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?