Whether or not a dog tends to bite when he is frightened or stressed is an inherited behavior. While all dogs can bite if severely stressed, some dogs resort to biting more quickly than others. These are dogs with aggressive defense reactions.
The different types of defense reactions are easy to observe in my obedience classes during the class in which we teach toenail clipping because so many dogs are frightened or stressed by this procedure. A big male Golden Retriever may be totally terrified and struggling with all his might, but he does not bite. Meanwhile, an Airedale has bitten the hand of my assistant instructor for simply holding his paw.
These tendencies can be observed in puppies during puppy behavior testing at seven weeks of age when undergoing the restraint test. Puppies who are stressed by being held on their backs can react by freezing in fear or by the other extreme of growling and biting. However, some puppies are not stressed by being held on their backs and lie there quite relaxed, which brings up an important point. These puppies may or may not have aggressive defense reactions, but they are not easily stressed. Some dogs are more easily stressed than others, and this affects how easily a defense reaction of either type can be provoked. A dog with aggressive defense reactions who is easily stressed can be very difficult to handle.
Aggressive or passive defense reactions are linked to a dog's breed. Obviously, dogs bred to be protective, such as German Shepherds and Dobermans, are also bred to have aggressive defense reactions. Retrievers, on the other hand, are bred to have "soft mouths" so they won't crush the birds they were bred to retrieve, and consequently have passive defense reactions. Newfoundlands are another example of a breed that tends to have passive defense reactions. Unfortunately, the indiscriminate breeding of dogs has blurred many of these breed tendencies.
Dogs who show signs of aggressive defense reactions benefit from being trained as young as possible to accept restraint so they can be groomed and given veterinary care without biting. See chapters 3 and 5 for instructions on how to do this.
When training a dog with aggressive defense reflexes, any kind of punishment or force that makes the dog feel a need to defend himself must be avoided. You don't want to give the dog practice at biting by provoking such a reaction. On the other hand, dogs with passive reactions are often victims of forceful training techniques because they do not defend themselves. Food training works well for both types of dogs.
Defense reactions are an important personality factor to keep in mind when choosing a dog who will be around children. If you have small children, it is safest to have a dog with passive defense reactions.
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There are over a hundred registered breeds of dogs. Recognizing the type of the dog is basically associated with its breed. A purebred animal belongs to a documented and acknowledged group of unmixed lineage. Before a breed of dog is recognized, it must be proven that mating two adult dogs of the sametype would have passed on their exact characteristics, both appearance and behavior, to their offspring.