Ian Dunbar, respected animal behaviorist and DVM, had this to say about dogs at a recent dog trainer’s conference: “When they’re upset, p—-d off, or annoyed, they don’t call their lawyer… they bite. That’s what they do.” He also said that 50% of dogs will have an aggressive encounter with you in their lifetime.
Dog bite statistics are alarming. We need to do more to educate the public on how to avoid an aggressive encounter with a dog, and how to respond when you find yourself in danger of being bitten.
Each year at Dog Scout Camp, we have a guest lecturer speak to us about “A look into the mind of the aggressive dog.” Cheryl Carlson has been training dogs for many years, and her expertise and sense of humor are appreciated by the campers. Cheryl travels all over giving similar “Dog Bite Prevention” workshops to postal workers, meter readers, dog catchers, and delivery personnel. The information she shares with us is excellent, and I am going to share it here in the hope it will enlighten a few people, or prevent a few people from sustaining a harmful dog bite.
What makes Cheryl such an authority on dog bites? She gets bitten by dogs for a living. She trains Police K-9, security dogs, and personal protection dogs. She’s a certified Campagne Decoy. She works in a full body suit, where the attack-trained dogs are allowed to bite everywhere and anywhere. Cheryl also teaches classes in protection training and trains other decoys. She exhibits in and judges various protection competitions. She is definitely an expert on how to get bitten by dogs. Who better to teach us how NOT to get bitten by dogs?
During the talk, Cheryl demonstrates, with some of her own or her students’ dogs, just exactly how to get the dog to bite. A perfectly friendly dog is brought out to make “friends” with the person acting as the decoy; then the decoy’s demeanor changes. He starts crouching, moving erratically, and reaching toward the dog’s head tentatively, as though he is afraid. This turns the sweet-natured dog into a raving maniac. The display put on by the decoy always reminds me of a nine-year-old child approaching a dog. Children have the ability to behave exactly as if they WANT the dog to bite them – it’s no wonder they often get bitten.
So, lesson number one is: Teach your children how to approach dogs (and do the same yourself!).
First of all, children should be taught NOT to approach strange dogs at all, period. If the dog is unknown to you, anything could happen. I still recall an incident that happened when I was only a toddler. The neighbor had tied a friend’s dog to the property line stake. So the dog was able to come over into our yard (right next to the swing set). I toddled up to that dog and tried to look at his tags. The dog jumped up on me and knocked me OUT! I still remember coming to, on my back, looking at the sky and the five swing sets circling above me! By the time there was only one swing set, my mother came out and scooped me up. Having a severe head trauma at an early age like that is not a laughing matter. Also, I’m lucky it was a small, friendly dog, and that I fell BACKWARDS! Or my mother might have been picking me up in pieces!
If the owner of the dog is there, and says it’s okay, have your child stand still and let the dog approach the child. I’ve been teaching community obedience training classes for 25 years, and my rule has always been to NEVER approach and touch a dog that doesn’t approach and touch you FIRST (it’s a good rule for identifying friendly people, too!). If the dog approaches and is not afraid, the child can extend a fist for the dog to sniff (extended, grabby little fingers are frightening to dogs). The child should be instructed not to pat the dog on the top of the head (most dogs actually hate this, anyway), because they usually do so in “attack decoy mode.” They reach out and then pull back when the dog moves to inspect the hand. This is the fastest way to encourage a dog to nip at hands. Try to get the child to scratch the dog under the chin.
The best approach when introducing yourself to a new dog is a sideways one. A sideways stance is less threatening to a dog. Avoid direct eye contact. Look away, or look at the floor and pretend to be disinterested in the dog. This conveys a “calming signal” to the dog. It portrays a picture of a being who is not going to try to chase him, grab him or hurt him. If you look calm, the dog will be calm. Other calming signals [read “Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas] include approaching by walking in an arc (the way friendly dogs greet each other), sitting or squatting, licking or smacking your lips, yawning, and sniffing (we humans don’t sniff, so you could just inspect a blade of grass with your hand, or something). Basically you are almost completely ignoring the dog. This sets him at ease. You’re telling him, “You don’t have to worry about defending yourself from me, because I mean you no harm.”
Now, that will get you through an encounter with a non-aggressive dog. What do you do if you find yourself suddenly confronted by a dog who thinks he is protecting his turf, or for some other reason wants to intimidate or bite you? The first instinct you may have is to run. That is the WORST possible behavior you could engage in. If there is ever a for sure piece of advice, NEVER, EVER RUN from a dog.
