Nowhere to Run

“Oh, he’d never bite.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase, I’d be blogging from a beach in Tahiti. The truth is, no matter how sweet a dog is, if the right set of circumstances conspire, that dog will bite.

The most common scenario for an otherwise peaceful dog biting is that the dog is frightened, and feels he has no other choice. This commonly happens during vet visits; the dog becomes defensive when restrained or when having a medical procedure. But it happens in homes as well. A dog who is lying in his crate, when confronted with a child crawling in to kiss him, has nowhere to go. A dog can easily feel cornered even when not confined, whether indoors or out. And when a dog is restrained by a collar or leash, his fight or flight options are severely limited.

You would think it would be obvious to owners when a dog is going through this type of emotional turmoil, but all too often, it’s not. Yesterday morning at the park, Sierra and I walked along with a nice group of owners and their dogs. We passed a woman I’d seen before, whose terrier I knew to be fear-reactive. Sure enough, as they neared our group, the dog began to bark defensively while practically hiding behind her owner. The woman stopped to chat with one of the men. The owners stood there having an amiable conversation, while the poor little terrier had a less pleasant experience. The man’s dog, a medium-sized mixed breed male, kept trying to investigate the terrier, and the terrier wanted nothing to do with him. Unfortunately, the little dog had nowhere to go. I tried in vain to explain as it was happening that the dog was clearly upset and afraid. My entreaties to allow the dog to move along fell on deaf ears. The man actually told the woman, “She seems to be doing better,” and the woman agreed. I stood there dumbfounded.

I’ve seen people stand with their dog on leash in the middle of an actual dog park where other dogs are romping off-leash. Naturally, dogs come up to sniff the leashed dog and some try to play with him. Others, though, try to hump the dog or even start a fight. I’ve seen the latter two happen to leashed dogs as the owners stood there, oblivious, chatting. It boggles the mind. I’m not a parent, but I can’t imagine that if I were having a conversation with another adult and their kid began to scare my child, that I’d blithely continue talking and ignore what was going on. How is it possible that this happens with alarming regularity with dogs? Owners are shocked when their wonderful dog, who’d never hurt anyone, bites another dog. The worst part is that the biting dog gets blamed, when the responsibility should rest squarely on the shoulders of the owner. Maintaining at least peripheral attention to our own dogs and others, even when we’re engaged in other activities, would go a long way in preventing bites and reducing canine stress.

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10 Responses to Nowhere to Run

  1. Have had this exact experience myself – it is amazing how people are unable or more often, unwilling to read their dog and assess his/her emotional state. How many times do we hear that so and so’s dog bit and “never showed any signs before that”. To me, that is impossible, it’s just that the owner was oblivious to the signs. Unfortunately, many “dog” people further this idea by agreeing that it is possible for this to happen and indicate that many dogs just “snap”, encouraging people to think of their dogs as unpredictable time bombs. Love this article and hope that it makes people think!

  2. You’ve hit it right Nicole! I hear too many clients insisting their dogs would never bite.. well a few of those dogs have unfortunately proven those owners wrong!
    On to spread the word of canine body language!!!

    P.S. I love your work and am excited to see you coming to Georgia for a seminar!

  3. Flavia Berti says:

    We love your posts, Nicole! We pet sit and see a variation of this oblivious behavior too often. These parents are well-meaning, but we definitely do our best to educate about dog body language. The signs are all there, we just have to be conscious of them. Looking forward to your next post!

  4. Steve says:

    “but I can’t imagine that if I were having a conversation with another adult and their kid began to scare my child, that I’d blithely continue talking and ignore what was going on.”

    Just hang out at the mall’s play area, you’ll see that very behavior a lot.

  5. In the consult room I am constantly watching the dogs body language, after years of practice (and predicting behaviour almost exclusivly correctly) my boss now knows if I say be careful, he immediatly becomes watchful and he leaves the handling to me.
    I particularly remember one occassion when a dog was doing loads of what body language people call “tapouts” (the dog throws itself down on the floor, quickly expossing it’s belly and equally quickly jumps back up) – My boss and the owner thought the dog was just hyperexcited and wanting a belly rub. I told both of them the dog was highly stressed and telling us in the nicest possible way, “please don’t push me” The owner dismissed my suggestion (as did my boss, surely the owner would know if her dog was going to bite) – the dog did indeed end up having a snap. The owner was alarmed, of course saying the dog had never done that before and there was no warning (ignoring the fact that I had already warned her) – my boss after the consult asked me how I knew, he was impressed!

    There has been many a time I have said to a client in the consult room, please be careful your dog is about to bite – the client looks at me as if I am mad. And to make matters worse, when the dog does actually bite, apparently it is MY fault because the dog has never done that before and I must have some how induced it with my very words.
    The children are the worse to deal with, while I am handling and restraining their pets (cats or dogs) whilst we are having to do something the animals considers invasive. The children understandably want to “comfort” their pet and will reach out to pat – I have to quickly and as diplomatically as I can ask them not to do that because their pet might bite. The kiddies will always look horrified at me and say “oh he’ll never bite me” It’s hard to explain to them (whilst trying to do my job) that in these circumstances the pet is frightened, we are doing stuff to them they don’t like, they wont mean to do it to the owner but if they are the first thing in the way they could get hurt……………….even more so, it is very diconcerting having to explain it to a supposedly matured adult who really should know better.

  6. TOTALLY, COMPLETELY AGREE!
    The other thing that makes me crazy is when a dog is on a leash, in public, obviously shy, hiding behind the owner’s legs and the owner pulls the dog forward by his leash, saying “he’s just a chicken, but you can pet him” as someone approaches or a little kid comes roaring up.Then in an irritated voice says to the dog “Go ahead, Spot, get up there” as he drags the poor dog forward. Geez! Talk about setting this poor little pup up for failure.

  7. Jen in Canada says:

    It’s like you’ve visited the dog park I go to! It’s so hard when you try to help by giving information and people prefer to stay oblivious.I wonder if perhaps I can get my local dog association who overseas the parks to at least put up pics of dog body language, like the Boogie the Boston ones to at least plant the seed. At the moment it just seems to be a place for people to stand around with their coffees while their adolescent dogs annoy everything with four legs.

    P.S. Can`t wait to check out your seminar up here next year!

  8. Reblogged this on Whole Earth Pets and commented:
    I absolutely agree with this blog, our animals react emotionally to some situations, fear is the one emotion that will make even the sweetest dog bit if he/she has no other option. Be aware of your dog’s body language and respect it. It will save them and you, much heartache (and potentially Vet bills or insurance claims.

  9. Rebecca Rice says:

    I have a very shy dog, so I try to stay in tune with her body language. The worst situation I have run across was in a class, where Katie was a bit stressed and had tucked herself up against the wall, partly behind a chair. The person next to me came over, LEANED OVER her and stared straight at her, despite her frequent head turns and lip licks. I finally had to get between the woman and my dog and tell her flat out to back away because she was stressing Katie out. The kicker? The woman was like “It’s ok… I have a shy dog too at home!” Really??? And yet you can’t tell that your actions are making things worse? I really think that a lot of it is that the general human is really bad about reading dog body language, and just assumes that if they are ok with something, the dog is too.

  10. […] Filter” (how acceptance of the notion of dominance alters our understanding of dogs), “Nowhere to Run” (on fearful dogs), and “When You Assume” (the dangers of assuming other dogs are […]

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