Dogs Bites and Their Severity Levels
Has your dog ever bitten anyone? How bad was the dogs bites?
If your dog has already bitten, you know why I’m asking these questions. But even if your dog has not bitten yet, thinking about these questions will help you get a handle on how badly the dog may potentially hurt someone. Ian Dunbar, DVM, created a bite-assessment scale that rates the intensity of dogs bites on a scale of 1 to 6. The way we actively treat the aggressive response is similar in all dogs, whether a Level 1 or a Level 6 biter, but the safety precautions you need to take during training and between training sessions may be dramatically different based on the bite level. More severe dogs bites put additional very serious considerations on the table. The size and power of your dog are important considerations, too.
There are six levels on Dr. Dunbar’s scale; following is a paraphrased version with my comments.
Dog growls, lunges, snaps, or snarls, but teeth do not touch the skin.
Teeth touch skin, but there is no puncture. There may be red marks or minor bruises from the dog’s muzzle or teeth.
According to Dr. Dunbar, Levels 1 and 2 comprise more than 99 percent of incidents related to dogs bites or attempted bites. The dog is not dangerous yet and may be more likely to be successful in a behavior-modification protocol. As long as he hasn’t produced higher level dogs bites in addition to these minor dogs bites, either at the same time or at a separate time, you may be able to safely work with him. The dog needs basic training for manners, cooperation, and self-control, and you should manage him by using a crate appropriately, keeping him behind closed doors when people or dogs toward whom he may behave aggressively are around, and using leashes and other tools to prevent him from ever having the opportunity to bite. Start obedience training immediately, and start CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment) as soon as you learn it. Before the dog discovers on his own that more intense dogs bites work even better than soft dogs bites, we want to make sure he learns that there are ways to deal with a problem other than behaving aggressively.
The goal for training with CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment) is that we are going to teach this dog a lot of safe, friendly ways to behave, and we are also going to teach him that you will never put him in situations he can’t handle. You’re going to be his advocate. If he doesn’t want strangers to touch him, strangers don’t get to touch him. If your Aunt Mimi likes to scoop him up because he looks just like a dog she used to have, and she will not comply with your instructions, you will crate him in a separate room whenever Aunt Mimi comes over. Your house, your dog, your rules. If a neighborhood child throws things at him when he’s out in the backyard, he will never again be outside in the backyard alone, and you will contact the parents of this child to let them know what has happened. (I love kids, but I think we do them a great disservice by allowing them to mistreat animals. Animals are likely to go on the defensive, and the child is likely to get hurt.)
As part of the treatment, you have to determine not to expose your dog to new situations in which he can strengthen his knowledge that aggression works to get him what he wants: distance from things he doesn’t like. Don’t let him learn new conditions under which aggression works for him. Keep him home. Exercise him in your enclosed backyard or walk him late at night and early in the morning when not many people are out walking their dogs. We hope that we can work past this with Level 1 and 2 dogs, but not in the first stages of training.
The dogs bites have left puncture wounds approximately half the length of one of the dog’s canine teeth. There are one to four punctures, but all resulted from only a single dogs bite. No tearing or slashes. The victim was not shaken from side to side. There may be bruising.
Dogs bites can be very dangerous and harmful
The potential for successful work with a Level 3 biter, according to Dr. Dunbar, is fair to good. In my view, this is true, as long as the trainer is able to handle the dog safely and is very consistent about maintaining training and management. However, behavior modification can be time-consuming and is not risk-free. This dog may bite again, and dogs bites may become more severe over time, especially if he gets a chance to learn that softer bites no longer work. The same rules for managing others around your dog and preventing your dog from learning new situations in which to behave aggressively apply for a Level 3.
There are one to four puncture wounds from a single dogs bite; one hole is deeper than half the length of a canine tooth, and usually there was contact from other teeth in addition to the canine teeth. There may be significant bruising, tears, and/or slashing wounds. The dog clamped down and shook the victim.
Level 4 dogs bites come from dogs that are very dangerous
Level 4 dogs bites come from dogs that are very dangerous. You should work with a Level 4 dog only under the direct supervision of an experienced trainer or behaviorist who understands the science of behavior and will not slap a shock collar on him. This dog’s behavior can be changed—all behavior can change—but the outlook for treatment is not good because it will be dangerous to work with a hard-biting dog. It’s just plain difficult to manage this kind of situation safely. We can definitely do things that will help this dog improve, but will he ever forget how to bite? No. There is a chance it could happen again if the conditions support biting.
