny’s growling a bit more seriously than Boo’s growling. However, if you ignore all the warning signs, you’re adding more stress (because the dog realizes his communication attempts are failing) and may end up with a bite on your hands. By looking at the various stressors your dog has to deal with, you can increase his tolerance to those stressors and thus make him less likely to hit those growl and bite thresholds (because the overall stress will be diminished). Generally dogs do not bite without first and repeatedly trying to warn, so don’t ignore these warnings.
Be aware of danger signs and take them seriously too. If you see lots of stress or aggression signals from the dog when kids are around, you need to get help for your dog. If your dog continually and reliably tries to avoid children, you need to work to decrease his stress in those situations. Any warnings of aggression (growls, snarls, snaps, or posturing) should be taken as definite danger signs, and you should seek professional help to help your dog. Dogs who are possessive of any item or who have any aggression or fear issues should not be around kids until these issues are taken care of (because management for these dogs is often a nightmare, and the risks are significant if management fails). Any unrestrained predation on other animals, especially if the dog has killed cats or other dogs, is another huge danger sign in my book. Repeated “fence-running” or lunging toward strangers or passers by is another danger sign because if the fence or tie out fails, a bite is likely to occur. And any aggression from a child toward a dog is another danger sign, because kids are the other side of the coin in this matter. Kids and dogs go hand in hand- both can be aggressive toward each other, and both need to be taught how to act around the other. Any aggression toward the other, whether from a child or a dog, is not to be tolerated if you are to have a high chance of success building a positive relationship between the two.