A million years ago, my first Border Collie Drift lept up and nipped a man’s nose at the Wisconsin State Fair. Even though the man was clearly not injured, with virtually not even a red spot on his nose, I was shook up and appalled. He was furious. “Your dog attacked me!”
Well, he did. Just because the man wasn’t injured didn’t mean he didn’t feel attacked. And it didn’t mean that I didn’t feel horrible. Drift and I were about to perform in front of huge crowd by doing a sheep herding demo, and found ourselves jammed into a crowd against the building wall. The gentlemen in question charged up to Drift, grabbed his face in his hands, and yes, you guessed it, bent down to kiss Drift on the nose. It was the same exact context in which newscaster Kyle Dyer was bitten by a Dogo a few months ago. In some ways, everything was different: Kyle was badly injured and it was recorded on video tape for all the world to see. And in one way, everything was the same: A stranger holds a dog’s head in his/her hands and looms over to kiss a dog on the nose. Just like David Letterman was bitten on camera years ago. Just like how many people are bitten every year?
I find myself thinking of this before the beginning of Dog Bite Prevention Week, which runs from May 20 to May 26. It’s an important topic and I’m in complete support of efforts to raise awareness and prevent dog bites. The figures bandied about are that there are almost 5 million dog bites every year in the US (but see Dogs Bite but Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous…). Given that that figure appears to include events in which there was no injury whatsoever, the number is undoubtedly on the high side, but no matter how many there are, we all should be working to decrease them.
There is lots of good, standard information out there about preventing dog bites. The AVMA has a good website on bite prevention, as does the ASPCA and HSUS. There is lots of good advice on all these sites, especially related to keeping children from being bitten (the most common recipient of a dog bite appears to be a child from the ages of 5 to 9). However, much of it is general: pick a good puppy, train your dog, have a fenced yard, teach children to ask first, etc.
This is all good information, but we all know that no list is enough to prevent many of the bites that occur. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep up our efforts. Here’s my list, which builds on the standard advice and adds my own observations and experience, I’m counting on you to add to it:
1. Leashes Aren’t Muzzles. (Neither are muzzles for that matter.) In other words, keeping your dog on a leash won’t prevent him from biting someone. Sometimes leashes can precipitate bites if a dog is nervous and feels trapped. I’ve been overwhelmed by clients who believed that if their dog was attached by a leash, or even if they were close to their dog, that they could prevent a bite. We can prevent lots of bites from happening, but not always with leashes and proximity. When people miss signals of discomfort or tension in their dogs, they end up trying to stop a bite after it has begun. Stopping a dog in mid-air, within the micro-second required, to observe, evaluate and respond is far beyond the skill level of most people. People rarely say or think “I”m being bitten.” By the time you figure out what’s happened, it’s over. Far better to understand both context and behavior to prevent a bite long before your dog even thinks about it. And my comment about muzzles? Dogs can still hurt people, even with a muzzle on. There are lots of ways to lower the risk, but there’s no magic out there. Based on all this, you can predict my next point:
2. Learn to Read Dogs, and Teach Others What You Know. Recall Michele Wan’s research that showed the dog owning public is not very good at reading signs of negative emotions in dogs (fear, anxiety, etc.). Thus, we all need to do what we can to help educate everyone around us. It’s not helpful for us to pull our hair and roll our eyes about how bad people are at reading dogs, and how often they behave in ways that simply beg a dog to bite them. That just makes us right, and being right gets us one thing and one thing only: Being Right. That’s not going to decrease the number of dog bites out there, so we need to use our knowledge to help others. If you’re a trainer, get yourself on television, give out handouts, refer people to materials and websites that will help them translate dog. There are tons of them. Needless to say I have my own at my website, (and FYI, I have a new DVD coming out this coming Monday titled “Lost in Translation,” a day-long seminar on how dogs use sight, sound and smell to communicate) and there are many other great books and DVDs available through Dogwise and Tawzer Videos.
3. Understand Context: This contains a vast range of issues, from what tends to scare dogs in general (strangers grabbing their heads and trying to kiss their noses, surely a problem we can all understand–want a strange man to grab your head and smash his face into your own?), what scares each dog as an individual, and how the context itself can add risk. My Border Collie Drift was trapped and overwhelmed, as was the Dogo that bit Ms. Dyer. I’ve had numerous clients whose dogs bit someone after a long, exhausting day. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard about dogs who were “just wonderful” with all the children at the picnic all afternoon and evening long until … In hind sight the owner’s tell me “They should have known how tired their dog was…”. Yes, they should have, but we need to help spread the word that even good dogs can get grumpy too when they are exhausted. And when they are overwhelmed. Or scared. Or a tad tweaked about life at the moment.
