08/05/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Bit the Plumber's Son? Canine Aggression, Human Style

This summer, my husband decided it was high time we had an outdoor shower. Personally I didn't see the need, but if I've learned one thing in my marriage, it's not to argue when my man is excited beyond reasoning. And we live on a lake, so okay. Time to call Tony, our plumber.

Turns out, it's a good season for Tony, who didn't have a slot until early September. While my husband is a patient man, I knew he wanted his outdoor splash ASAP, so I cajoled Tony into a Saturday slot. But there was one caveat -- he'd have to bring his son Johnny and their dog Hurricane. Seriously, I thought, kids and dogs? That's my thing! Come on down!

The first two hours were non-stop fun. With all five dogs cavorting in the back yard, my son and his son connected on many levels... guns, lasers, knives, and world domination. It was somewhere around noon things began unraveling. Our guest was not a fan of lentil soup or whole wheat bread. My boy, Bo, started to feel threatened by Johnny's superior Lego building skills. There was a squabble over the crayon box. I could see tears building behind Bo's eyes.

I suggested a movie to break the tension. Like magic, their conflicts faded. Bo showed Johnny to the TV room, sweeping his arm around the room like a game show host. They settled down with pillows and popcorn while I went to check on the manly goings-on downstairs.

Tony and my husband Roman were bonding over back flow concerns and piping options and were eager to share a great deal of this information with me. Suddenly, my feigned interest was broken by shrieks. "He bit me! He bit me!"

As a professional dog trainer, full-time mom, and head of a multi-pet family, the last words I ever want to hear are, "He bit me," especially under my own roof. But there I was, staring open-mouthed at the 6-year-old son of our plumber. Tears were streaming down his face as he clutched his arm and screamed for his dad. "He bit me! He bit me!" Behind him, my 5-year-old son looked on with wide eyes. My mind raced: One of the dogs? The cat? Could a rabbit or a lizard create this kind of havoc? My career was flashing before my eyes and my husband was mentally calculating the cost of a lawsuit.

Instantly I ran through a list of my dogs and their potential to inflict damage on a child. Balder, my 5-year-old German Shepherd Dog, could, if he chose to, exact 500 pounds of pressure, and my reactive terrier-mix would have likely chomped in a scissor like fashion, cutting to the bone. But despite the rush of fear, I knew in my heart it couldn't be one of the dogs. I've temperament tested each one and know them as well as I know anyone.


(by Tischman Photography)

At the same moment Johnny blurted out the name of the culprit, it hit me: It was Bo. My kid.
Roman and I turned our heads simultaneously and there stood Bo, a squat yellow Lego construction worker clutched tightly in his fist, and a firm set to his dimpled chin. My little biter.

"In my house," I smiled ironically, "the dogs don't bite."

We examined Johnny's arm and found a very minor flesh wound. Cookies were distributed to all involved and the day regained its rhythm. The shower project was completed and Tony, Johnny, and Hurricane the dog left with a plate a cookies and a heartfelt apology.

As I tucked my kids into bed that night, I pondered. I specialize in rehabilitating aggressive dogs. I'm regularly called upon to help calm, recondition, and redirect a whole spectrum of frustrations and fears in dogs. I'm quick to identify triggers that lead some to use their mouths to help cope with their feelings. None of my four dogs, each varying in age, breed, and personality, use their teeth to talk, so how is that my son -- my own flesh and blood -- developed a biting problem?

In my dog training practice, I love a challenge. Barkers, pullers, grabbers, jumpers... bring it on! Could I apply some techniques from my classes and books to help Bo learn to better control himself?

When I treat aggression in dogs, I first identify the type: resource guarding (growling over food, toys, or sleeping areas), territorial (guarding home, yard, or personal space), or predatory (chasing moving objects).

Next, I get a handle on the dog's personality, relationship to their people, and situation triggers. Timid dogs can be triggered by over-enthusiastic people. Dogs with an intense prey drive may be triggered by fast moving objects (including cars, kids, and cats) and protective types sometimes react aggressively to strangers.

Once we've identified the why and the what, we work to find positive motivators: toys, treats, bones, or other rewards are used to encourage play, fun, and interaction. Rewards are paired with special words and in combination, create a powerful, but happy distraction from unacceptable behaviors.

My son is a determined, strong-willed, and mechanically-inclined kid who cherishes Legos and Bob the Builder iPad games. He is also, as it turns out, a resource guarder. At four, he's not an expert in the art of sharing. I should have paid attention to his triggers: He was tired, over-stimulated, and being out-performed by his guest. Instead of upping the supervision, I left him to his own devices. And like a misguided puppy, he used his mouth to express his frustration.

Of course biting is not an acceptable coping skill no matter what your species, and that night, Roman and I discussed how we could gently, but firmly redirect Bo's curious new behavior. I knew I would sleep better now that I understood Bo's motivations and how my absence played into his impulse to take matters into his own hands. "And I can sleep better," Roman said as he reached for the light, "Knowing that people don't generally sue over a kid bite."