There was a terrible story in the news this week about a baby being killed by two Pit Bulls. The story was a little confusing to me, but the end result was still the same… the baby and the two Pit Bulls are dead. This sort of story makes a person’s heart ache….it also begs the question…..”how can something like this happen?” After all, these two dogs were loving members of someone’s family…..not wild strays that roam the streets looking for food. These dogs had names, beds, food bowls and maybe even a toy or two. They may have even played with this child or given him a lick on his head a few times. So, what happened? What would have caused these two dogs to attack this poor little baby? We may never know. But what we do know is that no matter what breed, what size or what temperament our dogs may be, there are all capable of biting, nipping or knocking someone down causing physical and emotional damage.
The most important thing that we as dog owners need to remember about our loving, well-behaved furry critters is that they are dogs. We may believe them to be the gentlest, calmest and most easy going creatures on earth, but we must never assume that they are not capable of striking out when provoked, stepped on or injured. It’s in their nature to protect themselves and their loved ones. And, depending on the breed, they may be more reactive than we give them credit for. When we own a dog, we accept the responsibility of caring for him… feeding him, taking him outside to potty, exercising him and keeping him in good health. We must also accept responsibility to guard him against scary, unpredictable situations. Anyone who’s ever had their dog around a child knows that kids like to pull on noses, poke in ears, grab handfuls of fur and try to catch wagging tails. Why would we think our dogs would be okay with having these things done to them? Why would we assume that just because our dogs live in our homes and play with our children that they wouldn’t reach their limit as to how much they’re willing to tolerate? We do……we react by yelling, stomping around and occasionally acting like wild people. And unfortunately, some of us also lash out by physically harming our children. The difference is we know better, our dogs don’t.
My French Bulldog, Charlotte, is a sweet, loving and affectionate little girl. I’ve never had a dog with such a calm disposition. Charlotte loves everyone and gets upset if she sees someone in the distance who isn’t coming up to greet her and give her a pet or two. Because of her wonderful nature, we belong to a local Animal Assisted Therapy Group called “Dogs On Call”. We visit in three hospitals, one health care center and see many, many students at the University during mid-terms and finals… petting a dog can really relieve a lot of exam stress and anxiety. We also attend a lot of events where children are present…..children who run up to Charlotte and start petting her without asking. (But then, there are a lot of adults who do the same thing) Because of the unpredictability of the surroundings, I always have Charlotte on a short leash either in front of me or right at my side… and I always have one eye on her. Just because I know her inside and out and believe her to be this wonderful furry critter, doesn’t mean that she won’t react to a surprise tug on her ear or a pull on her tail. Dogs react to actual and perceived threats to protect themselves and their loved ones. And even though I like to think that Charlotte is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle dog in the world, I also need to remember that when all is said and done, Charlotte is still just a dog.
I don’t know what happened in the babysitter’s home the day of the Pit Bull attack. I don’t know the temperaments of the Pit Bulls or how they were trained and treated. But just because they attacked this child, we cannot assume that these were bad dogs who were mishandled or beaten by their owners. We’ve all heard the scary stories about the Pit Bulls and Rottweilers and other big dogs who have maimed or killed people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time…..dogs who were mistreated or left to their own devices or dogs who were trained to fight and kill smaller, weaker animals in a ring. These stories leave us sick and in utter disbelief….how can someone do this do their dog? And after we read or hear about how poorly these dogs were treated, how they were starved or beaten or raised without love and affection, we may find ourselves saying “well no wonder they attacked a child…no wonder they bit that adult.” When we hear about a family dog doing the same thing….a dog who has been loved and cherished and taken care of since he was a baby…..a dog who has been well socialized, taken to puppy classes, obedience classes and maybe even become a therapy dog, we react in disbelief. “The dog was so loving and well trained, how could this have happened?” Of course, the chances that a dog will bite are greatly diminished if he is in a loving home with all of the amenities including training classes. But it behooves us to remember that dog attacks and dog bites can and do happen….even with the most loving, friendly dogs in the world.
I have communicated with a few family dogs who have bitten……and most of the time the bite has occurred because “Tucker” felt threatened or was startled from a deep sleep or was being hurt in some way. If the bite occurs when interacting with a family member, the dog will sometimes feel regret and shame at having bitten and caused harm and injury. But not all the time……there are dogs who say “I warned Alice….I growled and told her to leave me alone, but she just kept poking me so I bit her. Then she left me alone.” So “Tucker” got his point across and hopefully Alice learned not to poke him anymore. And….hopefully “Tucker’s” biting days are over. I always tell people who hire me to talk to their dogs about bites that just because I have a conversation with their dog and ask him why he bit and by-the-way please don’t do it anymore….doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. If the dog is placed in the same scary situation as before, whether real or perceived, he may react the same way and bite another person. There are no easy answers, but certainly keeping the dog out of the scary situation would go a long way to keeping everyone safe, including the dog.
What to do?
There is much controversy over what to do with a family dog who bites someone. Of course a lot depends on the circumstances…how serious the bite is and why the bite occurred in the first place. Most bites occur because of handler error. That’s us…..we’re either doing or not doing something that has set up the scenario in which our dogs react and lash out. That’s why it’s so important that we always keep at least one eye on our dogs when small children are around or when we’re out in a public venue with them. Our dogs will exhibit “calming signals” when they’re feeling cornered or put upon. These “calming signals” are saying ….”I’m stressed, don’t hurt me, leave me alone”. Knowing what our dog’s calming signals are and then watching for them can be the first step in preventing a bite from happening. What are some calming signals? They can differ from dog to dog, but some of the most common are: yawning more than usual, continued lip licking, tail between the legs, head down, eyes “bugging” out with lots of white showing, panting, tightening facial muscles, etc. There are many more calming signals that your dog may exhibit that will tell you he’s in trouble , that he needs you to get him out of the situation or he needs your help to make things better. That’s when we can step in to change the course of events, to keep a bite or an attack from happening. It’s probably the most important job we have as pet owners……staying alert to our dog’s behavior and then reacting to it to keep everyone safe and injury-free.
Our dogs are our family pets, our loving companions and our faithful sidekicks. But they also animals who have all of the instincts and behaviors that have been present in the canine species for generations and generations. We need to remember this when we take on the responsibility of owning a dog. And it is a responsibility……one to be enjoyed, cherished, shared, honored……and taken seriously.