Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert


Dictionary of animal behavior for dog bite attorneys

Entries will be added to the dictionary on an ongoing basis. Entries are made based on their scientific validity, and their usefulness to explain principles of animal behavior for use in dog bite cases.

Aggression: A broad general term to describe a composite behavioral display consisting of behavioral sub-components such as chasing, growling, snarling, snapping, biting or other behaviors, usually in specified contexts, suggestive of a motivation akin to resource guarding, territorial defense, fear, dominance, predation, pain seizure, a medical condition affecting the animal in question, or some other recognized diagnostic entity. In itself the term has vague scientific meaning, and a scientifically more technically correct term would be agonistic behavior.

Bite force: The force or pressure (force per unit area) of a dog’s bite during enclosure of its mouth on an object. Bite force will vary depending on the extent of closure of the mouth, and many other factors such as if the dog was trained to bite with maximum force (i.e. police dogs). Additional commentary can be found elsewhere on this site.

Cognitive map: A mental representation a dog has formed of its physical environment as a result of spatial learning. The ability to develop cognitive maps in the dog is an evolutionaly hold-over from the wolf. For example, wolves are hunters who often travel miles from their den in the search for prey; hence, they needed to develop a “navigational’ system to find their way back to their pack and den. Likewise, food may have been buried, and the wolf needed a means to ‘remember’ where the food was buried. How cognitive maps are formed in wolves, or for that matter other species such a birds, rats, or other mammals, is still not clear. Animal behaviorists hypothesize that animal forms cognative maps via forming a picture-like representation of the salient geometric and topographical features in the environment. Common example which support the notion a a dog’s ability to use a cognitive map to guide it behavior through space include its ability to find its way home from considerable distances or its ability to remember where it has burried its bones in its owner’s backyard.

Confrontational training techniques. Methods or procedures used to implement behavioral change in a dog that utilizes some degree of pain or discomfort in the form of punishment during the application of the procedure. Many veterinary behaviorists believe that these procedures instill a fearful state a dog, thereby leading to defensive aggressive behavior directed to the person applying the procedure. The extent to which confrontational training techniques can be utilized safely is controversial, however.

Decision-making. An internal process determining behavioral outcome. The animal does not necessarily have to have cognition of the process involved, but has an expectation about of outcome. Behavioral outcomes which results from the decision-making process can change rapidly, and the decision-making processes is determined by relevant external and internal stimuli impinging upon the animal, contextual features of the environment, the animal’s past experiences, and the animal’s genetic make-up.

Domain-specific learning. A dog’s ability to change its behavior as a result of the development of a specialized learning ability. For example, because dogs are a highly social species which rely heavily on olfaction to process information from the environment, the domestic dog has developed the ability to easily learn differences between the smells of other dogs. This is the one of the bases that allows individual recognition between dogs. Inclusive here is the smell of urine, or other bodily secreations (e.g.anal gland secreations), from other dogs. Hence, domain-specific learning refers to a dog’s ability to learn particular things about its environment that are ecologically or socially meaningful, thereby contributing to its biological fitness and survival. Another kind of domain- specific learning tendency in the dog’s ability to form a cognitive map of its physical surrounds.

Genetic determinism. The concept which states that behavior is ultimately determined by genotype and genetic behavioral predispositions rather than experience and learning. When applied to humans, such as in the writings of human sociobiology, the concept has been met with considerable criticism, but the concept has greater validity when applied to certain kinds of behaviors in dogs and cats, and many other nonhuman mammals.

Human Dog Bite Related fatality (HDBRF). Fatality in a human directly caused by a dog bite. Indirect causes of death in the human from a dog bite, such as rabies, are generally not considered by authorities as being a human dog bite related fatality.

Interval Reinforcement Schedule. The presentation of a reward or reinforcement to an animal at irregular intervals of time. This type of reinforcement schedule frequently produces reliable and persistentpatterns of responding. Example: A dog is left in the yard and has learned to bark as a way of signalling the owner that it wants back inside. The owner has been inconsistent in immediately letting the dog back inside up on hearing its barks, and therefore parking behavior in this context is likely to persist.

Learning. A persistent change in behavior as a result of experience. However, such change in behavior cannot be explained in terms of learning if it is the result of maturation or fatigue. For example, learning occurs when a shows dog avoids a veterinarian in a white coat because of past association of receiving a painful injection from a veterinarian wearing a white coat. Alternatively, a dog growls whenever someone approaches it while chewing on a favorite bone. If the growling is reinforced via the person moving away, then growling becomes a habit for the dog in this situation. Countless other every-day examples which involve learning could be given. These examples above demonstrate the basic principles of classical (or Pavlovian ) conditioning and operant conditioning. Other kinds of learning which occur in dogs include habituation, Learning in dogs, lke other behavioral traits, has been subject to the effects of both natural and artificial selection. Further, selection pressures operative in the evolution of the domestic dog have predisposed modern dogs the ability for domian-specific learning . This refers to a dog’s ability to readily learn certain things within a specified context. In recent years various aspects of social learning and cognitive abilities in dogs have been popular areas of research for academic animal behaviorists.

Motivation. An internal state within the animal which reflect its impetus to engage in a behavior, or sequence of behaviors.

Motivational compensation. An animal ability to alter its behavior as a result of change in it’s expectations. Example: A hungry dog who typically receives food in the morning is not fed by its owner or is not fed the usual amount or kind of food. This dog’s desire or expectation to feed motivates it engage in other behaviors in the search of food (e.g. raiding the garbage can, stealing food from a counter-top, or perhaps simply maintaining closer proximity to the owner in the anticipation that food might be forthcoming).

Rebound effect. The tendency for an animal to display a specified beha vior(s) with greater frequency or intensity after a period of abstinance in the engagement of that behavior. Previous abstinace may have been due to the lack of an appropriate eliciting stimulus or to the competing effect of another motivational system. Example: a well socialized and people-fri endly dog who has been left alone at home for a long period while his ow ner is at work. Upon the owner’s return (or for that matter another famil iar, friendly person) the dog’s motivation for social contact or more specif ically its tendency to display pro-social, affilitative behaviors (e.g jumping-up, licking, general excitement) becomes greater.

Scissor bite. A dog’s normal bite is called the scissor bite, in which the upper front teeth (incisors) overlap the lower ones. The canine teeth on the lower jaw are positioned halfway between the third incisor and the canine tooth on the upper jaw when the mouth is closed. Any deviation is called malocclusion.

Severe dog bite injury. No standard exists with which to judge whether injury sustained from a dog bite or dog attack should be considered “severe”. The criteria used in the various epidemiological studies published in the literature vary. Occasionally, this is an issue of importance because severity of the plaintiff’s injury is occasionally considered by a jury in awards for compensatory damages. Subjectively, injuries sustained from a dog bite might be considered severe if it results in any one of the following: (a) Muscle tear or a major disfiguring laceration particularly to the face; (b) Debilitating blunt injury; (c) Injury repair requiring numerous, multiple sutures in different parts of the body; (d) Major cosmetic surgery needed for injury repair. A more objective definition is presented in the study of Lang and Klassen (Dog bites in Canadian children: a five-year review of severity and emergency department management. Canadian J. Emergency Med., 2005, Vol. 7,309 – 314). In this study, dog bite injuries were classified as severe based on: (a) the number of sutures needed (> 10 was considered severe), (b) fractures to the bones, (c) operating room repair, or (d) if the dog bite resulted in a fatality.