I’m a dog behaviorist, and here’s a headline that makes my blood boil: “Dog on Trial after Attacking Child.”
It’s from a story on a Pointer–Hound mix named Milo, a dog who had never caused any problems. Milo was napping on the couch in his home in January when a 6-year-old neighbor arrived. The boy sat down on the couch and started petting the sleeping dog. The child was bitten in the face after being left alone with the dog. No one witnessed the incident.
The dog was put on trial for an accident that’s preventable when people understand what our behavior means to dogs. I not only have spent years studying dog bites but I also teach classes on safety and liability protection for dog owners. I also provide community safety solutions and promote the right way to behave around dogs through the Dog Owner Education and Community Safety Council. I’m the author of People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers Don’t Teach.
Dog owners are set up for failure because our default is to blame the dog. Owners get fined or sued for repeated human mistakes. Dogs often pay with their lives for mistakes made by people. That’s the case for Milo. At his Feb. 27 hearing in Mansfield, MA, authorities voted to euthanize him.
To avoid this, prevention has to be the priority. Sure, it’s cute to us when the baby hugs the dog. But dogs do not say ‘I love you’ with a hug. When one dog ‘hugs’ another, it’s an act of domination. People should understand that humans don’t hug dogs. Yet the message for children to hug dogs is prevalent in our culture, and the facial bites continue.
Here are some other common misperceptions people have about dog and human behaviors — and how you can change to prevent catastrophes.
Dogs don’t sniff each other’s paws when greeting and like us prefer to be asked before being touched by a stranger. Instead, ask the owner and then also ask the dog by tapping your hand on your thigh simulating a wagging tail and act friendly. The dog will relax and nuzzle you, need to sniff more to get to know you, or will stay away.
Dogs, first and foremost, are predatory canines that live in groups. Breeds are generalizations that enable breeders to better market the product they sell. What dictates temperament is their pack position — the role that you, the human, play in the group and the rank of group members.
Dogs have superior/inferior interrelationships and command and defer accordingly. And just as siblings in a family have the same parents yet are very different, one cannot purchase behavior by buying a dog of a certain breed.
When a dog charges you, it’s trying to decide if you are friend, foe or prey. Their eyesight is poor so hats, sunglasses and other objects you may push or carry can scare them. Act like a friend and pretend you are not afraid. Stand facing the dog with relaxed body language, tap your thigh with your hand and use a high-pitched voice for a friendly greeting like “good girl.” Fake it if you are afraid.
Dogs can only read body language. These signs make people react to your dog in a fearful manner, which is more likely to cause a dog to consider visitors prey and bite them. Use No Trespassing and Dog At Play signs instead.
Even responsible dog owners operate under the same false beliefs about human and canine behavior. They are also encouraged to take a passive role concerning their dog. Any dog can bite especially when it feels personally threatened, is exposed to prey behavior or thinks that someone lower in rank threatens its resources, such as food, toys, bedding and the attention of its owner.
Melissa Berryman is a former Massachusetts animal control officer and national dog bite consultant who founded the Dog Owner Education and Community Safety Council. She designed and teaches a safety and liability class for dog owners, from which People Training for Good Dogs is derived. She has worked with more than 10,000 dogs.