When a dog snaps when it is surprised it shows what kind of mind-frame the dog was already in. For example, if you are in a bad mood and someone calls your name you might snap back "What!" in a tone that you didn't intend.
A dog that is in a constant submissive mind-set is rarely going to snap when startled. The same way a human who is in a super happy mood would not naturally react in an annoyed tone when someone suddenly called their name or tapped them on the shoulder.
A lot of people think the solution to their grouchy, unpredictable dog is to figure out what makes the dog snap and to avoid doing those types of things. They warn all their friends to do the same. Don't touch his bone, he does not like that. They make excuses for their dangerous pets rather than accepting the fact that they need professional help to correct the dog's behavior. Yes, little dogs that are unpredictable are dangerous, too.
I am not suggesting that you never avoid a situation that makes your own dog snap, I am saying that you are irresponsible and should not own the dog if you avoid things that make your dog snap as the solution to the problem. At some point you will not be in the right place at the right time and your dog will hurt someone and all of those excuses as to why your dog acted aggressively will defensively come rushing to your head.
There are a percentage of owners who do not believe dogs need leadership and do not believe there is a pack order among the canine species. Humans are a compassionate species and it makes us feel better to think our dogs only need love and understanding without leadership, because leadership sometimes is misinterpreted as cruel and inhumane. Some may believe there is no such thing as a dog that thrives on discipline, but even the mother dog corrects her puppies from the time they are born until the time they leave her. A puppy that is taken away from the mother too soon has a higher chance of growing up to be a biter. Why? Because humans often do not provide the amount of discipline, boundaries and leadership the mother dog does, and the puppy does not learn good manners. Do we humans really think that this need for structure ends as soon as the mother is no longer with the puppy? That suddenly the dog does not need this type of leadership?
We humans live our lives every day with rules and structure. We must stop at red lights while driving and we can't just walk into a store and take something without paying for it. We must respect our neighbors’ property. We cannot just punch (bite) someone when we don't like the way they parked their car. Humans live with discipline daily, yet some think it’s mean for a dog to do the same when clearly the mother dog provided it from birth, which proves it is normal for a dog as well.
Part of the reason why there are so many biting, unpredictable dogs in the world is not only because of the owners who just don't put the time into their dogs and are neglectful of their needs, but because of the percentage of people who do not believe in the hierarchy of a canine pack. The people who think that saying no is mean and should never be spoken and the people who accept the fact that their dog bites rather than figure out a way to stop it.
It's not just being alpha that makes a balanced dog. It is a combination of respect, calm leadership and understanding of your dog’s natural instincts and language, and the ability to fulfill its needs. If you have a problem with your dog, don't just look at the obvious. Look at the big picture and your lifestyle.
Are any of the humans stressed, anxious, angry, afraid, insecure or hyper? Do the humans fight among one another? Do the humans conduct themselves in a calm, confident manner? Is the dog spayed or neutered? Is the dog getting daily exercise in the form of a pack walk? Does the family provide leadership? Does your dog have rules to follow? Are the rules consistently made clear in a calm manner by every family member? Is the dog mentally challenged or is it going stir crazy? Dogs thrive with some type of job. Are you mentally challenging your dog daily so it can use its brain? Or is it an animal living in a big cage (your house) with its migration instinct driving it nuts with pent up energy, sometimes to the point where it does laps around your house or yard and you look at it and think it is cute or funny? Dogs largely communicate with body language. Do you know how to read it? Do you know how to speak 'dog' so your dog can also understand you? Does your dog respect you? Do you respect your dog? Is your relationship the type where you do whatever the dog wants instead of the other way around? Do you know the difference between harsh punishment and calm, assertive discipline? Do you understand why the humans must be the ones in charge? Is the dog acting out of fear or is it trying to rule the roost?
If you know you have a dog that is unpredictable and you do not do something about it, you should not own the dog.
Providing discipline is not the same as punishment. A dog should never be punished, but it by all means should have discipline. Providing structure and rules for your dog does not mean you abuse your dog and it certainly does not mean you cannot give your dog love and affection.
If you think providing structure and leadership to a dog means you should be aggressive, yell, smack, get angry and otherwise abuse the dog, then you do not understand what it means to be a calm, assertive pack leader and it's time to do some homework
What about the herders?
Herding dogs do not get a pass on nipping. Nipping is biting and they need to be taught it is not acceptable to bite humans.
What about pain and surprise?
I have owned many dogs over the years and I have never had a dog react in this manner.
