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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 4 May 2004 Issue

How To Spot A Vicious Dog
By Connie Bloom

A chow mix running in a pack with two other dogs on the loose came up behind me and my dog Emily and lunged for her while she was on the leash. I thwarted contact by jumping between them in a heart-thumping split second. My response was purely instinctive. The chow backed off.

If I could have suspended time and whipped out my notebook and pen, I would have jotted down the dog's appearance, the typical offensive aggressive stance: Weight shifted forward, hackles up, ears pointed ahead, tail up and over the back with agitated wagging; facial muscles taut, cheeks pulled back, teeth bared in a snarl; eyes delivering a hard stare. If nothing is done at this juncture, a bite will follow.

I called the chow vicious. This led to mutterings. Was I denigrating my attacker? What constitutes a vicious dog?

I asked a trio of canine authorities to weigh in on the issue. They are: animal cop Tim Harland, senior humane officer with the Humane Society of Greater Akron; animal behavior consultant Ken McCort of Four Paws Training in Doylestown; and dog trainer Jack Papp of Papp's Dog Service, Akron.

There are all kinds of aggression in dogs, said Papp. In this case, we're talking dominant genetic aggression against other dogs and/or people, which is the same thing when a dog is connected to a person by a leash. They have different origins, genetic and environmentally induced. It's hard to determine which is which, but either will qualify the dog as vicious.

``If it's genetic, they're bad dogs and there's not a thing we can do about it. A bad dog is a bad dog. Could we rehabilitate it? If we had enough resources, but we don't,'' said Papp. Likewise, the environmentally induced bad dog, the result of a negative relationship with a human, can usually be reversed, given the time and resources, which is the caveat 90 percent of the time.

Point in fact, Papp worked in rescue for 14 years. ``If a dog couldn't be rehabbed in four months, it was destroyed.'' Even at this plodding pace, a bunch of dogs were saved. Viewed in the context of thousands of homeless dogs in Ohio and the dearth of rescue workers, a bad dog is a bad deal. ``Dog pounds and humane societies have limited resources,'' he said.

Harland's definition of vicious is short and sweet: ``A vicious dog is aggressive. He will come at you for no reason.'' Harland sees the scary end of a snarl every day on his beat in Summit County. ``The dog stares at you, the hair goes up on his back.''

McCort's answer was more involved. Grab a chair.

McCort has a penchant for clarity and succinctness (even at length). ``The scientific definition of vicious is a level of aggression, not a breed of dog. It depends on whose research you look at and what scientist as to where to draw the line. My definition follows: When the animal's intention is to do physical damage and there is little inhibition.''

He explains inhibition this way. As puppies, dogs learn to be gentle with their mouths. ``They have razor sharp teeth and they learn to inhibit the force of the bite. Their mouths are like human hands.'' They learn to munch on their siblings gently in play, in stark contrast to a penetrating bite. ``The dog that puts its mouth on a human being and uses too much force by accident is very rare,'' he said.

There are seven levels of canine aggression:

Level 1 -- Alarm bark and growl.

Level 2 -- Snap and lunge.

Level 3 -- Contact bite, which is grab and let go. ``There is usually bruising, scratching of the skin, dents in the skin, torn clothing and no bleeding more than a minor scratch.

Level 4 -- Puncture and laceration in a single bite.

Level 5 -- Multiple bites and more than one bite site and slashing, an intentional moving of the head to lacerate. When they go to the next level, there's serious damage.

Level 6 -- Tissue loss and amputation of digits. ``I always try to get my clients to understand how much power dogs have. Any dog over 40 pounds can kill a human being,'' said McCort.

Level 7 -- Death. ``The dog goes for the front of the throat or abdomen. It can rip out the jugulars and eviscerate. When the lacrosse teacher in California was attacked by the Presa Canarios, they intended to kill her, he said. They crushed her larynx and ripped out the veins in her neck with the first bite. ``It is a very rare dog that goes to level seven,'' he said.

McCort said he would label 5, 6 and 7 as vicious. ``I don't think 3 or 4 is, but the city does. Vicious means they're so freaking dangerous, they can kill you. Most scientists say 4, 5, 6 and 7. But there's a difference between the legal definition and the scientific definition.''

McCort has devoted his life to the study of canines and is always ready to defend man's best friend. ``More people die of bee stings than dog bites in the U.S. every year,'' he said. ``Bees and people are more dangerous to children than dogs if you look at the death statistics.''

Ideally, Towpath users will not encounter packs of wandering dogs or even a single stray because nearby homeowners and Towpath users are responsible and conscientious and would never burden others with their animals. Yet time and time again, I encounter dogs coming at me off leash, their owners 40 and 50 yards in the distance. Leash your dogs!

Here is what our experts suggested you do should you see a pack of dogs coming at you and your animal.

Carry a walking stick on the Towpath, says McCort. That means you will have both hands occupied the whole way, but it's better than nothing. Should a dog come at you, point the end of it at the dog's (or leader's) eyes and keep it between you and the dog if he circles. In the absence of a stick, get something between you -- a tree.

In any case, stand your ground, do not run. Do not look the dog in the eyes, considered a challenge in dog lingo. Do not yell. Do not turn your back. Keep your hands in, do not extend your arms. Tell the dog to go home. Use authority. Do not show fear. Harness your adrenaline so it works for you. When the dog backs off, take a step backward and so forth until you are out of danger.

Papp suggests a squirt gun loaded with a product called Bitter Apple, available at pet supply stores. Blast 'em in the eyes and nose, or else. Or, load an empty nasal spray bottle, but you'll only get a squirt or two.

An Asp, the telescoping steel club, can be carried in a back pocket, said Harland. The snap of the club when it opens might be enough to scare a dog away, but Asps may be banned in some communities.

Return to Animals in Print 4 May 2004 Issue

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