Newsletter - Animal Writes © sm
23 February Issue

The Rest of the Story
By [email protected]

In a recent Animal Writes article, I wrote about situations in which dogs may bite and our reaction to them. In this follow-up piece, I would like to share some facts about avoiding dog bites that I learned during animal control officer training.

There are many lists circulating that purport to identify the “top ten biting dogs”. I think these lists do a great disservice to dogs and humans alike. Any dog will bite. Any dog can and will bite at any time. To believe that the dog you are dealing with won’t bite you, because his breed isn’t listed, is to invite trouble. Strangely enough, these lists change from year to year, probably based on the popularity of any one breed, at any time. For example, there was quite a stir when it was revealed that Golden Retrievers were among the top ten biting dogs. Upon further inspection, we learn that Goldens were also among the most popular for that year. More Goldens = more reports of bites by Goldens. Makes sense. There are many breeds that get a bad rap simply for being. Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Akitas, Chow Chows or American Staffordshire Terriers all have reputations to live down. The true nature of the dog lies in his or her genetics, not her breed. If her genes are descended from dogs that bite out of fear, anxiety or just plain meanness, then she’ll bite too. If she is genetically predisposed to benevolence, then she’s gentle unless she is carefully trained to be aggressive. Some people train aggressiveness by design, others by ignorance, but the end result is still the same.

Having said all that, here is the lowdown on how to avoid being bitten. There are telltale signs, body language at its best, that you will observe when a dog is about to bite. The dog will have his head up, eyes staring you down, his ears will be erect, body very tense. His tail is usually held erect, or could be wagging in a nervous gesture, the dog will stiffen when touched or approached. Sometimes a dog will growl, but not always. It isn’t a scientific fact, but large dogs usually send out signals when they are agitated, whereas small dogs usually don’t. A Chihuahua or Lhasa will simply just snap and that’s that. Big dogs give you time to react, little dogs usually do not. Most people who work with strange dogs will tell you they almost always prefer working with big dogs to small ones for that very reason.

But what is your reaction? What should you do when you know you are about to be attacked? Try to stay calm, which sounds like a pretty stupid statement under the circumstances, but the fact is, if you pretend you are in control, it will go a long way toward psyching out the dog. Assume an air of being in charge, in essence, the Alpha, and you have a much better chance of winning this contest. It may be an act, but the dog doesn’t know that! Keep the animal in view, but avoid direct eye contact. Dogs in the wild, when they are looking for a fight, stare down their opponent. If you look the dog directly in the eye, he will interpret this as a challenge.

During a disaster-preparedness training session, the instructor told the story of how so often Animal Control Officers (ACO’s) will be called to the scene of a situation involving an angry dog. The scene, as he described it, is pretty comical. The ACO arrives to find several big, brave macho cops atop their patrol cars, weapons drawn, surrounding an angry pit bull who has them all at bay. A pretty, petite blonde-haired, blue-eyed ACO shows up and proceeds to exit her truck. As the police officers shout at her to “stay back”, she comes within a few feet of the dog, squats to the dogs level, looks off into the distance and pats the ground, all the while chattering “happy talk” to the dog. The dog happily trots over to her, tail wagging, and she leads him away to her truck, leaving the astonished law-enforcement officers to wonder how they were outsmarted by a lowly dog-catcher!

The dynamics of what has just happened here are pretty simple, the ACO didn’t challenge the dog. She assumed an air of being “in charge”, she didn’t look the dog in the eye, she acted as if there was nothing wrong, and the dog followed her lead. Had the dog not fallen for the “happy talk”, the ACO could have still won him over by assuming a commanding presence, using soft, low tones (simulating the growl of an Alpha wolf) and offered her clipboard or bite stick for him to bite while she positioned her catch pole around her neck.

We have all seen little puppies who “mouth” the arm of the nearest person. They do this to calm themselves. Biting calms the dog, and you may be able to get him to calm down enough just by offering something to bite.

In an episode of E.R. a few seasons back, Dr. Mark Green came upon a person in a car who needed medical assistance. But there was a dog in the car, and the dog, understandably, wouldn’t allow anyone near. After a few tense moments, Dr. Green held out an object, like a brace or crutch, and the dog bit the object. Keeping his mouth on the object, the dog was gently “led” away from the car so the paramedics could get in. I was thrilled to see that what I had been taught in officer training was demonstrated on a television show with such precision and success!

The old adage about not running still holds true. Dogs will give chase, but standing still is usually pretty hard to endure. The best advice is to back away slowly, always facing the animal. Try to put a barrier between you. Anything that you can place between you and the dog should be immediately pressed into service. A chair works great in this situation but you may also want to consider your HMO manager, your collection of Barry Manilow records, a vacuum cleaner, or a small city.

The best advice is, as always, to avoid a situation where you are likely to become involved in an altercation with an angry dog. But if you have managed to really piss off one of your canine friends and he isn’t falling for the “Mommy has a cookie” trick, remember these four things: never look the dog in the eye; become the ALPHA: LARGE AND IN CHARGE; offer ‘em something (other than your appendage) to bite; and put something between you and the dog. Good luck, we’ll be right behind you!

Go on to Keep Animals Out of Florida State Fair
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