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
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
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