Dogs bite because they don’t want you near them, or an area they may be “protecting.” Be it because of fear, or for whatever reason, the dog wants to put distance between himself and you. If a fearful dog can not distance himself by running away, he will try to distance you by putting on an aggressive display to intimidate you. How you react can mean the difference between getting bitten or not. I remember an incident 25 years ago, when a man came door-to- door selling apples. When the man swung that apple crate up onto his shoulder to leave, my Doberman went into serious “alarm” mode. He decided that guy had ill intent. My Dobe was (like most dobies) just a big cuddly lap dog, so I told the guy, “Aw, just stomp your foot at him, he’ll go away.” WRONG IDEA! Sundance just about came unglued, and I was lucky that he didn’t actually bite the guy! I had never seen him act like that! He acted as if he was going to rip the apple seller’s lungs out! The poor man must have just about wet himself. I felt so stupid!
Cheryl Carlson suggests that you never try to use intimidation to “chase away” an aggressive dog, unless you are sure that the dog is very fearful. A fearful dog will respect and avoid a “stronger being,” while it may attempt to bite someone who runs away. First choice defense would be to activate the calming signals, while slowly backing off, sideways. Cheryl also says (and she should know), that the flesh on the outsides of our bodies (hips, outer thighs, outer calves, upperside of arms) is tougher than the inner sides of those body parts, and if you’re going to get bitten, those would hurt the least. As for a small child, Cheryl recommends that the child place the hands over the face, with the forearms protecting the throat. She tells little kids that if they see a “big, mean dog,” he wants to play hide and seek, so stand still, cover your eyes, and count to 50. This places bone in front of the child’s face and throat. Lying down on the ground is not a good defense against an aggressive dog, but if children should happen to fall down, or get knocked down, they should remain still, lie face down, and not scream. NEVER, NEVER RUN!
If you’re an adult, and you are faced with an all-out attack from an unfriendly dog, and none of the other stuff works, what do you do? Cheryl says to stand up straight (and sideways), and in your best, most authoritative, primal yell, blast the word “NO!!!!!” from your very bowels, just as the dog gets within striking distance. This may take the dog off guard, as most dogs have been admonished with this word before (unfortunately).
Guess where most bites occur? Right in our homes! Sparky bites the child out of fear for his life (because the child has been taunting him). Or, Fluffy bites anyone who comes too close to his food bowl (because he’s been allowed or encouraged to guard resources). These are what I would call environmental problems. They can all be “fixed,” with a little effort, because the dog isn’t truly vicious – he’s just been raised improperly, and/or the environment has not been managed properly. It’s unfortunate that these dogs usually get marched straight off to the dog pound. Then, the people get another Cocker Spaniel and teach THAT one to be the boss, too, and they go right through the same thing all over again. If people knew a little more about dog behavior to begin with, they wouldn’t create these little “monsters.” And, if they were willing to seek and pay for the help of a behavior counselor, they could probably work out the problems.
To avoid dog bites in the home I recommend the following advice:
1. Properly socialize your puppy. I can’t begin to emphasize this enough. BEFORE the age of 16 weeks, your puppy must encounter all of the things he’ll see in his adult lifetime. If he doesn’t, then, in all likelihood, he’ll be terrified of those things later when he encounters them. You must introduce him to friendly adults, children, old people, teenagers with blue hair, disabled people, people with beards, hats, bald heads, abnormal gaits, crutches, canes, and funny mannerisms. You must safely introduce him to cars, bicycles, veterinarians, loud noises, other animals, toddlers, stairs, water, vacuum cleaners, people in gorilla suits, and other strange things. If the dog is not afraid of it, he won’t try to attack it to defend himself. A well-adjusted dog is not a biting dog. I can’t stress this strongly enough. There’s only about an 8-week window, here. Get those puppies out and socialize them to everything!
2. Teach your children to respect life. Show them how to properly touch, pet, and handle a dog. Young children should not be allowed to carry puppies. They want to, because they see you doing it, but they don’t know how to yet, and they lack the coordination to properly support the dog and keep him from falling. This terrifies the puppy, and – if you want the puppy to grow up thinking, “When I get my adult teeth, Bobby, your butt is MINE!” – then just go on ahead and let your child continue to abuse the dog in this manner. NOT a good idea! You must teach the child that handling the puppy in this way is not comfortable for the puppy, and the child must not try to hurt the puppy, because he is a living, breathing, loving organism. There is a direct correlation between children who abuse animals and those kids, grown up, abusing or killing other people. Teach your children well.
