I grew up in a rural environment, sharing a home with my mother, two siblings, and my maternal grandparents. We had a variety of animals (rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, and cats), came from a farming family (so spent a lot of time on my uncle’s dairy farm), and spent most of our time walking and playing outside, gardening, camping, and fishing.
Our dogs came in many varieties – the first dog I lived with was a Brittany – when my mother and father got married, they got each other puppies as their wedding gifts and Brandy, that wedding gift, was my first best friend. Eventually, we had a variety of other dogs – Beagles, Dobermans, Lhasa Apsos, All-American Mixed Breeds, Miniature Poodles, and eventually, mom settled on English Springers as her breed of choice. It was a different time and culture then, our dogs practically lived off leash and none of us would ever have dreamed of taking a dog to “school.” We were, in fact, quite happy if our dogs would sit, lie down, and “shake” (give paw).
We did all the “wrong” things – we fed our dogs the whatever was on sale at the grocery store because finances were a real issue. We let our dogs run around outside, off leash and unsupervised. We got puppies from pet stores or cheap newspaper ads. We didn’t know about “socializing” our puppies to a variety of people, animals, and environments. Despite all our mistakes, our dogs were friendly and had a relatively great quality of life – full days spent romping through field, forest, and stream with neighborhood kids and other dogs, chasing turkeys and rabbits, coming home muddy and exhausted.
We were every bit as untrained as our dogs. We didn’t know that there are many things that “people think dogs like, but dogs actually don’t like.” (more on this in a future entry!) Even as a child I was “magnetized” to dogs. While I never got bit, I did receive a few warning growls or snaps throughout my youth. Inevitably, being the young, dramatic thing that I was, I would run to my grandfather, crying. My grandfather was certainly a “man’s man,” gruff on the outside, funny, great hugger on the inside. In these times of terror, he would usually scoop me up into his lap and say, “Well, what did you do to him?”
Young, dramatic Casey would inevitably feign horror at the suggestion that somehow I had caused this creature to “lash out unpredictably.” “Nothing, grandpa, I swear!” I’d respond emphatically. While outwardly denying the possibility that I may somehow have caused this event, I mentally replayed the scenario and, even at a young age, usually knew that I did something which the animal didn’t like – touched him while he was chewing a bone, for instance. As an adult, with the information I have available to me now, I know that resource guarding can and should be prevented through training, but back then, these problems were generally managed, “just leave the dog alone when he has a bone,” and so we did.
I’ve seen a huge cultural change since then. In the culture in which I was raised, the perception was, “if a dog bites, you likely did something to provoke him.” The predominant societal view currently seems to assert that, “if a dog bites, he is inherently and unpredictably aggressive, a threat to society.”
My professional experience supports my grandfather’s view – most bites are, in fact, provoked, if we allow the dog to define provocation. The dog that is “inherently and unpredictably aggressive” is a rare creature, indeed. Most dogs are highly predictable. Virtually all dog bites are also highly predictable, and could be prevented through education – educating dogs, owners, and members of the community. While severe dog bites are rare, promoting safety through information dissemination will make them even rarer still.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent dog bites and keep dogs and people in your community safe when in the presence of strange dogs:
- never approach a dog that is tethered or behind a fence
- never approach a dog that is off leash in public
- always ask owner permission before interacting with a dog
- always ask dog permission before interacting with a dog (more on this later!)
- never approach or attempt to touch a dog that is in possession of food or a toy
- avoid approaching dogs that are in their own yards unsupervised, tethered, fenced or not
- give dogs space – many dogs are tethered, leashed, fenced, or otherwise confined in a bite incident. When in doubt of safety, stay out of teeth range.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about asking for the dog’s permission and later in the week, will discuss some “do’s” and “don’ts” of meeting new pooches.