Dogs that bite

26th Sep, 2017

We recently acquired a cross-breed dog, Sally, from a shelter. She’s about four years old. We have another rescue, Andy, who is a Staffie cross, about six years old. Andy likes lots of human attention, while Sally tends to be less social with the family. A few weeks ago, Sally attacked Andy for no reason at all, and bit her quite badly: Andy had to have stitches.

It happened again two days ago, though the damage was not so bad because we pulled her away and smacked her. She can also be quite aggressive to other dogs she meets on our walks.

Please help.

Glynis Boschoff – Kimberley


Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner, addresses this dog behaviour and what you can do about it…

Dogs that bite usually have a reason. They communicate with us in “dog language” that is evidenced in their body language. Once you know the signs to look for, you should be able to intervene before Sally acts out. Overall, we can say that dogs fight because they are aggressive, fearful or overexcited. They may also bite to protect their resources: food, toys or human attention.

Shelter dogs may have had a less than favourable life up to the time we rescue them. The first three months of their lives is when they learn most about manners and how to live in the environment we provide for them. In the early stages, its mother or siblings will likely correct a puppy that bites. Socialisation with other dogs takes place roughly in the first 50 days, while socialisation with other people and objects in the environment takes place in the first three months.

It’s possible that Sally did not experience this critical process, hence her lack of bite inhibition.

With any dog that bites other animals, it can easily escalate to biting people. For this reason, our task is to keep them safe and ensure that they can’t cause damage. A muzzle is usually recommended for situations where Sally will be interacting with other dogs. Provided the introduction to the muzzle is taken slowly, with plenty of rewards, the dog will be quite comfortable with this. A basket muzzle is a good investment as it allows the dog to drink water and accept treats. Sally should also have a “safe space” where she can go to get away from temptation – a simple crate or baby gates can be used to make a den, which should have a comfortable bed, water and plenty of toys to keep her occupied. The use of a stuffed Kong toy (available from vet shops) is a good way to keep her comfortable.

We try never to have the dog in a situation where she could harm herself or others. Contrary to our instincts, it is not advisable to interfere in a dogfight as they may turn on the human. Nor is smacking or the use of other aversives a good idea, as the dog does not make the link between the behaviour and the punishment unless it’s delivered timeously.

To learn a bit more about the warning signals that Sally may give you when she is aroused, check out “doggie drawings” for Lili Chin’s free posters, and you could also read up on Dr Ian Dunbar’s articles on dog biting. Both are free.

To help Sally further will require a dog behaviourist to assist you. There are too many variables for a generalised answer. Please be sure that the behaviourist is qualified and uses “force-free” methods of behavioural adjustment. Do your research carefully – our profession is not regulated, so anyone can call themselves a “behaviourist”. ABC of South Africa has a list of qualified people, and will be able to put you in touch with a suitable person in your area.


  • ABC (Animal Behaviour Consultants) of South Africa:
  • Lili Chin’s dog drawings:
  • Dr Ian Dunbar: