Behind the Dog Bites:

Exploring Mental Health Issues in Dogs

Tutores y sus perros interaccionando y conviviendo en armonía, cuidado y respeto

Linda Scroggins.
Certified Behavior Consultant-Canine

July 11, 2024


It was a crisp, cold, autumn day when my family and I were visiting my uncle’s rural home. At eleven years old, I loved all animals, especially dogs and could not wait to see my uncle’s hunting dog, Joe. With the adults inside the house, I went to find Joe. Joe lived some of his time chained to his doghouse. I could see he was curled up inside. I called for him to come out, but he stayed deep inside his shelter. And as he would not come out, I crawled in. Joe promptly bit me, right on the nose. I ran to the house in shock and called for help. We were far from our home, so my aunt and uncle searched for a local doctor. Years later I can still remember lying on the exam table distracting myself from the pain by counting the ceiling tiles while the doctor stitched up my wounds. If I had only known as a child what I know now as an adult. 


All dogs can and may bite, regardless of breed, size, or socialization history. They all have the equipment, teeth! There are multiple reasons that dogs bite. They may bite due to feeling ill or being in pain. A dog may be surprised in an unfamiliar situation. They may be fearful and upset such as at a veterinary visit. And in some cases, such as with resource guarding or territorial aggression, biting can be within the parameters of normal but problematic dog behavior. But in almost all cases when a dog bites a person it is because the dogs is attempting to create distance between themselves and the human that is concerning them. After all this technique works really well.

La Ley es importante en la prevención y el manejo de la agresividad canino. Es responsabilidad de todos responder en consecuencia y, de no ser así, tienen que haber leyes que lo regulen


But did you know that there are some dogs that may be at a higher risk of biting due to having a mental or behavior diagnosis? As a canine behavior consultant my work focuses on dogs that have underlying behavior issues that often put them at risk for biting. 


What does it meant to say a dog has a mental health issue or diagnosis. In the past, dogs that bit humans were considered to be bad or aggressive dogs. Many of these dogs were euthanized and not much thought was given to why they acted this way. But as the science of dog behavior and cognition grew, we began to understand that much of these problem behaviors are driven by underlying emotional disturbances. And as that knowledge continued to grow, we began to classify these conditions and give them specific names. Giving a dog a diagnosis allows us to develop a treatment plan. A treatment plan that has specific strategies to reduce the problem behavior and to calm the emotions.


What are some of the common mental health diagnoses that are given to dogs? Some of the most common I see as a behavior consultant are general anxiety disorder, phobias of different types, most commonly noise and storm phobias, fear aggression, separation anxiety, even post traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder as well. 


How does a dog receive a diagnosis like this? Per licensing laws and professional ethics medical diagnoses must be given by a doctor, which means for a dog, a veterinarian. There are some general practice veterinarians who will work with behavior concerns in dogs but most often these dogs are treated by a Veterinary Behavior Specialist. This is a veterinarian that has gone on to further education and become board certified in the practice of behavior. Through careful assessment the medical professional will provide a diagnosis. 


What does it look like when a dog has a mental health diagnosis? A dog will show behavior that is meant to protect itself and to provide distance from the trigger that is causing the emotional distress. Dogs learn by practice, so a dog that has learned that lunging or growling or biting gives them distance from the trigger they will continue to repeat that behavior over and over because it works. A dog may start out with small signals, like staring or becoming stiff. If those signals do not accomplish obtaining distance the dog will use louder signals. So, if a dog that growls to gain distance is ignored the dog may decide to lunge and snap, and if that is ignored the dog may bite.


Veterinarian Kendal Shepherd(1) developed a graphic called The Ladder of Aggression. The LOA shows the signals or communication a dog will typically make to separate or distance itself from a trigger. The LOA shows those low-level signals, advances to high level signals, ending with a bite. 

Tutores con su perro en la consulta del veterinario, trabajando en equipo para concienciarse de la importancia del correcto manejo ante los problemas de agresividad

Ladder of Aggression (LOA) image provided by Linda Scroggins


It is important to understand that the steps on the ladder of aggression are normal dog behaviors and many of them will be found in most dogs. The difference is that a dog with a mental health issue may not move along the continuum as expected. The dog may live in a continuous cycle of stress having difficulty returning to a calm baseline. The dog may lack some warning signals or be afraid to show some of these signals if there is a history of punishment. For example, a dog that with fear reactivity towards people may lunge, growl, snap, or bite towards a person almost immediately. Or a dog that is generally anxious may resort to biting because it does not know other ways of dealing with anxiety. A dog in panic mode may not even realize it has bitten. 


It is important to understand that all behavior has a purpose and that for the dog exhibiting this behavior, even if it appears to us as aggression, makes sense to the dog. So how can we help our dogs that may have underlying mental health concerns contributing to their behavior? Who are the professionals that can guide us through this treatment. 


The cardinal rule of treating a dog with a behavior concern is to first rule out any physical source of the behavior. This means a thorough check up with the dog’s veterinarian. What may look to us like a behavior problem could be a physical illness. This must be ruled out first. 



Treating a dog with a mental health diagnosis is truly a team effort. The captain of the ship is the Veterinary Behavior Specialist. This professional will provide a diagnosis, prescribe any necessary medication, and outline a behavior modification plan. In addition, the general practice veterinarian will provide a medical history and consult with the Veterinary Behavior Specialist on managing medical issues and routine care. 


A behavior consultant will help with implementing the behavior modification plan. This may be a dog trainer with a special interest in behavior or a trainer that holds additional certification in behavior. The trainer will assist in addressing the environment in which the dog lives, providing training tips and practicing the behavior modification plan. The trainer will provide feedback to the Veterinary Behavior Specialist so the plan can be modified as time goes on.


At the end of the text you will find some of the sources where you can find help. These sources originate in the United States but will often have referral services and contacts in other parts of the world. 


It is also important to know how to protect yourself from a dog bite. Even though I have worked with many, many dogs that are at high risk for biting I have never been bitten by a client dog. I believe that is because I put in place several safety measures. I will not enter a home with a dog with a bite history unless the dog is contained by a crate, is on a tether or is behind secure gates. 


There are also things the average person can do to lower the risk of a bite. If you are an adult, listen to your instinct. Those gut feelings are there for a reason. If you are visiting a home with a dog that makes you uncomfortable, speak up! Ask the dog to be removed and placed away from you. If you are out in the community and see a dog that makes you uncomfortable change your route. If you see an owner with an off-leash dog don’t be afraid to ask them to leash their dog. 

When out walking or hiking I carry a product called, “Spray Shield.” A deterrent that is safe for humans and animals but can scare away an approaching dog. If I am walking my dog, I also carry treats. If I am approached by an off-leash dog, I can throw the treats and often the off-leash dog will be more interested in hunting for those while I retreat. 


If a dog is charging towards me, I look for anything I can grab and put between me and the dog. This may be a bag, a purse, a chair, anything. 



For children my rule is to never allow a child to pet a dog that I am not familiar with. No matter how much the owner assures me the dog is friendly. If I do not know that dog well, then I am not allowing my child to touch the dog. I have seen so many dogs giving off one stress signal after another to an oblivious owner who believes their dog is friendly when the dog is really saying, go away please. Take time to learn about canine body language, there is an earlier blog on this site about that topic*


Also, for children I strongly recommend teaching the, “Be A Tree” concept developed by Doggone Safe. If a dog approaches you, even if it is growling or barking, stand perfectly still and be a tree. Look down at your roots (feet) and draw in your branches (arms). This can be challenging when frightened but a nervous or anxious dog is more likely to chase you and bite if you run. If the dog jumps on you become a rock. Curl up on the ground with your arms covering your head. For details on the program look the link below(2).



Dogs can and will bite for many reasons. There are risks we know increase that likelihood. Such as in my childhood case, dogs that live outside and are chained are more likely to bite. But dogs with behavior diagnoses can be at a higher risk for biting as well, depending on what that diagnosis is. The owner of the dog has the responsibility to keep their dog and those around them safe by doing all they can to prevent a bite. This includes making sure your dog is secure, rather on a leash or behind a fence. The owner must make sure these tools will not fail. It is the owner’s responsibility to ask any approaching people to stop and move back, giving their dog distance. It is also the owner’s responsibility to realize their dog may be at risk of biting and seek professional help. 


Remember these dogs are in emotional distress and finding the right help is not only the responsible thing but the humane thing to do. 

Image representing the "Be a Tree" position


Here are some of the sources where you can find help. These sources are in the United States but often will have referral services and contacts in other parts of the world. 


1. Pet Professional Guild

2. The Animal Behavior Society 

3. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior     


Mentioned in the article.


1. Dr. Kendal Shepherd

2. Doggone Safe


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