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The Relationship Between Dog Attacks and the Tolerance of Belligerent Barking

You might wonder what high school students shooting their classmates in Colorado has to do with your dog biting a kid in front of your house. The connection is that both events result from the same process; a phenomena called shaping, which is also sometimes referred to as the procedure of successive approximations.

Any response that a person or a dog is making for the first time, be it a teenager shooting the kids in the library or a dog biting a neighborhood child, is known as new behavior.

All new behavior, good and bad, is brought about through shaping. The acquisition of obedience skills in canines, the human development of language and reading skills, as well as the development of athletic abilities and musical prowess are all brought about through shaping. Every sort of comprehensive skill development can be said to be the product of many small shaping procedures, comprising the component parts of one large, integrated shaping procedure. And that includes the development of human, as well as canine skills of aggression.

Researchers have discovered how shaping works, but remember, they didn't invent it. It exists in nature. Let's take a look at the mechanism that drives the shaping process.

A Girl Scout on foot, selling cookies door to door, cuts across your front lawn and unknowingly walks within range of your dog, who is tethered to a support at the side of the house. He charges and bites her twice before she is able to scamper far enough away to where the attacking dog is pulled up short by the tether.

Question: Why did the dog bite the girl? You could say he did it because he felt like it, but that sort of answer begs the question. Why did this particular dog feel like biting someone whereas another dog would not be so inclined? To understand why the dog attacked, think back to a year before when the dog was lounging in the front yard with nothing to do. He sat quietly for a long time, but nothing good ever came from quiet sitting. No matter how long he made that response it was never followed by any sort of reward/reinforcer, which is significant, because a response that has no reinforcer to maintain it is not likely to continue for long. So, the dog tried a new response.

The only recreational activity available to him was to watch people walk by and to try to find ways to interact with them. He found that, when he barked, people looked at him and watched him attentively. So, he began barking at the passersby and soon learned that if he barked louder and longer, it worked even better. What worked best though, was if he barked in a threatening manner. They'd really watch him then, and sometimes he could get them to make eye contact.

A barking dog that is standing is more worrisome to passing pedestrians than a dog that is sitting or lying down, which resulted in people focusing on him more intently when he stood. The dog soon noticed that, by standing and barking, he could command their attention in a way he could not otherwise do. After that he always stood to watch people pass by.

One day, he was sleeping when he woke to find someone passing on the nearby sidewalk. He barked and jumped suddenly to his feet so that he might watch them from his usual standing position and, when he did, the startled pedestrian broke into a panicky run that continued for several yards until he realized the dog was chained. That was the most dramatic response the dog had ever drawn from anyone, and it excited him and filled him with pride. He'd always been isolated with a social status next to nothing, but now he discovered that, with a sharp bark and a sudden rise to his feet, he could force people to flee in a submissive manner, which meant they were submissive, which to him, meant he was dominant. His entire life he had been denied the opportunity to achieve. Day after day he found himself without anything on which to apply his energy.

Now suddenly, he had a way to generate excitement while improving his social position. Finally, he had a vocation. His new job was to protect his territory and assert his dominance over those passing by.

As the months rolled by, he hurled threats at everyone who came within his line of sight. But no one ever answered his challenge, which, in his mind, meant that he was too mighty for them.

As one human after another displayed submissive behavior, he saw each new victory as a reaffirmation of his dominant position. And as his perceived social position solidified, he grew bolder.

He eventually realized that it was not just barking and jumping to his feet that could raise the scent of fear and prompt a display of submissiveness in humans. Any sudden movement, combined with barking and growling, could get them steppin' and fetchin', especially if he ran at them. His favorite technique was to charge straight at them until his tether jerked him up short. Then he'd strain against the chain; choking, snapping and snarling. He found that it worked even better if he let them get up close before he made his move. Sometimes they'd shout or drop things or trip over themselves before it occurred to them that he was restrained by the chain. He found that tremendously entertaining, and his capacity for aggression grew with his sense of pride and accomplishment. So, it wasn't a big jump for the dog to bite the child. It was just a short stretch from what he was already doing.

Notice that the dog went from barking, to barking more intensely, to barking in a threatening manner. Over time, he also went from sitting to standing, to moving around in an agitated fashion, to charging, to biting. That's how complex behavior works. It doesn't just materialize full-blown from out of the ether. Rather, it develops systematically, in a sequential, step by step fashion, through shaping.

The process of shaping violent behavior is a methodical walk along a path in which each sequential step forward renders the subject bolder, more skilled and more aggressive. The key to preventing violent behavior is to interrupt the shaping process early on, before the skills are established. To do that, we need to see to it that the earliest approximations of aggressive behavior are punished, and that other, healthy alternatives are made available. So, you target the young child and intervene early on. Take action when he's experimenting and making those first tentative steps down the path of aggression. That's the time to act. Don't wait until the skills are in place. Move preemptively before they have a chance to develop.

Once the shaping process is complete and a person or a dog has acquired a fully developed set of aggressive skills, it's a sure bet that they're going to want to explore the limits of their new abilities. A case in point being Columbine High School, where officials learned the hard way that you can't just wait until students with fully developed skills of aggression show up for school with a trunk full of firearms before taking their threats seriously.

The Centers for Disease Control says that dog bites are at epidemic levels. So local government take note. Beyond a doubt, your town has its own fenced-in barkers working themselves into a frenzy, threatening people as they pass by on the public right of way. Don't wait for the day the gate is left open and the dog gets out and bites someone. The time to deal with a potentially aggressive dog is early on, when he first begins to vocally threaten the general public. The longer vocal aggression is allowed to continue, the more aggressive the dog is likely to become, with a proportional increase in the probability that he will eventually injure someone.

It is a great scandal that those entrusted with the oversight of the public safety have made the decision to tolerate belligerent barking, because allowing a dog to hurl verbal threats at passersby greatly increases the chances that the animal will eventually bite someone. Beyond a doubt, the decision of those in authority to ignore threatening barkers contributes greatly to the epidemic of dog bites.

This page is part of Section Six:
the More Information section of