Biting the Hand that Feeds You?

Crackers is a plushy, snuggly rag doll of a dog–except when he’s growling, snapping and nipping at his “dad” Don. This doesn’t seem to add up, because by all accounts Don is the one who feeds Crackers every morning and walks him more than his wife and kids. When the family gathers around the TV at night, Crackers jumps on the couch and settles next to Don, even sprawls across his lap. But sometimes even here, Crackers suddenly snaps.

Why does Crackers want to bite the hand that feeds him? If he likes Don enough to cozy up to him on the couch, how can he also dislike him enough to bite him? Is it some kind of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome–two opposite personalities in the same body?

Actually, there’s no paradox here. 

Dogs don’t growl or snap because they don’t like someone. They do it because they don’t like something that’s happening to them. They want it to stop. And they say so, with body language that other dogs easily read and respond to. When they use that language with us, it’s foreign; it doesn’t translate. We don’t get the message until it escalates to a growl or a bite. Then, at last, we stop. If only we could decode the earlier signs…?

We can. This is how dogs say, “Please stop, give me space.”

  • Flicking their tongue and/or licking their lips when they haven’t just eaten something  (Here’s my dog saying “Please stop leaning over me!” Oops.)
  • Yawning when they’re not tired 
  • Panting when it isn’t hot
  • Turning their head away from someone who’s facing them
  • Closing their mouth suddenly when it had been relaxed and open
  • Keeping their mouth clamped shut rather than loose with their tongue visible
  • Showing the whites of their eyes
  • Pinning their ears back
  • Lowering their tail
  • Becoming stiff and still 

Subtle, right? Easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking. And who’s looking? Because how would anybody know what to look for without being taught? 

I started learning to read canine stress signals after my own dog bit my four year old daughter. The rescue organization had sworn this dog liked kids. He seemed to like my daughter. So how could he like her enough to lick her face but dislike her enough to bite it?

In the years since, I discovered a core truth about dog bites. They’re not personal; they’re functional. A dog who bites me isn’t saying “I don’t like you.” They’re saying “I don’t like what’s happening right now. I want to make it stop, and nothing else seems to work.”

Back to Crackers. It might help to know that Crackers had a severe injury before his adoption and was still healing when Don’s family brought him home. He’s also blind, or partially blind, on one side. How might these vulnerabilities shape his response to being handled? Does he still have pain in some spots? Is he reflexively defensive to avoid further harm? Do reaching hands seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere because of vision loss? The takeaway: Proceed with caution, handle with care.

This is actually good advice with any dog. Some dogs love being petted, can’t get enough of it, demand it constantly. Others, not so much. Maybe they like being petted in specific places, in particular ways, for a certain amount of time. (This is my dog again, getting tired of being “massaged.”) When Crackers installs himself on Don’s lap, Don reads it as an invitation to pet him. Which it probably is. But there may be a limit. And since Don is watching TV and not watching Crackers, he may overstep that limit. Maybe Crackers is getting overstimulated, or a sore spot has flared up, but Don doesn’t notice. He just keeps on petting. What’s a dog to do? Growl! Nip! Finally Don stops. 

Does Crackers still like Don? Yes. Does he like it when Don pets him? Yes, with caveats. But sometimes Don doesn’t heed them. Crackers learns that growling and nipping are the clearest way to tell Don when to stop.

How can we know a dog’s boundaries? Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Give choices, and get consent.

A dog who wants attention will ask for it. If they don’t ask, don’t impose. Give them the choice to come to you; don’t go to them. If they come over, pet them briefly. Do they relax and lean into it? Good. Give them a little more. Watch their body language for signs they’ve had enough–e.g. turning or pulling away, lip licking, yawning, clamped mouth. Pause after a minute and see if you still have “consent”–do they want more, or do they choose to move away? If they walk off, it means “Thanks, that’ll do for now.” If they want more, great. Keep petting, pausing, checking for consent and giving them the choice to stay or go.

There are so may ways to give our dogs choices and ask for consent. What are some of yours?

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