Loving our Dogs to Death

I remember an article several years ago that made the social media rounds written by a woman who had to euthanize her dog because of extreme aggression. It was a tearjerker about how much she loved the dog and how great a life the dog had and the countless veterinarians and trainers they sought to help their dog, all for naught. It was a really sad story and one that is unfortunately too common. But what was most notable to me about the article is the photos that came with it. Nearly every picture of the dog (a gorgeous blue pit bull, if memory serves) was him being cuddly and affectionate. I remember distinctly a photo of the dog laying on his “daddy” with arms around him in a very sweet moment. In the article it was also emphasized how loved and cared for this dog was (not neglected or mistreated) that the dog even slept in bed with them. The dog got lots of love, lots of play, lots of attention, lots of cuddles and so on. So how on earth did this dog end up being violently reactive? I recall the dog had sent a few people to the emergency room, including the guy that was sharing that really sweet moment with, so this was a very serious situation. How does this happen? Was the dog mentally ill? Could have been. But what is more likely is that the dog was “loved to death”.

Dog aggression can be simplified to the interaction of two ingredients: bite inhibition, and drive.

Drive 101

Dogs have a handful of drives that are genetically hardwired into them. Ball drive, prey drive, defense drive, food drive, play drive and others are states of mind that dogs switch into when they are aroused by a certain stimulus. A dog with a high food drive will become very excited and attentive when food is presented where a dog with a low food drive couldn’t care less. A dog with a high prey drive will chase down cats or catch mice outside with delight, while a dog with a low prey drive wouldn’t even look their way. Each dog has these drives to a greater or lesser degree and it is the overall motivation for dogs to work and train. Most dogs have a very high food drive which is why food is so common when training. Toys are also a common motivator for dogs who have a high prey, ball or play drive. When a dog is aroused and in drive they are boisterous, excited, happy, spinning, barking or they can be posturing, bearing their teeth, raised hair and other defensive behavior. Both are “in drive” behaviors, the dog is aroused into action by a stimulus. Now when a dog is in drive, they aren’t always thinking straight. In fact, when training a behavior, the behavior needs to be taught from scratch when the dog is in different levels of drive, because what they will do when calm and out of drive, they won’t be able to do when in drive. It is a literal chemical change in the dog and they need to be re-trained in each state to be able to control them when in drive.

Some of the strongest stimuli to get a dog in drive is fast touch, quick movements, loud high pitched voices, and full body contact – the typical ways we show dogs love. We use these things to interact lovingly with our dogs because they get so happy and excited when we do! Dogs are typically very affectionate and playful and these activities are a really nice way to bond and have a fun time with our dogs. BUT, that also means it switches dogs into a mind state where they aren’t necessarily thinking clearly. Being in drive is stressful, whether it is happy exciting stress, or anxious and angry stress. Dogs relieve stress by biting and shredding. A dog in drive may attack their best doggy friend “out of nowhere” or grab onto your shirt and start tugging like mad. This is also commonly seen in dogs with separation anxiety who destroy couches or carpets. The terror of being left alone throws them into extreme and anxious drive and to bite, chew and shred is the only relief of it. This is a natural hunting instinct. When a predator sees a prey animal moving in a way that triggers their prey drive, they become excited by it, the chase further raises the drive and the bite and kill of the animal is the relief of that drive. Dogs have the same instinct, but it is much more varied and individual. Some dogs have this catch and kill instinct very strongly, typically dogs that were bred to kill vermin like small terriers. Other breeds hardly have any at all. The dogs that are quick to catch and kill have a low bite inhibition, and the dogs that don’t display that behavior have a high bite inhibition.

Bite Inhibition

Bite inhibition is a genetic threshold dogs have to biting out of stress. Dogs bite to relieve stress. If a dog has a very high bite inhibition, it will choose to bite a toy nearby, or a rag on the floor or to not bite at all, but a dog with a very low bite inhibition may attack another dog nearby, or a child or even the person initiating the drive. Some dogs have very high bite inhibition (retrievers tend to, and aren’t common on the bite statistics) and some dogs have very low bite inhibition (typically terriers, toy breeds and dogs bred for law enforcement). This is often seen when a dog fight breaks out because one dog tried to butt in on an affection session of another dog. The affection put the dog in high drive and when the other dog annoyed it, it attacked. Another common example is when teaching puppies to walk on a leash, they will often grab onto the leash and bite and pull on it to relieve the frustration and excitement. Multiple dogs running a fence after something will often attack each other to relieve the drive. These outward displays of a low bite inhibition are very common and all dogs have it to a greater or lesser degree.

Bite inhibition is genetic and not learned. You cannot raise a dog to be more likely to bite just as you can’t love a dog into not biting out of stress. They are born with the level of inhibition. It is a very important part of dog breeding as a bite inhibition is essential to predict when selecting dogs for certain jobs. You wouldn’t want a dog in law enforcement with a very high bite inhibition like you wouldn’t want a dog bred to herd ducks with a low bite inhibition. Because it is genetic, it is a fairly predictable threshold when dogs are bred well and thoroughly. However, with mixed breeds and dogs carelessly bred (like pit bulls), it is impossible to predict bite inhibition without observation by a professional.

High bite inhibition Low bite inhibition
High drive Barking, spinning, urinating, jumping, neurotic behavior Biting and shaking objects, small animals, other dogs or people
Low Drive Stays calm and quickly returns to relaxed state Will bite but has a very long fuse


So what do we do if we have a dog with high drive and low bite inhibition? You don’t do what those people did in the article I mented at the beginning. You don’t let them sleep in bed with you, you don’t love on them physically and with your voice all day and you don’t allow them to stay in drive without redirecting it somehow. All these everyday things we do to show our dogs love puts them in drive. Most dogs have a very solid bite inhibition and won’t bite or kill to relieve that stress, but many, many do. When we have a dog in high drive that doesn’t discriminate where it bites, you have a dangerous situation.

Putting the two together we now have a clearer picture of the dog in question. If the dog had high drive, low bite inhibition and was given lots of touch, play, affection and direct “love”, then he is a bite waiting to happen. The worst thing the family could have done was to let him sleep in bed with them, cuddle on the couch, given lots of pets and sweet talk, because these things increase a dog’s drive, and drive is what leads to biting to relieve stress, a dog with a low bite inhibition means that bite goes to whoever is closest to the dog. A dog with high prey drive on top of it will be further aroused by defensive behavior of what they are biting. A flailing screaming human pulling away and hitting the dog to get him off is going to make the dog bite even harder, shake its head to tear at the prey. This dog is not thinking that the person he is biting is in fact his beloved owner, he is in drive and the bite is an automatic response. It isn’t out of meanness or because the dog was afraid or abused, it is a simple hunting instinct. This is what we see when we hear of dogs that bite “without warning”. 

Let this also be a word to the wise: the only way to guarantee these elements in a dog is to go to a reputable breeder who works their dogs, shows their dogs, stress tests, does temperament evaluations on their puppies and so on. This is so, so important when bringing a dog into a home, especially if there are children and other animals involved.

So what is the bottom line? Dogs don’t need constant one-on-one attention to feel loved. This is a way we project our own desires onto them. Dogs are delighted to just be in the presence of their people and being fed and accepted are great ways to reinforce your love to your dog. You don’t need to wrestle around or baby talk for your dog to know you love them, they already know.


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