Was It Just a Little Bite or More? Evaluating Bite Levels in Dogs

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

Download the Canine Bite Levels Poster.

As the 75-pound male shepherd mix squatted to urinate on the floor just 10 minutes into our consult, I hinted to the owners who were seated between the urinating dog and me,  “The paper towels are hanging on the post right next to Ferdinand.”  Since the owners were way closer to the paper towels than I was and theirs was the dog pottying inside the behavior consult room, I assumed they would clean up the mess. Not so! So, I decided I’d better clean it up myself.

Although the dog was presenting for fear (aggression) to unfamiliar people, I’d already greeted the dog, he was comfortable taking treats, AND the owners had marked in the preconsult records that he had never bitten anyone before. As I got up to walk past the owners toward the papers towels and the accident, I noted Ferdinand’s demeanor. He was relaxed and still interested in exploring the room. Fearful dogs suddenly can become scared and reactive when the person they’re nervous around changes posture, moves suddenly, or approaches them, especially head-on. Ferdinand showed no such signs of anxiety or reactivity.

Furthermore, although the owners had brought him in on a muzzle, they had asked to take it off now that he was in the room and looked comfortable. They said that he only was fearful of some people. They reiterated that, as the preconsult form stated, he had never bitten before. We decided to let him explore the room while dragging his leash, so that I could evaluate his uninhibited behavior in the new environment.

As I dropped the paper towels onto the floor and then stepped on them to sop up the dog’s mess, I continued to question the owners about Ferdinand’s history. “How many aggressive or reactive incidences does he have per week? How do you handle the situations? What’s his response to your handling technique?”

When all the urine was soaked up, it was time to collect the paper towels and dispose of them. Normally when I’m in the room with a dog who’s fearful and reactive, the dog would be on leash. In addition, I might avoid facing him head-on even to pick up something off the ground. But, based on the owners’ experience, Ferdinand was not likely to react at this point. Plus he was over 10 feet away. I casually bent down to pick up the paper towels. Then I hear, “Bark! Bark! Bark!!” and feel teeth on both sides of my head.

The owners quickly had him by the leash and pulled him away from me so it wasn’t a serious or even scary event for me. Plus, I was pretty sure that there were no marks on my head. However, that didn’t stop me from being peeved.

I emphasized to the owners, “You know that counts as a bite.” I thought to myself, “When you told me he had no history of biting, you forgot to include that you didn’t count the times that your dog rushed a person and grabbed a body part in their mouth as a bite!”

Based on the response of this dog, I could tell this wasn’t Ferdinand’s first time acting like this. He’d clearly had some practice sessions barking, lunging and putting his teeth on skin. A first timer facing the same level of threat or scariness—me leaning over from far away while not looking at him—might run up and bark at me but would just snap or nip with his front teeth, rather than actually grabbing my head like he was trying to taste a cantaloupe with his teeth. If he’d had tons of practice or intent to harm he’d have actually bitten down or clamped on in the same way he does when he mangles his tug toys. Or if he was scared out of his mind by my movement he would have kept biting, even if it was only a soft bite owing to lack of enough confidence to bite hard. But it was still a bite; the owners should have known that it could happen and should have had Ferdinand on leash or still wearing his muzzle.

How could the owners have been so naïve about their dog’s behavior? Usually when people think about bites and aggression, they think about mauling or think the dog has to intend to be mean. However, Ferdinand’s biting behavior, although mild, was cause for concern.

“Some Bites Can Kill”

Surpisingly, even with serious bites, sometimes it doesn’t click for owners. Says, Dr. Emily Levine, a veterinary behaviorist at Animal Emergency and Referral Associates in New Jersey, “I recently saw a 2 or 3 year old intact male English Bulldog in a behavior consult. The dog was staying at the owner's mother’s house. She thought the dog was crated. She went to open the door for her friend who was there holding her baby. The dog saw the visitor, ran straight towards her and bit her legs. The dog bit through muscle down to bone. They owner had a difficult time getting the dog off of the visitor. The visitor needed 90 stitches and will likely need plastic surgery,” continued Dr. Levine.

You would think that a person would clearly see how dangerous this situation is; however, according to Levine, this family had no real experience with aggressive dogs. Says Levine, “The owners had been instructed by Animal Control to quarantine the dog, which they did, but because they never received a visit from the Animal Control Officer at the end of the 10 day quarantine, the owner thought that perhaps this degree of bite was not out of the norm.” In the owner’s view, since the Animal Control Officer didn’t seem concerned enough to make a return visit, the bite must not pose any future threat.

Luckily the owner did seek a behavior consult. “Once they were educated about the fact that this was a very severe bite and after I went through the risk and benefits of a behavior plan, they decided that the risks outweighed the benefits for them.

