The following is an update from posts I’ve written in the past, introducing Dog Bite Prevention Week. Here’s what I’d love you to do this week–comment about “Dog bites I have known,” (sigh), or “How I prevented a bite about to happen.” So, so, SO many bites could be prevented if dog owners, dog lovers, and every one else had enough knowledge, and perhaps you can help add to that. Will it ever be possible to eliminate bites from our relationship with dogs? Will we humans ever stop yelling at each other, or stop slugging each other in a barroom brawl? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
Tell us your stories this week, in the belief that they just might have the power to prevent a bite from happening, and to help those who have had to deal with the aftermath when they do happen.
Here’s my story, from a post several years ago, along with my advice about preventing bites:
A million years ago, my first Border Collie Drift leapt 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 grabs 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 at the beginning of Dog Bite Prevention Week, which runs this year from April 10-16. 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 about 4.5-4.7 million dog bites each 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 as described above, they can still be deeply upsetting, and we all should be working to decrease them.
There is a lot of good, standard information out there about preventing dog bites. The AVMA has a good website on bite prevention, as does the ASPCA. There is lots of good advice on 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 is plenty of information out there. Needless to say I have my own at my website, (including “Lost in Translation,” a day-long seminar on how dogs use sight, sound and smell to communicate that you can stream on demand) and there are many other great books and DVDs available through Dogwise.
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 to 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 a body block 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 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 the owner was wise enough to know that any dog might react to a rude pup in that context, and quick as a wink did a body block. Huzzah! and Yay! 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 of his power. “I think so,” the guy said. This is when red flags should fly and the noises generated by the alarm 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 you’re 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. It’s never a good one.
Please, please add to this with your wisdom, stories, and knowledge. Let’s make it the Dog Bite Prevention Decade!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Two sunny days in a row over the weekend! We were beginning to forget what it was like to need sunglasses. At least we’ve been getting some much needed moisture, but we were all starting to mold.
My photos for this post are not from the farm, however. Jim and I were lucky enough to get another trip this winter to Arizona. (If two trips this winter sound like an indulgence, believe me, it felt like that to me too.) We spent most of our time at the Casa de San Pedro alongside the San Pedro River. It’s a bed and breakfast (oh oh oh, the breakfasts!) that caters especially to bird watchers and bicycle tour groups.
The highlight of the trip for me was meeting the good folks of the Southeast Arizona Audubon Society while they were banding hummingbirds. This handsome Rufous Hummer was the first bird they caught, and after banding I got to be the one to hold him in my palm while he recovered until flying away. It was magical.
This is Sheri L. Williamson, who was the Master Bander and actually did write the definitive book on Hummingbirds for the Peterson Field Guide Series. She is one of the country’s forement experts on hummers, and I can’t believe I got to meet her, along with some wonderful volunteers, Karen and Rebecca. You’d better believe I got the book autographed.
Here’s another of my favorite Arizona birds, the Road Runner. Yes, there really are Road Runners, and no, they don’t look like the one in the cartoon, but they can indeed run like the wind. Beep beep. The Cornell Bird Lab says they can outrace a human and kill a rattlesnake, so maybe the cartoon bird isn’t so far off. This individual entertained us while eating outside at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Sooo many birds I love in Arizon! (Where I grew up by the way.) Here’s another favorite, one of the many Gambel’s Quail who fed at the feeders outside of the Casa.
If you can stand one more, here’s a male Vermillion Flycatcher. The boys were out in force along the San Pedro River banks, catching the sun with their electric red feathers. We saw lots of them, and it was never enough. Flycatchers, however, aren’t quite as easy to photograph, so this one isn’t Audubon worthy, but hopefully good enough.
I promise there were other things we did besides bird watch, including wonderful hikes within Ramsey Canyon, looking at gorgeous views from the Coronado National Monument, and exploring fantastic gardens in Tuscon, including Tohono Chuli and the Tucson Botanical Garden. Here’s a view from the Coronado Nat’l Monument. (There’s no monument! But fantastic scenery.)
Overall, it was a fantastic trip. But I have to admit, it didn’t take long for me to miss the dogs and look forward to going home. Dorothy was right.
Now, your turn: Dog bites! Ever had to deal with one? Your best ideas about how to prevent? We all need to work together to decrease the number of bites in the world, so join in and help out like only you can!