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Why does a dog bite?

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Written by Sowjanya Vijayanagar & Surabhi Venkatesh

Dog growling and wanting to attack or bite

What puts a dog in a state where they might bite or attack?

The recent attack by a dog on her own family member has the world of dog lovers in India in distress. There has been a barrage of opinions and suggestions on what to do. Worse still, many have started calling for breed bans as a solution to the problem. 

But here’s the truth – no dog suddenly wakes up and decides to maul someone to death. When a dog attacks, it tells us about their state of mind – that the dog is in a state of emotional dysregulation. Dysregulation is a range of emotional responses that are poorly modulated and do not lie within a ‘desirable’ and ‘acceptable’ range of emotions. 

A dog is in this state has extremely poor thinking, decision making and coping strategies. They are acting out of pure instinct to protect or defend themself from what seems like a threat. Even something seemingly inconsequential can seem like a big enough trigger for a dog in this state.

What causes a dog to be in such a state of dysregulation?


A dysregulated dog - Why does that happen?

  1. Pain – A dog in pain is a dog who is extremely frustrated and is always on edge. A dog in pain is also worried about being in vulnerable situations, like when in a state of sleep (which is also when Brownie supposedly attacked the human), and as a result, you might see behaviours like touch sensitivity or an aggravated response to being touched. Research has shown a link between pain and behavioral “issues” like aggression. Unfortunately, we don’t address pain proactively and dismiss it’s existence until we are able to see physical signs of it. The impact of pain on behaviour is still largely unnoticed by pet parents and most professionals.

  2. Hormone Dysfunction – There are so many hormones in the body and if they malfunction, there can be behavioral consequences. While all are critical and are important for various different functions, it’s important to look at thyroid, adrenaline, estrogen, testosterone and cortisol.

  3. Chronic Stress – The unfortunate thing about a situation like a bite is we only think about that one incident – we don’t realise the possibility of a pattern of  repeated triggers of stress response (sympathetic nervous system) that the dog might have experienced. The incident in which the bite could place could have very well been the last straw. Instead of analyzing the situation that caused the bite, it is so critical to analyze the complete case at hand.

What does a dog need in such a situation?

Conventional advice is to “train” the dog to not bite. In Brownie’s case, the most common advice being given at this point is to find a good trainer who will train her so that the incident doesn’t occur again.

Unfortunately, this may not be very helpful if the dog is repeatedly put in situations that continue to cause stress. And it may not be a long term solution without understanding the underlying reasons for such distress.

The other thing that goes against a dog like Brownie in such a situation is that they’re countered with aversive methods of training. Choke collars, e-collars, social isolation, food deprivation, punishments are just some of the things that dogs like these might be subjected to. By doing so, we are only making things worse for dogs like Brownie. 

In such cases, the dog ends up suppressing all initial signs of distress directly escalating to biting and attacking, making this situation extremely risky for everyone involved. On the other hand, it could also lead to the dog completely shutting down emotionally which becomes a welfare concern. 

The way to address this situation and have a long term, sustainable solution is to understand the underlying reasons that are triggering the dog, address those, meet the dog’s needs and actively work on managing the environment for the dog.

But what about the breed?

Dog sniffing

Pitbull engaging in normal dog behaviour like sniffing

This discussion isn’t complete unless we talk about the breed. All over, people have now started talking about banning certain types of breeds because they’re unfit to be in a house. The suggestion to house smaller sized dogs like Shih Tzus and Lhasa Apsos is also not evidence-based and highly problematic. It puts an incredible demand on an abusive, unregulated breeding industry to continue to breed these dogs, while thousands of other breeds lie abandoned in already overcrowded, underesourced animal shelters. 

When we consider the history of the breed, pit bulls, in this case, we see that they were traditionally bred for bull baiting, dog fighting, dog baiting and other violent sports. So they were bred to attack and be attacked! Though over the years, pit bulls have been bred minus this trait, they are still largely bred, trained and housed to be guard dogs. 

Now does it mean all pitbulls will attack humans with a frenzy? 


In fact, in a study done on Breed Differences in Canine Aggression by Duffy et al (2008), 30 breeds of dogs were surveyed. In this particular survey, breeds with the highest percentage of “aggression” (bites or bite attempts) towards humans were Daschunds, Chihuahuas, Jack Russel Terriers (towards strangers and owners); English Cocker Spaniels and Beagles (towards owners). 

Pit bull terriers, Golden Retrievers and Akitas in the study were found displaying “aggression” towards unknown dogs, and not humans. 

Another study by Morill, Karlsson et al (2022) on 2000 dogs presented interesting results – they found that breed in fact wasn’t a predictor for personality. While there were a few exceptions to the rule (for instance, the study found that beagles tend to howl more than other dogs), overall, breed played a very small role in determining a dog’s personality. Polygenics (genetic make up), the environment and interactions with humans were more effective behavioural indicators. This tells us a few important things: 

  1. Any dog can be “ferocious – it’s often a result of the environment, genetic make up and interactions with the humans that determine this

  2. All dogs can benefit with socialization and support in coping with challenging situations – that’s not breed specific

But here’s what is important to remember – when we put dogs in situations that pose an opportunity for certain gene expression, we are likely to see some breed-specific behaviors. A retriever, if put in a situation to retrieve, may exhibit the retrieve behavior, a hunting dog may exhibit hunting tendencies and a guard dog is highly likely to do their job when they sense threat.

Is the breed then something to be terrified of?

Dog observing

Another apparent dangerous breed

No. Instead, here’s what we should consider: 

  1. Purchasing “pure bred” puppies in no way tells us about the genetic make up of the dog and the possible inherited traits & behaviours that we might see with them 

  1. While adopting rescue or rehomed dogs, give them time. Acknowledge the emotional baggage they are carrying, help them heal, build confidence and trust in your and their home

  1. Instead of only thinking about the breed, find a dog whose personality matches your household. Understand that every dog will have their own preferences, likes and dislikes, triggers, threshold to stress, coping mechanisms. Know THE dog in front of you. Understand them

  1. Research the breed you are bring home to be best prepared for the kind of traits you might see in your dog – this may not be true for your dog but it’s helpful to have that information with you. But make your choice based on the dog’s personality than the breed alone!

What does this mean for Brownie now?

Bailey who was struggling and came in with biting needed a place to decompress and feel reassured and safe

As you can see, the bite and attack by Brownie was not a straightforward incident. So much of her history, lifestyle, environment, physical and mental health, may have a role to play in what happened – details that we don’t have at this point in time. 

Brownie today needs a space for rehabilitation where she can completely decompress. She needs people who can work on her lifestyle and stress, investigate to find any underlying medical conditions and address them, provide a safe and secure environment devoid of triggers for a few months at least. Leaving her in a caged, socially isolated space again is going make the matters worse – the amount of work one needs to put to help her rehabilitate will only increase. 

This is a time when Brownie needs unconditional reassurance, support, patience and most importantly, positive regard. To be able to help Brownie and other dogs like her, it’s not enough to train them to not bite. It’s important to understand everything about them – their lifestyle, the physiological, psychological, and social factors impacting them and help them find ways to cope and regulate themselves, especially in stressful situations.  

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About The Author – Sowjanya S Vijayanagar

Sowjanya is a certified Canine Behaviour Consultant. She works with dog parents who are facing difficulties in understanding and dealing with dogs. She is also an Associate Member of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). In addition, she is a canine ethology research enthusiast and hopes to work on variety of research projects.

It is her dogs, Sammy and Zoey who inspired her to embark on this learning journey and they will forever be her teachers!

About The Author – Surabhi Venkatesh

Surabhi is a ceritifed canine nutrition consultant and manages Luchi & Mutton’s Canine Nutrition and Wellness. She’s currently pursuing the BACBED Diploma and is an aspiring behaviour consultant. 

She’s a dog mom to a rescued boxer and a pitbull and feels passionately about busting myths on bully breeds.

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