Roxy, a Great Dane has a fear of skateboarders. She is also uncomfortable around large dogs and hates to be patted on top of her head. Roxy has always growled at skateboarders, sniffed the ground when a large dog is near and ducked her head and licked her lips when patted on the head. She had never bitten and her owner felt sure that she never would.
One day a man walked up to Roxy and patted her on the head. Roxy turned around and bit the man on the wrist. The owner was completely shocked. Let’s look at what happened.
It is important to realize that all dogs have a bite threshold, a limit that if crossed causes them to bite. Given the right circumstances every dog on the planet may bite. If a dog is in pain or feeling unwell his bite threshold level will be lower than normal. Many dogs are anxious or afraid around specific things that they encounter regularly. Some examples of triggers are:
- Men with beards
- Other dogs
- Being patted on the head
When the dog encounters one of his triggers he might display low levels of stress such as sniffing the ground or a tongue flick or he may show aggression such as a freeze or a growl.
When multiple stressors happen at the same time or very close together they will have a cumulative effect on the dog’s bite threshold. This is called trigger stacking and it explains why a dog who has never bitten in the past bites.
Now back to Roxy. On further examination the owner realized that not only was there was a large dog nearby but a skateboarder also went past just as the man started to pat Roxy on her head. Three of her triggers occurred at the exact same time. This pushed her over her bite threshold.
Trigger stacking is often the cause of a dog bite. Dogs rarely bite out of the blue. Prevention is the way to go. Know your dog’s triggers and do your best to avoid putting him into those situations that just might push him too far.