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Karen B. London
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Out of Control Biting
Are some individuals incapable of self-control?

I specialize in working with dogs with aggression issues, so I think about biting behavior a lot. Mostly, I’m pondering ways to help dogs stop doing it and ways to help people who want to help their dogs stop doing it. Many thoughts center on protecting dogs from situations in which they are prone to biting, and protecting people and dogs from being bitten. Other topics include the motivation behind biting, the triggers that elicit it and the effects of a bite on everyone involved.

My biting obsession is always centered on dogs. I had given very little thought to biting by people until this week’s incident at the World Cup in the game between Uruguay and Italy. In that match, Luis Suárez of Uruguay bit (actually bit!) the shoulder of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, who showed the tooth marks to the referee. The commentators seemed dismayed with remarks such as, “Oh dear, dear, dear,” and perhaps more alarmingly, “Surely not again.”

Yes, that’s right, this is not the first, but rather the third time that Suárez has bitten an opposing player. In the past, he has been suspended for a number of matches because of his behavior. It seems crazy to jeopardize his career and his reputation, embarrass himself and hurt the chances of his country succeeding at the World Cup by biting again. Television cameras are everywhere, and millions of people throughout the world are watching. There wasn’t a chance that another bite would go unnoticed or unpunished, and he has in fact been given the longest suspension in World Cup history and fined over $100,000. That’s why I think that Suárez is literally unable to stop this behavior because he lacks emotional control. (I’m not suggesting that he is not responsible for his behavior or that he should be treated leniently because he can’t control himself. I’m just saying that he seems unable to exercise normal inhibition of his own impulses.)

Biting is far more common in the canine world than in the human world, but it’s still rare to meet dogs who bite in such an uncontrollable way. I’ve known very few dogs like this, and though the behavior is unacceptable, I do find myself feeling pity for individuals—both dogs and people—who are unable to control themselves. It’s a shame to lack normal social skills and become dangerous to others or unwelcome in various situations as a result.

Emotions such as anger and frustration combined with high arousal are typically involved with dogs who bite in an out of control way. (Suárez has said that he was angry with Chiellini for hitting him in the eye during the game, and there’s no doubt that the intensity of a high stakes international soccer match lends itself to high arousal in the players.) Such bites happen when dogs have the canine equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum because they don’t get what they want. Dogs who bite in these contexts are literally unable to control themselves. It is much harder to substantially improve their behavior compared with other dogs, most of whom are biting as a result of fear.

Many humans go through a biting stage at around age 2, but they outgrow it. They learn self-control as well as developing an understanding of what is socially acceptable. Similarly, dogs use their mouths both playfully and not so playfully as puppies, but then the vast majority of them develop normal bite inhibition and an understanding of what they are and are not allowed to do with their mouths. Biting is a more normal part of canine behavior than of human behavior since people are more inclined to hit when behaving aggressively than to bite, so the analogy is not perfect, but there are similarities.

It’s important when working with an aggressive dog to understand as much as possible about why the dog is biting. There’s hope for the overwhelming majority of dogs with a bite history, as many are able to improve their behavior with a combination of behavior modification and a sensible management plan for prevention. However, there is the rare dog whose likelihood of improvement is small because of a lack of any kind of self-control and the tendency to bite when frustrated, angry and aroused.

Did anyone else see this incident and have their minds immediately go to thoughts of dog bites?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photo by tracydonald/Flickr

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Submitted by Janet | June 27 2014 |

It occurs to me that, as a third time biter, if he was a dog Suarez would be put down. I think he needs some positive reinforcement training, not so much punishment. Obviously, it is not working.

Submitted by Karen London | June 27 2014 |

Janet, that is spot on! I agree that the punishment is not working and that positive techniques such as reinforcement for playing appropriately or teaching an incompatible behavior that he resorts to in those situations would be more likely to be effective. That said, I feel comfortable with his suspension, not so much as a punishment but because I think it's wise to avoid having him in situations that are beyond what he can handle. It's the same reasoning that leads me to advise people to prevent situations that their dogs can't handle for now, with the goal of helping the dog to be able to handle that same situation in the future. Still, behaviorally speaking, this is definitely a tough case.