My 130-pound Great Pyrenees has bad hips. He is old and sometimes looks like he needs help getting up. I wrap my arms around his waist and pull him to his feet. I can tell it hurts him despite his pain medicine; however, his reaction has never been aggressive.
I have accidently cut the quick on my own dogs before when cutting their nails and their reaction was never to act out aggressively.
I have accidently hurt them while grooming in the past and their reaction was to turn and lick in my direction. They were letting me know it hurt, but their mind-set was not aggressive.
My Boxer has had many visits to the vet between his knee surgeries and his mast cell tumors, and he has never once reacted in an aggressive manner toward any of the staff at the vet and he has seen his share of needles. He still views everyone as his friend.
My Pitbull once injured his tail and when the vet touched it, it caused him a lot of pain. His reaction was to roll onto his back like a goofball and kick his legs like he was rowing a boat. He didn't want his tail to be touched, but he did not act out aggressively when it was.
I have startled my dogs (by mistake) when they didn't know I was behind them and none of them ever had a first reaction where they acted out aggressively.
Do I think that there is a 100% chance that none of them would ever bite? No, that would be naive and stupid. They are dogs, after all. If their daily life was to change and their instincts were no longer being met their temperaments would change. Any of them could turn into biters. A dog's temperament is a direct result of its owner’s ability to understand him and give him what he instinctually needs as a canine animal. There are no bad dogs...just uneducated owners. If your dog is a biter something in its life has to change. It is your job to find out what that imbalance is and do your best to fix it or find someone else who can.
Submissive, happy dogs do not act out aggressively as their first reaction, even when startled or in pain. I am not suggesting that a dog should put up with pain and abuse, but rather pointing out that a submissive, happy dog is in a different frame of mind. If your dog reacts aggressively to situations it is time to take the dog to the vet to find out if it has some type of medical issue and it is also time to visit with a dog behaviorist who understands natural dog behavior—preferably a behaviorist who combines positive reinforcement with leadership and discipline and who is not afraid to use the word NO.
With the right dog behaviorist and the right type of owner all dogs can be transformed into well-behaved dogs. The key is to find the right behaviorist and to look at your own situation. When the humans around the dog change, so does the dog. This is why some rescue dogs with a history of biting can be adopted out and never bite again.
Trainers who solely use positive reinforcement without leadership cannot successfully correct aggression, but rather use methods to avoid incidences. Your goal needs to be to fix the problem, not put a Band-Aid on an infection. For example, if a dog tries to bite you for blowing in its face you may be able to use food to associate the blow with something positive, but it will not make the dog trustworthy around playing children. Using food can successfully train a dog that a certain behavior is rewarding, but you still have not changed the big picture, the overall mind-set of the dog. Dogs often communicate their displeasure with aggression. Therefore, giving a dog food when it is showing its teeth and snapping can stop that one situation, as the dog no longer disagrees with the behavior because it wants the food. However, the next time you do something that same dog does not agree with, the dog's reaction to act out with aggression will still be there. Food can change individual situations, but it cannot fully transform a dog into a trustworthy, balanced dog. You will always have a dog you cannot fully trust and you will find yourself avoiding situations that you know will upset the dog. It is a Band-Aid, not a cure.
A lack of a pack leader can also cause fear aggression. When a dog is surrounded by mentally weak humans who do not provide structure, the dog’s instincts tell it to step up and take care of the pack. If the dog itself is not secure and confident it can scare a dog that is not mentally equipped for the task. This can cause it to act out aggressively in an attempt to control something it does not feel it can handle. Most dogs do not want to be in charge.
Your goal should not be to learn how to bribe, work around and please a dog who feels it has to be in charge, but to become mentally strong enough so the dog does not feel the need to be in charge.
If the trainer is quick to suggest you kill the dog as the solution to the problem, then you have not found the right trainer. If the trainer's main focus is a food reward to solve aggression issues, you have not found the right trainer. Look for a person who specializes in dog behavior, not just dog training. There is a difference. Natural dog behaviorists aim to make the human understand the dog. A lot of popular solely positive-based methods work the other way round, aiming to try and make the dog understand the human.
It's not about training the dog; it's about behavior modification through taking on the role of your dog’s leader and teacher. You need to teach the dog the rules and set the boundaries. There is no dog "training" involved, neither positive nor non-positive. It's more about letting your dog know what is acceptable behavior and not acceptable behavior in a way that comes natural to the dog. Our homes are not a free-for-all for the dogs to do as they please when they please. They need to look up to us to know what to do and we need to learn how to communicate with them. It's leadership and discipline, not pain or hurt or cruelty.