There was a terrible story from the news this week about a baby being killed by 2 Pit Bulls. The story was somewhat confusing to me, but the end result was still the same… the baby and both Pit Bulls are dead. This type of story makes an individual’s heart ache… it also begs the question…”how can something like this happen?” After all, both of these dogs were loving members of somebody’s family… not wild strays that roam the streets searching for food. These dogs had titles, beds, food bowls and possibly even a toy or two. They might have even played with this child or given him a lick on his head a few times. What would have caused these two dogs to attack this poor little baby? We might never know. However, what we do know is that regardless of what breed, what size or what nature our dogs might be, there are all capable of biting, nipping or knocking someone down causing physical and psychological damage.
The most important thing that we as dog owners will need to keep in mind about our loving, well-behaved furry creatures is that they are dogs. We may believe them to be the gentlest, calmest and most easy going creatures on earth, but we must never assume they are not capable of striking out when triggered, stepped on or injured. It’s in their nature to protect themselves and their loved ones. And, depending on the breed, they might be more reactive than we give them credit for. When we own a puppy, we take the responsibility of caring for him… feeding him, taking him outside to potty, exercising him and keeping him in good health. We must also accept responsibility to guard him against scary, unpredictable situations. Anyone who’s ever had their dog around a kid knows that kids like to pull on noses, poke in ears, grab handfuls of fur and attempt to catch wagging tails. Why would we believe our dogs would be fine with having these things done to them? Why would we assume that simply because our dogs live in our houses and play with our kids that they would not reach their limit as to how much they’re willing to tolerate? We do… we react by yelling, stomping around and occasionally acting like wild people. And unfortunately, some people also lash out by physically harming our children. The difference is we know better, our dogs don’t.
My French Bulldog, Charlotte, is a sweet, loving and affectionate little girl. I’ve never had a dog with such a serene disposition. Charlotte loves everyone and gets angry if she sees someone in the distance who is not coming up to greet her and give her a pet or two. Because of her wonderful nature, we belong to a local Animal Assisted Therapy Group called”Dogs On Call”. We visit in three hospitals, 1 health care centre and see many, many students at the University during mid-terms and finals… petting a dog can really relieve a whole lot of exam stress and anxiety. (But then, there are a lot of adults who do the same thing) Due to the unpredictability of the environment, I always have Charlotte on a short leash in front of me or right in my side… and I have one eye on her. Just because I know her inside and out and feel her to be this wonderful furry critter, does not mean that she won’t react to a surprise tug on her ear or a pull on her tail. Dogs respond to actual and perceived threats to protect themselves and their nearest and dearest. And even though I like to think that Charlotte is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle dog in the world, I also need to bear in mind that when all is said and done, Charlotte remains just a dog.
I don’t know the temperaments of the Pit Bulls or how they were treated and trained. But just because they attacked this child, we cannot assume that these were bad dogs that were mishandled or defeated by their owners. We’ve all heard the scary stories about the Pit Bulls and Rottweilers and other large dogs who have maimed or killed people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time… dogs who were mistreated or left to their own devices or puppies that had been trained to fight and kill smaller, weaker animals in a ring. These stories leave us ill and in utter disbelief… how can somebody do this do their dog? And after we read or hear about how poorly these dogs were treated, how they were starved or beaten or raised without love and affection, we might find ourselves saying”well no wonder they attacked a child… no wonder they little bit grownup.” When we hear about a family dog doing the same thing… a dog that has been loved and cherished and taken care of because he was a baby… a puppy that has been well socialized, taken to puppy classes, obedience classes and maybe even become a therapy dog, we react in disbelief. Needless to say, the odds that a dog will bite are greatly diminished if he’s in a loving home with all of the amenities including training classes. But it behooves us to remember that dog attacks and dog bites can and do occur… even with the most loving, friendly dogs in the world.
I have communicated with a couple of family dogs that have bitten… and the majority of the time the bite has occurred because”Tucker” felt threatened or was startled from a deep sleep or was being hurt in some way. If the bite occurs when interacting with a family member, the dog will occasionally feel sorrow and shame at having bitten and caused harm and injury. So”Tucker” got his point across and Alice learned not to poke him . And… hopefully”Tucker’s” biting times are over. I always tell people who employ me to speak to their dogs about snacks that just because I have a conversation with their dog and ask him why he bit and by-the-way please don’t do it anymore… doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. If the dog is put in the identical scary situation as before, whether real or perceived, he may respond the same way and bite another person. There are no easy answers, but definitely keeping the dog out of the frightening situation would go a long way to keeping everybody safe, including the dog.
Of course a lot depends on the circumstances… how serious the snack is and why the bite occurred in the first place. Most bites occur due to handler error. That’s us… we’re either doing or not doing something that has set up the scenario in which our dogs respond and lash out. That’s why it’s so important that we always keep at least one eye on our dogs when small children are around or when we are out in a public venue with them. Our dogs will exhibit”calming signals” when they are feeling cornered or put upon. These”calming signals” are saying…”I am stressed, do not hurt me, leave me alone”. Knowing what our dog’s calming signs are and then watching for them can be the first step in preventing a bite from occurring. What are some calming signals? There are many more calming signals your dog may exhibit that will tell you he is in trouble, he needs you to get him out of the situation or he needs your help to make things better. It’s possibly the most important job we have as pet owners… staying awake to our dog’s behaviour and then reacting to it to keep everyone safe and injury-free.