I think most Level 4, 5, and 6 dogs should be under protected contact, a procedure used in zoos to protect keepers from injuries by dangerous animals. People have been killed accidentally by elephants and other exotic animals, and people have been killed on purpose because something went wrong and the animals got angry. The same is true for dogs. Taking on the responsibility to train a dog with this bite history is an enormous responsibility. If you suspect or observe that any person who will be around this dog will not follow your safety instructions, or if you will hesitate for any reason to firmly deliver safety instructions, you will not be able to safely work with this dog.
Also consider how the dog’s life will be. He will have to be locked in a crate a lot of the time. He will not be able to go out on walks. His quality of life will be at least changed, if not drastically diminished. Mistakes, such as forgetting to lock the gate or failing to notice a break in the fence, can be innocent mistakes that have tragic outcomes.
Multiple dogs bites incident with at least two Level 4 dogs bites or multiple attack incidents with at least one Level 4 bite in each.
My advice is that you do not try to work with this dog. If you do, it must be under the close supervision of a very skilled trainer or behaviorist experienced in treating canine aggression without the use of force and pain. If you use force and pain to train this dog, he is very likely to become more dangerous.
Dogs bites wound with distinct puncture marks
Any dogs bites resulting in death of a human.
This dog is simply too dangerous to live with people. To keep this dog, he would need to remain in solitary confinement, and that is no life for a dog. Dr. Dunbar recommends euthanasia because the quality of life is so poor for dogs who have to live out their lives this way, and I completely agree. Dogs do not understand the concept of end-of-life; they only know right now. They know when they are bored, scared, defensive, and so forth. Their lives will be all about knowing misery if they are kept alive after a Level 6 bite. No matter how much we love an aggressive dog, we owe him an exit from confinement and the insanity that invariably comes along with it.
There are three things to consider:
- Can the dog be managed safely during behavior modification?
- What will the dog’s quality of life be during and after behavior modification (if behavior modification ever ends)? Will a Level 6 dog’s life in a kennel be a life worth living? I’ve seen a lot of dogs develop what can only be called kennel insanity because confinement is too hard for them to endure.
- What is the likelihood of effective rehabilitation? Can we improve his behavior? Can we improve it to the point where we can guarantee he’ll never bite anyone ever again, ever? There are too many variables to know for sure.
I understand that families love dogs who have bitten them badly, even owners whose dogs have bitten them badly. It’s still a matter of protecting people and other animals from this dog. If the dog has bitten other animals, sometimes a change of environment will work; for example, giving a chicken-killing dog to a family in a community where there are no chickens or ensuring that a dog has no access to small dogs or cats may work. The latter gets more complicated because how do you know when a cat will dart out from the bushes and cross your path or when a person walking a small dog will appear on your street?
Rabies quarantine laws are another consideration. In most communities in the United States, laws require animals who bite and draw blood be quarantined for, usually, ten days. Some communities will allow in-home quarantines for first offenses, but others will require that the animal be quarantined in an animal control facility for the duration. Laws vary about whether you can get your pet back after quarantine, and the situation surrounding the dogs bites will play into decisions also. If the injury your dog caused was significant, it may be up to a judge. In the worst case, your dog may be deemed a dangerous dog and be euthanized.
I know that was hard to read, but it only takes a quick Internet search to learn why many professionals support these laws. You can easily find photographs of what has happened to people of all ages when they were bitten by dogs, and they are not easy to look at. There are also news stories from around the world of trusted family or resident dogs who killed someone, usually someone in their families. (A family dog is a pet who lives his life largely with his family and goes into and out of the house. A resident dog is one who lives outside and is not allowed into the house very often, if at all, and spends little social time with the family. Resident dogs tend to have territorial rather than familial relationships with the people in their families and can be more dangerous to their owners as well as to people they consider threats, such as delivery people entering their property.)
While you can perform treatment and be successful to some degree with Level 5 and 6 dogs bites, if the dog is already biting this severely, he might bite again when a troubling situation arises. When a situation arises in which the dog’s new skills don’t work, such as the approach of a stranger who hasn’t been coached in CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment), the dog may decide he better go back to his old ways.
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