Submitted by Robert | July 1 2014 |

Another tool used in the canine world is to shun/exclude the member that won't conform to pack rules. I believe the action taken is the appropriate action.

Submitted by Leslie Pearlman | July 1 2014 |

How would positive reinforcement for Suarez be better than punishment? Maybe for a dog or child but Suarez is an adult.

Submitted by Sue Alexander | July 1 2014 |

I could easily argue that he is being put over threshold by being put back into the same behaviour provoking situation before he has developed sufficient self control to be there.

Submitted by robin | June 28 2014 |

Every time you write about biting Karen, it strikes close to home...because my normally sweet pup, age 4 or so, is so good...but when provoked can bite or do what was recently described as that juvenile type of biting/going for the sleeves/arms/hands. I never jumped to thinking of dog bites when hearing about the soccer player...your essay was a very interesting take. As always, the problem for me is living with parents who are 90+ who cannot seem to learn how their behavior is read by my pup. The other day I came home to hear how she went to "attack" (an inappropriate and abused word for a description, in my opinion) my father. I know SOMETHING must have been a trigger...what was he doing? Walking up the short flight of steps in our split level home to the level where our pup was. Whether she was lying down, or standing, too often I see how my father interacts with her, staring her down, as if to tease/provoke in fun, clueless to how it or a slow, prey like walk could be misinterpreted.
Some people can't learn!

Submitted by SJ | July 1 2014 |

I really don't think you should be blaming your father for your dog's inappropriate behavior. It's not like he was yanking her ears. It may be that he stares at her because he's now very wary of her, and I don't even know what a "slow, prey like walk" is. Every dog I've ever had has been triggered by fast moving animals or objects, not slow ones. Not to mention that most nonagenarians can't move as fast as they or we would like.

Your dog seems to have a very low bite threshold, and you should 1) work with a trainer and 2) keep the dog crated or isolated in a room when you can't supervise the dog's interactions with your parents.

Submitted by Lisa | July 1 2014 |

Elderly human parents are, in my experience, much harder to train than any canine or human child.

Submitted by Melissa Paolella | July 1 2014 |

I have been making the comparison constantly! If he were a dog in most dog sport organizations with which I'm familiar - he very likely would have gotten a lifetime ban after *one* bite. I thought of redirected aggression as well - I watch a TON of sports (TV and live), and it's amazing to see how much of that goes on (especially hockey, but it's pretty prevalent in many sports). All of the fight and flight hormones are up. Physical contact - incidental or intentional - takes place, and then the punches or (more rarely) biting ensues. Less this particular human aggression incident, but in a lot of sports I mentally compare the athletes pushing and shoving to the overstimulated agility dogs I sometimes see who are gripping/nipping their handlers - just over the top between the sport, frustration, etc.

Very nice article.

Submitted by Mindy Waite | July 1 2014 |

Yeah, I was watching that game and was horrified when the commentators mentioned it was his 3rd offense. Talk about a complete lack of self-control and in need of professional help. I actually feel really bad for him, because his lack of self-control doesn't mean that he lacks embarrassment after the event.

Submitted by Denise | July 1 2014 |

I don't see a problem with punishing a human who knows the rules and clearly knows right from wrong. After 3 times, this guy should be permanently removed from sports. He should also AT LEAST pay his victims medical bills. Threat of punishment doesn't seem to work for this guy, but that doesn't mean it doesn't serve as a deterrent to bad behavior for other humans. A human society with no consequences for breaking laws would descend into madness.
I take a different view with animal behavior. I would separate a dog to prevent bites, but I would not + punish him, and I think the research supports this. I see major differences between animal behavior and human behavior.

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