They understood that even if they were extremely vigilant and did a great job with the behavior modification plan, fantastic results are not a guarantee.

“They realized that this could happen again and that this dog could literally kill someone,” says Levine.  “If the person he had attacked was a short person or a child, it would have been the neck he grabbed hold of.” The owners decided to euthanize their dog.

Although aggressive behavior can be modified in a huge range of cases, behavior modification is not like fixing a clock or a television set where you make a few changes and then it’s good for another five years. Dogs are living animals and behavior is something you can never guarantee 100%. Based on her findings with this particular dog and family, Dr. Levine says, “I believe the owners did the right thing. I fully supported this choice.”


Different Level Bites

One way to find out how serious a bite may be is to acknowledge that different levels of bites exist. Bite levels range from minor to so severe they lead to death. Dr. Ian Dunbar first developed this bite levels system. I’m providing my modified description of these levels here.

Level 1 (pre-bite): the dog snaps or air bites but makes no contact with the person. Now people tend to say, “The dog tried to bite me but I moved away.” I say, “Give me a break.” Humans have sloth-like reactions compared to the speed of a biting dog and dogs have pretty good aim when trying to grab things. If the dog actually meant to bite (rather than just give you a warning), you would have the holes to prove it. Owners should take this air snap as a sign that someone wasn’t paying attention to their dog’s earlier signs of displeasure or fear. Owners should get help before this sort of pre-bite behavior progresses to an actual bite. Avoid punishing these warning signs or the dog may progress to biting without warning. Instead, learn the signs of fear and anxiety that the dog probably showed prior to this situation and learn to spot the common inappropriate human actions that may have contributed to the snap.

Level 2 (near-bite or highly inhibited bite): the dog snaps and makes tooth contact on skin but there’s no actual puncture. Often the dog runs up to or lunges for a person but just puts front teeth in contact with the skin in a sort of near-bite.  In other cases, the dog actually opens his mouth and clamps but in an inhibited manner such that no skin is broken. Again the owners should ask, “What earlier signs did we miss to warn us that this could happen?” The owners should realize, the near-bite or inhibited bite could turn into a real bite down the road.

Level 3A: the dog bites once and punctures skin, but the puncture is shallower than the length of the canine tooth.  Even though this bite may not be severe, it is still reportable. And painful, too. Reporting is mandatory if the victim is treated in a hospital. Once your dog has actually bitten at this level (or higher) he will always be considered a liability, even if, with behavior modification, he is 99.9% improved.

Level 3B: the dog bites multiple times leaving skin punctures shallower than half of the canine. Multiple bites generally mean the dog is in a higher arousal state. That is, the dog is reacting without thinking between bites.

Level 4: the dog bites once with punctures deeper than the length of the canine (the dog bit and clamped down) or the bite produces slashes in both directions from the puncture which indicates that the dog bit and shook his head. This type of bite is very serious. While any of the lower bite levels should act as a neon sign telling the owners to seek help from a qualified and educated behavioral modification specialist (link to my site), the level 4 bite says, “Man, you should have gotten help three years ago. This has been building up even longer than the level 3 bites.” Level 4 bites are way harder than level 3 bites and now show no inhibition in strength. A dog biting at this level presents a screaming liability to the owners, both in terms of money and family members because this type of bite can kill a child.

Level 5: The dog gives multiple bites with deep punctures. Dogs who bite at this level generally have had practice biting at levels 3 and 4. Some dogs are so fearful that a scary event triggers a high arousal state and they get stuck in a reactive mode, continuing to bite hard.

Level 6: The dog kills the victim or consumes their flesh. It’s important to realize that even little dogs and puppies can bite hard enough to kill infants and small children, just the way little knives can. Dogs can bite this hard due to fear, but they can also bite and cause death due to over aroused play.

What Should You Do If Your Dog Bites?

Now that you know dogs can bite at different levels and early snapping and low level bites can, and often do, lead to more severe bites, you can start addressing the biting earlier, as soon as you see warning signs. Hopefully, the situation won’t escalate into something life-threatening for your dog or others.

For information on how to prevent dog bites or the types of behavior modification that are safe or appropriate, go to Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs who Bite.

Download the Canine Bite Levels Poster.

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27 responses to “Was It Just a Little Bite or More? Evaluating Bite Levels in Dogs

  1. Dr. Yin,

    Thanks for such an informative article and for providing a framework and scale for dog bites to humans AND the links to prevention, including human behavior. You may have already done this (I am new to your resources), but, if not, please consider discussing the similarities and differences between how dogs interact with other dogs vs how dogs interact with humans. For instance, many dogs will mouth another dogs neck in play, however, such interactions with humans are inappropriate. However, in some instances, this action is cause for alarm in dog-to-dog interactions. How do we tell the difference?

