Myths About Dog Aggression: Part X

Wow, it's almost scary to think we're entering week three on dog aggression myths and I can still think of many more! However, rest assured...


Does this dog look happy to be getting a hug from this small person?

Wow, it’s almost scary to think we’re entering week three on dog aggression myths and I can still think of many more! However, rest assured we’ll be getting into some other topics soon, I have a great guest blogger lined up for you.

Without further ado, back to myth-busting. It’s a dirty job, but someone must do it!


This is a scary one. Sometimes I see things – youtube videos, facebook pictures of dogs and babies, etc., that make my blood run cold and the hair on my neck rise and other people are watching the very same event and thinking – “How cute! That baby is hugging the dog! They are best friends!” Equally upsetting, on a lot of these videos, children of all ages are basically permitted to do whatever they want to the dogs as the parents laugh. Often, the parents encourage the children to do the very things that place them at the greatest bite risk, “Give Rover a Hug!” “Grab Smoochie by the neck and give him a big fat kiss on the face!” The family dog may tolerate it, she may not.

An additional risk factor is in place here as well – children are learning inappropriate ways of interacting not only with their dog but with all dogs. Young children, like dogs, do not generalize well. To a toddler, if it is acceptable to grab Smoochie’s face, all other dogs are likely fair game for face-grabbing and kissing as well. I promise you that not all dogs will be as tolerant. There is one video of a toddler basically crawling all over and bouncing on a senior Dane that, from the looks of his front paws, is severely arthritic. Arthritis is very painful, and dogs that are in pain can and often do bite. Another features a small child, likely a year old, tugging and biting on a dog’s ears and smacking her on top of the head as the child is told, “Good girl! That’s a nice way to play with the doggy!”

Let’s get one thing straight – if you are video taping from across the room, you are too far away to do anything about it if the dog decides to bite. Period.

Reading canine body language is an art and skill. Many trainers strive for the development of “1000 hour eyes,” a descriptive phrase which accurately drives home the fact that this is not a skill which is developed overnight. Usually, an actual bite is the last line of defense for dogs. There are often many precursor, “indicator” behaviors which precede a bite; and too frequently these are ignored. Dogs would rarely feel the need to defend themselves with their teeth if we were able to see and respond effectively and efficiently to these warning signals.

The actual key to furthering lowering dog bite statistics (which are, admittedly, far lower than you might think. For a great read on this topic, pick up a copy of Janis Bradley’s wonderful book Dogs Bite, But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous) is by educating the public – on how dogs think, how they communicate, the things we do routinely which may make dogs feel threatened (which include hugging, kissing on the face, patting on the head, “rough housing,” etc.).

Kids and elderly are the populations most at risk for dog bites. When you see a dog interact with a child, it’s often hard to look past the cuteness to see the situation through the dog’s eyes. Is he trying to avoid the child? Turning his head or body away? Running behind furniture or into his crate? Does his musculature look stiff and rigid or loose and wiggly? Do you see a lot of yawning, lip licking? Look at your dog right now. If he is relaxing and gives you eye contact, you generally don’t see much of the whites of his eyes. You do, however, often see a lot of the whites of a dog’s eyes when he is feeling threatened or very uncomfortable – this is colloquially referred to as “whale eye” in the dog training community. Often, the last signal which immediately precedes a bite is a freeze in position – the dog briefly stops moving before launching into an attack.

I see many dogs that are living with extremely high levels of stress and are literally one incident away from their first bite. These are dogs with no bite histories which I would determine to be dangerous dogs – they are, essentially, ticking time bombs. Every aggressive dog had a first bite. Most will find that this is a valid self-defense mechanism and will employ this strategy again the next time they feel threatened.

“But I would know if my dog were aggressive” may well be one of the most dangerous myths. Whenever I see those videos, the ones where people laugh and think, “that dog isn’t aggressive, he’s not biting,” I can’t help but think of a little boy who was a tragic victim of this myth. The Liam J. Perk Foundation was created to bring awareness to just this issue. Sadly, a wonderful family lost their toddler son to a dog bite from the family pet, one who had lived with the child for the child’s entire life, a dog that nobody imagined to be “aggressive.” Liam’s story is provided at the link above, but be warned – it is tragic, graphic, and not for the faint of heart. It is also an all-too-real possibility in many situations.

Luckily for the world, Liam’s family has found a way to bring something positive out of a great tragedy. They have committed themselves to educating the public about dog safety and dog bite prevention education. They have partnered with one of my favorite organizations, Doggone Safe to help make sure that nobody else’s family has to know such sorrow – they lost a child and a dog to unspeakably horrific events which, unfortunately, could have been prevented.

Liam’s mother said,

I didn’t know what I wanted to let people know at that point, but as the days and weeks progressed we started learning a lot about dog body language.

Why was this morning different for Loyd? It wasn’t to us, but to Loyd it was his point that he had enough. Enough of what? I thought everyone got along. After much researching and educating ourselves on dog body language, I realized that Loyd was uncomfortable with my little Liam.

When people hear of what happened they will say my dog doesn’t bite. He’s good with kids. He’d never do that. Well, do you think we thought our dogs would!! Loyd was a very high energy dog, but not vicious. A dog does not need to be vicious to bite. All dogs have the capability of biting. They will if they want to and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it when it happens. Dogs can bite in .025 seconds. That’s what people need to know.

I, for one, am extremely thankful for Mrs. Perk’s courage.

Aside from Doggone Safe, here are a few other great resources on learning about dog bite prevention and how to prevent your dog from ever having to feel as though he needs to use his teeth in self-defense.

Dogs and Babies blog
Dogs and Storks
Dog Bite article from Science Daily
Be a Tree
Analysis of Dog Bites in Children Who Are Younger than 17 Years

Until next week, happy training!

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