Dogs That Bite: Aggressive or Agitated?

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Molly Stone (SPCA Behavior Specialist)

Yesterday I was bitten by a dog – a little shaggy brown terrier.
The bite came after I pulled on his tail 13 times during the course of his temperament evaluation. On the fourteenth pull he got angry and turned around and bit me. My recommendation for this dog? Stop pulling his tail after the 12th time.

Of course I don’t recommend you pull any dog’s tail but it illustrates my point: biting me was a fairly reasonable response. In fact, many dog bites are completely reasonable, circumstantial responses for which nobody other than a dog would be faulted.

Many people think that when a dog bites, it is always a sign of aggression. This is not always the case. What exactly defines aggression? Aggressive means “inclined to behave in an actively hostile fashion.” Hostility refers to antagonism and meanness. Most dogs generally don’t behave in an actively hostile fashion. They may bite, but it doesn’t mean they’re aggressive.

Take Frack, the odd-looking-but-still-impossibly-cute Jack Russell terrier rescued by the SPCA. A few months ago Frack had been adopted from the SPCA by a very nice family with a lovely 4-year-old daughter.

They had played with him in a visit room for a long time. They interacted wonderfully with Frack and he responded beautifully. By the time he got into their car he was every bit as in love with his new family as they were with him. So, what happened to break this bond?

During an outdoor play session shortly after he went home, Frack jumped toward the little girl and bit her hand. In her hand, at the time, was Frack’s Frisbee. The brand new Frisbee his owners just brought home for him. The same Frisbee he’d been chasing for some time that morning. Frack tried to take it from the little girl in the context of their game and in doing so, he bit her hand. His teeth did not leave bruises or break skin. This bite was probably not borne of aggression – and yet, it cost Frack his home.

Many people would say that in order for this to happen, Frack must have been “playing aggressively.” However, if we know that the word “aggression” means “actively hostile,” how can we use it in conjunction with a word like “playing?” Actively hostile playing? Playing because of meanness and antagonism? Does that make any more sense than swimming in the interest of staying dry?

Once he got back to the SPCA, Frack seemed very much as he did the first time we evaluated his temperament. He is deferential, and initially he is slightly wary of strangers. Sometimes he cowers if he’s approached and reached for really quickly, but that’s not unreasonable, considering the difference in size between Frack and an average adult human being. But, after a few seconds his behaviors are decidedly pro-social and solicitous.

Frack is very energetic and playful (in true Jack Russell terrier form,) and in our care, he’s been consistently difficult to annoy, a good indicator of a tolerant temperament. For example, he doesn’t complain when his food bowl is taken away. He doesn’t growl, snap or cover his toys with his paws or stare menacingly if he’s approached while he’s playing with something. And yet, Frack was returned for being aggressive. If anything, Frack’s two temperament evaluations suggest that he’s slightly nervous and sometimes afraid of new people. Maybe he’s slightly defensive at times. But defensive and aggressive are opposites.

It’s possible – in fact, I’d bet my car on it – that once he’s comfortable in an environment, Frack is less shy and more self-confident. Therefore, it’s reasonable that Frack’s adoptive family may have seen things in his personality that he’s not going to show us in the shelter environment.

Temperament evaluations are not an exact science by any means. But we’ve seen Frack’s behavior in more situations than formal temperament evaluations. We’ve spent time playing with him. We’ve cleaned his kennel, fed him, and cuddled with him. We’ve been around him a lot and not a single member of our staff has ever seen anything from Frack that has given us cause for alarm.

The veterinarian Frack saw after he had been adopted did not feel the same way. In fact, during his examination Frack snapped at his vet who responded by telling Frack’s family that the dog was too aggressive to ever have been adopted out. I think it’s important for me to take this opportunity to help Frack, and to help dogs in general, catch a little well-deserved slack so the vet’s overreaction is an important part of this dog’s story.

We know that dogs can be anxious and scared when they’re at the doctor’s office. And we know that Frack was especially nervous around new people. Snappiness under duress is normal. Let me say this again – dogs sometimes snap, or even bite, when they’re genuinely frightened and it does not mean they have aggressive personalities.

Consider your own reaction to stress or fear. While driving on the highway, have you ever been carelessly cut off by some maniac speed demon whose driving style is such that everyone on the road at the time is at risk? How did you feel when that happened? Were you angry? Did you yell? Did you make an obscene hand gesture? Did your response to this danger or irritation indicate that your personality is generally aggressive or that you tend to behave in an actively hostile fashion? Of course not! You experienced a normal human response to a stressor.

So ask yourself this – from whom, besides our beloved dogs, do we humans expect such perfectly silent tolerance, deference, and contentment?

Frack lost his home because of the bite but he will not lose his life. I am inclined to send him home with a family that doesn’t have small children to protect. With that said, classifying Frack as a Dangerous Dog or a Menace to Public Safety is absurd and I cannot do it in good conscience, even though once, he made the error of grabbing a child’s hand instead of his Frisbee.

[Editor’s Note: Animal aggression is taken very seriously at the SPCA. Aggressive animals are not placed into the adoption program and are humanely euthanized. Evaluating the difference between what is aggressive and what is normal dog behavior is one reason why the SPCA has a behavior expert on staff.]

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