    Lissa

  2. The post is incredibly useful. I have read a large number of blogs on Dog bites, Rabies etc but the description along with the pictorial representation has made this post one of the best posts that i have ever read till date. Dog bites are very common all over the world and to show the seriousness of the need to evaluate the bite levels could have never been so good than you have done. Thanks for sharing such an important post.

  3. Dr. Yin,
    I’m wondering if you have any training for deaf dogs available that you would recommend? Thanks for all your work and available information. Stephanie

  4. My dog will not let anyone groom him without biting. We now have to have him sedated at the vet and they sheer him. He has bitten me for attempting to groom him. Now he gets aggressive even when I try to bathe him. What needs to be done?

  5. My dog is only 2.5 years old and even though she is always on a leash in public areas (we have a leash law), she is constantly being attacked by off leash dogs and by dogs on Flexi-leads.She is not an aggressive dog and her response is to try to run away from these aggressive dogs, but she sometimes still gets hurt. Owners must show their puppies that mouthing and biting are not acceptable.

  6. My dog bit my 3 year old because she went near her while she was eating her bone. She did puncture the skin on her fingers but to be honest I don’t think she even realised she did it. I really don’t know what to do. She’s not aggressive dog at all, I haven’t slept worrying about it. Jessie is just 3 years old but have only had her since December 2015. I’ve spoke to vets and dog trainers to make the right decision. I’m thinking put her down but my daughters are so upset I’ve had them crying on me

  7. Iv just been bitten fri1/4/16 my 10mth old pup used 2bite my hands in playn&he plays rough with neighbors 3yr old dog,jus before I went2pick up koko fri night I could hear him sneeze&as I was moving away from my pc I was talkn 2him&wen I went2pick him up,I didn see any signs of anger&I bled like a dog,I tried2get him 2go outside&@same time I tried 2stop my finger from dripping blood on my carpet koko got on his 4legs&displayed himself like spider would2warn of danger&that’s wen I gave up&shut myself in bedroom&cried myself2sleep finger was throbbing&no more noise from koko.my email address:[email protected]

  8. My son, his wife, 1 y.o. child & 2 dogs; one a male Australian shepherd & the other a not fixed female small german shepherd. I have an 8 month old golden retriever. My g.r has always been gentle & non aggresive.recently we had 20 people, some of whom were small children & he never jumped or begged for food etc. Now naturally all 3 dogs are stressed. The German shepherd is clearly afraid & cowes down to the A.S. the A.S. wants to bite, nip & herd. But now, less than 1 week with us, the A.S. has biten (superficially) 3 people but it wd have been worse w/out intervention. And he’s now trained the golden to nip & bite the other dogs in play, which has also frequently escalated to frightening dog fight’s w/ear damage from the aussie & unwanted behavior from the golden puppy
    In his stress, the golden has started eating sticks in a crazy fashion
    I don’t want the golden to learn bad behaviors, become aggressive & then…& I don’t want anyone else to get bitten or the baby to be caught in it. It takes a herculean effort to separate the dogs once they start & it seems to escalate from 0 to 10 in a milisecond. ??????

    1. Unfortunately, we cannot diagnose behavior problems over the internet. We do recommend that if you are having these issues, you see a certified Animal Behaviorist. We recommend the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, https://iaabc.org/consultants or the AVSAB, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior http://avsabonline.org/resources/find-consult. Since this has escalated to biting another person, you should try to speak to someone as soon.

  9. I was bitten by dog for 2 times.i had taken treatment & i am fine. but I have heard that if a dog bites a man more than
    2 times, there seems some changes on his attitude and it damages his brain. Such as:1st bite:2003 2nd bite:2008.

  10. I would really like a reply, since i really dont know what do do. When my husbands grandmother passed away, we inherited a very gently but old dog. she is a medium size dog (border collie lab mix).Her name is Lady. She never showed signs of aggression and she was always gentle around small dogs and cats. Well she was about 11 or 12 when we got her, and that was three years ago. We since added a baby to our family who is now a very lovable huggable 2 year old. Well my daughter loves animals and constantly wants to hug them and kiss them. our other animals love it and let her. but any time my daughter goes near Lady. Lady Snaps at her. never making contact. Until Last night. She rand up to her and hugged her around the neck. It was not an overly aggressive hug and she didnt have any hair in her hands it was just a hug. but when lady growled, she didnt let her go. At this point im yelling at my daughter to let her go and on my feet to get her (she was on the other side of a bit of a large room) but before i got to her she reached up and bit my daughter in the face. The bite was probably a level 3a. she didnt pucture the skin but she left about four long welts on my daughters face. there was no blood, but they area was red and my daughter burst into tears. My husband grabs the dog and throws her outside and we aid to my daughters face. I guess the thing im trying to figure out is what to do with Lady. She is so old that im sure she is sore everywhere and doesnt want to be touched with little hands, and she already bit my child so i cant have her near her. If i gave her away (and im not sure i really could find someone that wants a somewhat blind old dog) than i would risk someone else being hurt and she would have to readjust to a home and she is already so old. If i take her to the pound, they would put her down for her aggressiveness and she is already so old she should be able to finish out her life. I dont know what to do.

