I mentioned yesterday that we’d be talking about dog safety this week. After my classes last night, I returned home and quickly checked my Facebook account before launching into some curriculum development I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. One of the first posts I saw in my newsfeed was, unfortunately, this article: Dog Bites Off Part of Home Depot Greeter’s Nose. Yikes.
To sum up the story, a woman brought her dog to Home Depot in a shopping cart. The greeter approached the customer, to hand out flyers. The greeter then approached the dog, looked down into her face, and the dog bit off part of her nose. The comments are interesting and filled with blame – who’s fault is it? The dog owner? The dog? The greeter? Home Depot? These questions of blame are philosophical in nature and fail to address the bigger issue here – how do we keep all involved parties safe and prevent something this horrible from happening in the future?
I’d like to share with you a story about a dog that was very near and dear to my own heart. Many of you, friends or long-time readers, may remember that last year I lost my rescued Saint Bernard, Monte. Monte was a dog that, by all rights, probably should have been euthanized. He was placed in my home with myriad behavior problems which were not disclosed to me by rescue, primarily severe leash reactivity toward other dogs. Basically, I had to decide – do I want to euthanize Monte or spend thousands of dollars and many hundreds of hours learning the intricacies of behavior modification? I chose the latter, an option the average pet-owning family may not be equipped or desire to deal with.
One night, a friend was over at my house, we’ll call her Julie. She’d spent a lot of time with Monte – camping trips, hikes, visits to our house, etc. They were buds – not best friends, but he’d definitely be happy to see her and would welcome any butt scratches she saw fit to offer. This particular evening, we were all having a glass of wine, dinner, and watching a movie together. We lit a fire in the fireplace and sat down to watch a movie. Julie sat on the floor in front of the fireplace, scratching Monte’s belly as he laid on his side. The belly scratch was obviously quite relaxing for Monte, who then rolled over onto his back.
Julie then moved her head forward, placing it about five inches from his face, looked him in the eyes, and smiled at him. Monte growled, froze, and then launched up, twisted his head, and had her skull in his mouth. Luckily, he didn’t cause any damage – Julie said she felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise and very little pressure. The amount of pressure a dog exerts when he uses his teeth is called “Acquired Bite Inhibition” or ABI. Monte showed great bite inhibition – as a raw feeder, I’ve seen what his teeth can do to bone and if he wanted to injure Julie seriously, he would and could have. The Shih Tzu in this story demonstrated comparatively little bite inhibition – when she bit, she bit hard.
Multiple warnings preceded this bite. The first sign was a “whale eye,” where much of the whites of his eyes were visible. The second sign was a growl. The third sign was a freeze. Had I known then what I know now about body language what I know now, I would have been able to prevent this situation from ever escalating, and better equipped to keep both Julie and Monte safe.
This story, while tragic, provides valuable learning lessons which we’d all do well to heed. Many toy breeds (dogs of all breeds, but toys are often the most victimized due to their popularity) are the products of puppy mills – profit, not temperament, is the deciding factor in breeding decisions. Also, the socialization history on this dog is questionable. Bite inhibition is developed during puppyhood through appropriate play with other dogs and careful training from the handler. Socialization will decrease the likelihood that the dog will bite, bite inhibition training will increase the chances that, if the dog ever feels enough pressure where he decides to use his teeth to defend himself, he will not use the full force of his jaws.
Stare downs and baring teeth are not friendly gestures in dogland. Face to face greetings are not friendly gestures in dogland. While Julie intended this interaction to be friendly, Monte did not perceive it that way. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. We’ll explore some of them this week, including:
- dogs have space bubbles
- dogs are not public property
- citizens can be empowered to keep themselves safe through learning appropriate behaviors around familiar and strange dogs
- policies should be established for public access for friendly, well-trained, well-socialized dogs in businesses which would like to allow their presence
- lifetime training, enrichment, and socialization will help protect dogs from people and vice versa
- dog owners need to develop body language reading and appropriate management skills