Each May, one of my favorite organizations, Doggone Safe, sponsors Dog Bite Prevention Month, an awareness campaign designed to help us live more safely with our canine companions. While it’s a great idea, I’d like to suggest that we celebrate Dog Bite Prevention Month throughout the year.
Current events like news anchor Kyle Dyer getting bitten live on TV by Max, a dog who had been rescued from an icy reservoir, provide a painful reminder of our obligations as pet owners to keep our communities safe. I won’t post the footage here, as it may be too graphic for some readers, but you can read Dogster news editor Maria Goodavage’s coverage at the link.
We often want to find who was at fault after a dog bites someone. Was it the owner? The victim? The dog? Playing the blame game, however, is a reactive strategy that doesnt help reduce the chance of it happening again. What can we, as dog owners, take away from Dyer’s hard-learned lesson to make recurrences less likely?
1. Learn about trigger stacking.
A blog post I wrote a while back, How Are Dog Bites Like Tetris?, explains a phenomenon known to dog trainers as trigger stacking, where a lot of stress builds up in a short amount of time and the dog lashes out.
Max the dog had endured many stressful experiences in a 24-hour period. He had gone from being rescued from a freezing lake to a busy, brightly lit newsroom where strangers kept surrounding him and approaching his face. He was obviously nervous and in an uncomfortable situation, and his owner was holding his collar and keeping him on a consistently tight leash.
2. Learn about canine body language.
I can’t find the source right now, but I remember reading that the average dog bite is preceded by approximately 20 smaller signals indicating escalation of stress.
There were many signs that Max was becoming increasingly uncomfortable in the TV studio. Experienced dog owners and trainers watching the video will recognize whale eye (when the dog displays much of the whites of his eyes, but won’t look directly at you), lip licking, head turning, and puckering at the corners of his mouth. If Max’s owner and/or the news anchor had seen and responded to these signs, the bad situation could likely have been averted.
3. Manage the dog, manage the environment.
Once we understand trigger stacking and canine body language, we will better equipped to identify situations that make our dogs uncomfortable.
Our first responsibility is always to ensure that our dogs are safe, and then to check that other people and animals are, too. This may mean avoiding environments that are likely to cause your dog stress when you are training. It may often mean incorporating management aids like muzzles in situations where our dogs may be likely to cause damaging bites, such as a veterinary visit.
Its hard to tackle this sad topic in a single blog post. I feel bad for all involved parties, and know that if any good can come out the tragedy, it should be that pet owners and the public can empower ourselves with knowledge to prevent this from happening again.
Want to learn more? Doggone Safe has a wealth of information for owners. I also suggest checking out the Liam J. Perk Foundation, which works to help parents and dog owners create safe and healthy environments for their children, and Dogwise’s comprehensive list of books and DVDs to help you better understand canine body language and aggressive behavior problems.