Earlier today, I was sitting with the cutest, 1-year-old Maltese named Baby. Her owner had brought her to see me because she bites strangers. She was hovering under her owner’s legs with her tail tucked, and panting as if she had run a marathon even though it was perfectly cool in the exam room.

The owner described her body language before her aggressive episodes as follows: head lower than her shoulders, tail tucked, and eyes glazed over. After she bites, she backs away. Baby had read the textbook. She was showing fear related aggression.

When asked, the owner remembered Baby as a fun puppy who was friendly to everyone. She took Baby everywhere and exposed her to every stimuli that she could. Baby’s parents were friendly as far as the owner can remember. What was going on here?

But, as Baby’s mom is talking, I hear a clue: "What was she like when people would go to pet her?" I ask. "She would throw herself on the floor on her back," she answered. Eureka! As the owner goes on, she describes more and more subtle signs of fear which are misinterpreted by owners regularly. Yes, Baby had been a fearful puppy and through the power of the science of learning, she had become a fearfully aggressive dog.

Let’s take a look at what happened…

Baby offered an inguinal presentation (belly up) to the visitors. She also approached slowly and her tail was wagging lower than her back. These are all signs that she was uncomfortable with interaction at least, and downright fearful at worst. She is a cutie so most people would reach to pet her.

Think about what is happening here. The dog is offering a body language cue which any dog worth her salt would understand means that she is uncomfortable. A dog would decrease or stop their direct interactions with Baby when she displayed that signal. This would reinforce (reward) the signal, preserving it. So, Baby would offer that signal again when she was scared because it worked to make her fear go away. This is called negative reinforcement-the removal of something the dog doesn’t like to increase the likelihood that a behavior will increase. Baby rolls over — the dog leaves — the rolling over will continue to be a tool for Baby to use when she is afraid. No aggression.

People, however, are not near as savvy at reading canine body language, so most people would reach to pet Baby when she offered her belly. By doing this, they punished the signal. They might as well have yelled at her. They decreased the likelihood that Baby would offer the belly up signal again in this context. BUT Baby is still fearful. Her best coping tools and communication tools are not effective!! What is she to do?

Baby had to find another way to communicate with human beings. Over the first year of her life, she displayed more and more overtly fearful body language, but it just didn’t work … until she reached her limit one summer day and bit the person who was reaching for her. The person pulled his hand away and in one fell swoop, taught Baby that the best way to communicate with people is to bite them. Other techniques weren’t effective, but biting sure was!

Now, I am not suggesting that the stranger should have left his hand in a place where Baby could continue to bite it. Only a fool or someone getting paid a lot of money on television would continue to provoke a dog to bite them. However, if someone had controlled the actions of strangers and given Baby a way to safely interact with them, she would not have progressed to that point in the first place.

It is through the power of punishment that Baby has learned to bite people instead of just showing fearful body language. Shame on us.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: wcm1111 / via Flickr