    1. We cannot provide guidance on behavioral issues over the internet. Because your dog is being aggressive, we recommend searching through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, https://iaabc.org/consultants or the AVSAB, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior http://avsabonline.org/resources/find-consult. You may want to also check with Karen Price certified trainers https://www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer?source=kpctnavbar as well as Victoria Stilwell Positively certified trainers https://positively.com/dog-training/find-a-trainer/find-a-vspdt-trainer/

    2. You should not be letting your child hug dogs! Dogs do not like to be hugged. The other dogs are just tolerating it. Also, you are teaching your child that animals are toys, there for their enjoyment. Watch the ears and facial expressions of your other animals! Also, you are teaching your child to hug dugs. What if she hugs a stranger’s dog? This is so dangerous! I’m not trying to be mean, but the problem is not with your dog, it’s with you.

      1. What are your credentials that you can say dogs don’t like hugs? Do you have animal power that you can speak to all dogs? Your response is rediculous. Oh I am not trying to be mean but really so rediculous.

  11. I got a little skin peeled and it was soo thin I didn’t even feel it. The dog was a pet that had all his shots. I washed my hands when I got home. Am I fine?

  12. We have a German Shepard and Lab mix.He is 10 months old.He has been in puppy classes and intermediate classes as well.His mame is Riley.Whenever he grabs socks ,a loaf of bread or anything for that matter ,he becomes very possessive. I try and take what he has and he has biten me..This is the second time he has done it.He wil just run up and grab food off the counter and now the only way I will try to get it back is by offering him a treat which 90 % of thd time works.Should I just keep doing this or should I handle this in a differerent way.We have told everyone when they come to visit that if Riley gets a belonging of theirs in his mouth please do not try to retreive it.We will take care of it ourselves.

  13. I went to reprimand my 8 month old dog when he was bad, when I reached to grab him he bit me multiple times on the hands, drawing blood and hashing the skin. What do I do now? Is he going to show this aggression more now he has shown it once? And will he start doing it to other people??

  14. My 10-year old tiny Maltese has take to biting me. She never once bit me before in all these years, but now she bites when I am feeding her, and sometimes if I try to snip her hair around her eyes, which I’ve been doing since she was a puppy. She bites hard, even though she weighs only three pounds, and draws blood. She bites as hard as she can, and it’s only her tiny size that makes the bites small. She lunges at me, and she almost never misses. What can I do? She needs to eat twice a day being she’s so tiny. Now, even if I’m holding a piece of food or a treat, she lunges not at the food, but at my hand. She has been loved and treated super-kindly. She never bites strangers or anybody else but me. We have never had a problem with biting in her whole life.

  15. My Boerboel mastiff bit me 3 times all in the face and head.I was his primary caregiver and never hit him..all discipline was verbal. I have had extremely difficult dogs for 25 yrs ..I once had a rot tie that “tried” to growl about her food at 8 wks..corrected immediately. Buford was fine with cats and horses and very respectful of the other 2mastiffs in the house..however Beulah ALWAYS HATED HIM …she would growl at him all the time and walk away from him. The other mastiff did not have an issue with him but died when he was 6 months old. When he was 2 1/2 the 1st attack happened..I thought he was protecting me from the vacuum. He pulled a horseshoe piece of my forehead down,ER visit,16 stitches.Second time I tripped on him,just bruising.3rd time REALLY BAD..43 stitches ambulance ride,and my hair is f’ed up forever..my hair is down to my waist and I really had to work to keep them from shaving my head! When I went home for the 1st time in my life I was actually afraid of a dog.I have horses,goats and cows,so WTF. We put him to sleep because we were ordered to and I failed this dog somehow but my scalp will never be without a reminder of him..thank GOD it was no one else.Live and learn..no EVER South African dogs of any kind for me.

  16. You mention that active children stress dogs… what stresses me out is seeing dogs that are twice the size of my children running loose in public parks where is mandatory by law to have them on a leash.
    That is stressful and illegal. Stop thinking about the dogs welfare and start thinking about humans, as vulnerable as a 3-year-old child.

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