Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
6 February 2000 Issue

When The Dog Bites
By [email protected]:

The family dog has bitten someone and must be destroyed. If ever there was a case for animal rights, this is it! Whenever a dog bites, the dog is always seen as the bad guy. But this is not necessarily the case. There is the urban legend of the benevolent St. Bernard, a family pet who lived in Long Island with three little children for several years. He was a trusted member of the family. Then, one day, suddenly and without warning, he attacked and killed his 5 year old "master". Later, the parents found that the child had shoved a pencil in the dog's ear. Like all urban legends, nobody actually "knows" the family to which this happened, but everyone has heard the story. In a recent article, my colleague and friend, PrkStRangr wrote about how stories such as this one, though lacking in authenticity, have an ironic slant to them. This story is no different.

Unfortunately, in most counties across the country, when a dog bites someone, one of several things may happen: he may be placed on a "dangerous dog" list and given one or two more chances; he may be given away to another family; he may be instantly killed or maimed by the owner; or he may be seized by an animal control agency to be euthanized. If the biting dog is not current on his or her rabies vaccinations, s/he may be placed in a ten-day quarantine for observation, or killed immediately and decapitated and the head sent for analysis so as to protect the victim.

In other words, dogs rarely get "due process"; and of course, they never get a chance to explain why they were forced to bite in the first place. In a dog-loving society that places a significant amount of importance in the concept of everyone having their day in court, this seems a little unjust.

Some dogs bite out of territorial instinct. They see an intruder and they instinctively protect their property. This instinct usually cannot be "trained" out of a dog. Dogs that bite out of a sense of protecting his home and family should be confined, and people coming near should be warned. This not only protects the visitor from harm, but the dog's guardian from legal liability should a serious injury occur. But should a dog that bites out of some sense of protection for his family be punished? From the animal's point of view, this dog has done something heroic. Perhaps the answer to this situation is a session with a behaviorist, or confinement of the dog when others are near. Killing a dog because he was protecting his owner is extreme.

Some dogs bite out of fear. "Fear biters" are a big concern for animal control officers, groomers, and veterinarians and their staff. These dogs are unusually submissive and would ordinarily never hurt anyone. However, their fear of being hurt or subjected to restraint overcomes their benevolent nature and causes them to bite. Fear biters will generally give a warning; a low growl, telling body language or a certain look in their eyes. When a dog has shown to have this temperament, the best remedy is to muzzle the dog whenever he must be restrained for medical or other purposes. Again, this not only protects the person working with the dog, but it protects the dog from being labeled a "dangerous dog" and possibly being killed for being vicious. Muzzling a dog may not be pretty, but if it will save the dogs' life and reputation, and protect the person trying to help him, it may be the only reasonable solution.

Remember the St. Bernard story? The worst case scenario is a dog that bites after having been harassed. In neighborhoods all over America, there are dogs that are tied to trees, confined to backyards with fences, or simply allowed to run loose. These dogs are at the mercy of anyone who would mean him harm. Kids playing nearby may find it funny to amuse themselves by making a dog angry. I have even seen children who come into an animal shelter kick or hit a dog's crate just to make him bark. It's the dog that bites a child or adult who have been tormenting him that is punished the most. When these dog-bite reports come in, they almost always state that the dog "got out of his yard and attacked a child". Upon further investigation, animal control officers learn from witnesses that the victim almost always brought the attack on himself by teasing the dog. When the dog breaks his chain or jumps the fence or digs an escape route, he will attack the person who has been provoking him. Unfortunately, people don't admit to having been pestering an animal, and the animal is taken away to be euthanized while the dog's bewildered guardian wonders what happened. Victims initiate lawsuits, insurance rates go higher, and medical and legal professionals make lots of money. Blaming the dog is profitable!

The issue of animal rights has been discussed long and hard and we almost always concentrate on the animals in labs, the marine mammals, the factory-farmed "food" animals and performing animals. These are very important issues and this is not meant to minimize their worth, but let's take a look at the rights of the animals in our own backyards too. Dogs that bite should have the right to a fair and impartial investigation as to what happened. Some veterinarians believe that there are "criminal dogs" and that may be true. There may be dogs that are aggressive, vicious and mean-spirited and probably should be humanely euthanized so that they don't have the opportunity to hurt or kill someone. But gentle family dogs, dogs that have a history of kindness and benevolence who suddenly bite someone are not those dogs. These situations should be looked into before jumping to any conclusions.

Dogs that bite is a problem that affects just about everyone. Almost all of us know of someone who has been bitten, or of a dog that has been sent to "death row" for biting someone. We hear about dog attacks in the news all the time. Each year, in Palm Beach County, Florida, there is an average of 3,000 dog bite cases that require medical intervention or even hospitalization.

Oh, and one more statistic that will probably not surprise you -- of all the dogs who bite, 95% of them are unneutered. Just one more point in the argument for early spaying and neutering!

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