3. NEVER trust your young child alone with your dog or puppy, EVER. I don’t care how good or well-trained you think your child is, when you’re not looking, the child wants to do all of the things you won’t let him do when you’re around. “Well, let’s see… I wonder what REALLY happens when you pull the dog’s ears, or poke him in the eye with a pen…” The child is usually “low man on the totem pole” in the household, and if he can have control over the dog, it makes him feel more powerful. You may not realize your child is pestering the dog until the day Bobby comes running to you, dripping blood, saying, “Doggie BITE!” At this point somebody’s usually in trouble, and the dog often takes the heat. He can’t defend himself and he didn’t have witnesses. This is when you go to get a rolled up newspaper and swat yourself on the head a few times, repeating, “BAD Parent! BAD Dog Owner! Bad! Bad! Bad!”
4. If you have toddlers, create a safe “haven” for your dog. Use a baby gate or something that the dog can get over or through that the child cannot. When the dog does not want to be bothered with the child, he will escape to his safe place, and everything will be fine. If the dog is not able to get away from the thing that terrifies him, remember that “Plan B” is to try to get that thing away from HIM. This usually involves lip-lifting, growling, snapping, or biting, all of which are proper social signals to avoid REAL aggression, by communicating that the dog wants to be left alone. However, children are not puppies, and do not understand this language, so it’s important to give the dog a place to go where the child absolutely cannot follow.
5. Don’t tie your dog out. Tied dogs are frustrated dogs. They experience “barrier frustration” all day long. It tends to make them hyper and testy. A child entering the area where a dog is chained could be easily knocked down or bitten. If one or more of your neighbors ties a dog out, don’t let your children go near these dogs. They are an accident waiting to happen.
6. Don’t play “idiot” games with your dog. Some people think it’s cute to tease dogs by pretending to beat up another family member in front of them, or by playing “games” like “slap-boxing” with the dog. These mindless ways of torturing your dog are non-productive, and could cause the dog to become aggressive, or at the very least, teach him to snap at hands. Teenagers are usually the guilty parties in this scenario. Teenagers are children in adult bodies and that makes the teen years particularly difficult for kids. They feel all “grown up,” and yet they are forced to continue to live in the “nest” and are bossed around by other adults all the time. Sometimes the only other being they can have control over is the family dog. This is a scary thought. From childhood, if you encourage your kids to put themselves in the dog’s “shoes,” and treat the family pets with the respect and love that they deserve, you won’t have a problem as your child becomes an adult.
7. Enroll your dog (and family) in a home obedience course. This will help establish you as the leaders and give the dog a job to do. If your dog knows how to perform a few simple control behaviors on cue, you can have him “go to his pillow” or “lie down” when company arrives, so that he doesn’t get over stimulated in a barking frenzy at the door. A dog can’t lie down and bite the mailman at the same time. Use productive behaviors to counter competitive, non-productive behaviors. Your instructor will also show you how to stop your puppy from chewing your hands and teach him that gnawing on your body parts is “off limits.”
8. If you start to see any resource guarding behaviors, call a pet behavior counselor immediately. You cannot allow these behaviors to continue, as they often escalate. Resource guarding means the dog might growl at someone walking near his food dish, or might not let you take a bone away from him politely, or might even guard YOU so that other family members can’t get near. Your trainer will put you on a training program where you will desensitize your dog to the things that are “triggering” his behavior now.
9. Get your dog used to having you touch and groom him at an early age. Dogs have to have a lot of care and grooming throughout their lifetime that involves touching, stroking, holding or restraining. If your dog does not allow you to touch him in certain ways or in certain places, this problem must be addressed. He may only be warning you with a growl, now, but if you let it be, there will come a time when you absolutely have to trim his nails, give him medication or otherwise restrain him, and he’s liable to bite. From an early age (as soon as you get him), accustom him to having you hold and touch his paws, stroke him and hold him on his side. By teaching him that this contact is not-threatening and not harmful, he will accept it without a second thought. First impressions are important, and you want first associations to be pleasant ones. Before you actually trim your dog’s nails, for example, practice holding the paws, rubbing the pads, touching the nails, and touching the nail trimmer to the nails.