Why Dogs Bite “Out of Nowhere”

"When dogs are trained using punishment to stop growling, bad things can happen."

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

We’ve all heard some version of the following, “That dog bit me out of nowhere.” The person is talking about a dog who appeared to be at ease and then suddenly and without warning bit that individual.

Dogs normally growl before biting. Think of a growl as a dog’s somewhat polite way of saying, “I am very uncomfortable with what you are doing; would you please stop doing that?”

In the dog behavior world we absolutely love growls. Why? Because dogs are letting us know what is going on in their heads and, this is especially important, it provides us a warning. All of us love warnings, right? Isn’t it nice that dogs come hardwired to warn us before they bite?

Unfortunately, some people use training techniques that destroy this warning system that mother-nature provides as a standard feature on all dogs. When I say “people,” I’m talking about misinformed owners and even some dog trainers. Sadly, there are still many dog trainers who use ill-advised and even callous methods to inhibit growling. Remember, growling is actually helpful for dog-human communication. 

The most common technique used to stop growling is the proverbial leash snap (aka leash pop or leash “correction”).  The instant a dog growls, the dog handler aggressively yanks the leash to punish the dog for growling. To put this method on steroids, some people add a choke collar or even a prong collar to intensify the pain to the dog.

When dogs are trained using punishment to stop growling, bad things can happen.

For one, dogs begin to hide or conceal behaviors. Since dogs are sentient beings like humans, they learn to stop growling in order to avoid physical punishment. However, there is a big problem with this; their emotions haven’t changed regarding the trigger that caused them to growl in the first place. As a result, when dogs who are trained to hide their growling are pushed too far, they eventually bite without warning. They’ve unintentionally been trained by owners and/or dog trainers to do this.

There’s another problematic issue when punishment is used to get dogs to mask their normal growling early warning system. It’s called CER, Conditioned Emotional Response.

This is best explained with an example: Max is a two-year-old Bulldog who growls and snarls whenever he sees men. The owner hates that Max does this and checked the internet for advice (generally, not a good idea when it comes to dog behavior issues). The owner found an internet article that suggested he use a prong collar and jerk the heck out of the leash whenever Max does this – that’ll get him to stop.

The owner noticed that for the first few weeks it seemed to help. However, after the first month he noticed that Max’s aggressive behavior toward men had gotten much more intense – worse than before. Max could be a block away from a man and  he would start aggressively lunging, snapping and barking  – even though the owner was jerking the prong collar as hard as he could trying to get him to stop.

What happened? At first, Max learned to mask his growling and snarling to avoid the pain of the prong collar. Over time, Max started to associate the presence of men with an incredible pain around his neck (i.e., the prong collar being yanked). Max learned to really dislike men; their presence became a predictor of emotional discomfort and pain. Max was associating his pain with the presence of men; it’s called classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog). The owner had unintentionally conditioned Max to be intensely fearful of men and react aggressively.

Dogs who growl are telling us something. There are numerous ways that a certified behavior consultant can address the root cause of the growling behavior instead of simply trying to suppress a symptom. When the root cause is addressed, the symptom (e.g., growling) is normally eliminated.

Growling is an important communication from our dogs that should not be silenced. When we simply train dogs not to growl – they can bite “out of nowhere.”