4. Practice Interventions and Use Them When Necessary. This is where I went wrong all those years ago. If I was in that same situation now I would have never have allowed that man get that close to Drift. I would have moved between him and Drift before he could have grabbed Drift’s face and leaned down to kiss him. Body Blocks work really, really well on people, and can be used to avoid a great many risky situations.
Just a few days ago I was at a pet store that allows dogs and saw an owner use one perfectly. He had an adult Rottie, a lovely, happy-faced dog, who was approached by a squiggly, squirmy Golden Retriever puppy. The puppies’ owner let her dog dash toward the Rottie until they sniffed nose to nose. We were in tight quarters at the check out line. The Rottie had no where to back up into, and the enthusiastic puppy was about to jump onto his head. Wisely, the owner stepped quickly between the dogs, moved toward the puppy a step or two to move him away and then turned and smooched to his dog to follow him.
I turned to the pup’s owner, who had appeared surprised at what had happened and seemed a little bit put out. I thought perhaps I could use this as a teaching moment, and explained “I think the Rottie might have been a tad bit uncomfortable with your pup.” I hope she understood my point, but I can’t say, because the Rottie’s other owner turned to me and said, defensively, “He is a LOVELY dog, he is NOT aggressive.” Ah, and I thought he was a lovely dog myself, but I also noted that owner number one was wise enough to know that any trouble might react to a rude pup in that context, and quick as a wink did a body block. Huzzah! and Yeah! for him I say. Even lovely dogs have contexts in which they are uncomfortable, and more power to us when we know what they are.
5. The World’s Most Dangerous Words Are “I Think It’ll Be Okay.” I asked a salesman once if the hardware I was about to buy would stay attached to a wall if a 150 pound dog lunged against it with all his power. “I think so,” the guy said. This is when red flags should fly and noises generated by the security systems of nuclear power plants should start pounding into your ears. “Think it’s okay” is just not good enough when you are talking about a potential dog bite. I tell clients whose dogs are at risk of biting that we first, before talking about treatment, need to create the kind of risk management system included in submarines and power plants. If your not sure if your dog is 100% stable in a situation and you find yourself saying “I think it’ll be okay” without a careful and thoughtful risk analysis, I want you to hear AH OOOGA, AH OOOGA blasting in your ear. You want to hear “I KNOW it will be okay,” or given that life is never 100% predictable, “The probability of my dog hurting or scaring someone is less than .01 of one percent, and I’m willing to take that risk.” Whatever you decide, it should be very thoughtful, based on a lot of knowledge and be very, very conservative. Bites can be horrible for everyone, including the dog, and once they happen you’re in a entirely different context, and it’s not a good one.
And you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I expect they will be both thoughtful and thought provoking, as usual.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Spring sweet spring. Well, sort of. Summer, sweet summer? It’s in the low 80′s, sunny and warm and already I’m worrying a bit about when it will rain next. It’s been awhile.
But 8 of the 9 lambs are thriving, filling out with muscles and frolicking in the dappled shade of the woods. Spot’s twin ram lamb, who I’ve been supplementing with goat’s milk (mom’s udder is only giving milk from one side), was a voracious vacuum at first when given a bottle, but now he’s fussy and hesitant and only takes a few sips and then stops. This started after he was vaccinated and banded (and thus he lost trust in me), but the other bottle lamb, one of triplets, needed only a day to get over it. Spot’s boy, however, has remained hesitant and cautious.
His tiny twin sister, who I was most concerned about originally, continues to remind me that size doesn’t matter. She’s the pushy one. And although she refuses to take milk from a bottle (“Ugh, ugh!” she indicates by curling her lip and turning away), she’s filling out like a tick and has begun mounting the two ram lambs every time they start to drink out of the bottle. I’m speculating that with only one teat working, she’s dominating it and her brother is losing out. He doesn’t look bad, he’s just not gaining like the others, so I’ll keep working on getting him more milk. I tried a self feeder, which has been successful in the past, but I started late and because they all get milk from their momma’s they had little interest. I’ll keep you posted, we’re going to look at him more carefully this weekend for any physical or medical problems.
Willie and I just moved the entire flock up the hill to the orchard pasture so that my handy neighbor could bring in his bobcat and clear out the barn pen. May I be forgiven for saying that Willie’s work on the sheep was paw perfect? And where was the video camera when I needed?
As you can see, right now at the farm it’s all about lambs and flowers and working Willie and weeding weeding weeding. And, oh yeah, rhubarb & strawberry pie. Did I mention weeding?
Here’s the only bloom on the new Tree Peony we planted last year. I almost didn’t include the photograph because the focus isn’t crisp, but decided to anyway because it is still lovely in a kind of smear-petroleum-jelly-on-the-lens-for-the-aging-actress kind of way.
And here’s the Iris in front of the please-paint-me-this-summer porch. You can see Willie boy in the background, watching the sheep in behind the electric fence in the front yard: