Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dog bite prevention is successful when rooted in facts, understanding canine body language

A frequent conversation that I have with someone who contacts me for the first time to care for their pet involves a lot of dialogue about their dog's behavior, and the better part of it is on the caller's part. 
"My dog has been labeled as 'aggressive' toward members of the staff of the doggie daycare that they attend and has been asked to not come back, but they are fine at home," or, "My pet is uneasy and becomes unmanageable on walks, or around new people or groups of people," are familiar statements. 
Some of these pets have snapped at people or even worse — bitten them.
Can you relate?
Many of my clients have called on me because they need a caregiver while they are away and they've been made to feel that they have a 'problem dog' and they're running out of options. The other arrangements have not worked out well for various reasons, but in most cases it's due to lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the pet care professionals, caregivers and even the family.   
When I say to that dog's human, "I understand — and it's common — but let's talk more about that so we can unpack why it might be happening. Surely there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior..." they tend to relax a bit after a bit of open and honest discussion about what behaviors that their furry friend is exhibiting, revealing a picture about the pet that they didn't expect. 
The first thing I ask is whether or not the dog has been evaluated by a veterinarian. Undiagnosed illness or pain can affect a pet's ability to interact the way they'd like. 

I'm happy to recommend a couple of reputable and certified training professionals who can help the family, which I do often.
Most of the time it just boils down to the fact that the dog hasn't attained the skills or have been given the space they need to navigate through these type of encounters (with both other pets and humans) and some are actually quite fearful. The dog's clear communication about how uncomfortable they're feeling in a given situation has been missed or ignored, and that can happen with any dog. They all have limits on what they're willing to tolerate. The sad reality is that misunderstanding these concepts or writing a dog off as 'aggressive' and leaving it at that can lead to situations where things escalate to a point when a dog bites someone — and that's never a good thing. 
An unfortunate misconception is that all dogs like each other. Taking your canine friend to a dog park, doggy daycare (or even a walk down a sidewalk that sees lots of foot traffic) is in my opinion a lot like one of us humans attending a cocktail party: there are some of us who can hang and interact with gusto, others can do so for only so long, while a few of us... well, our personalities are such that they're not well suited for that environment. And that's okay!
But, unfavorable interactions aren't limited to these settings. Anytime there is an opportunity for two or more dogs to meet or for a pooch to be close to a human, it can happen. 
But this leads me to address an important topic: May 15-21 is Dog Bite Prevention Week, and to highlight that it only seems fitting to talk about this totally preventable issue that has grown significantly in recent years. Here are a few things to think about. 
  •  4.5 million dog bites occur each year, and out of those, 800,000 seek medical attention.

  • Roughly half of those individuals are children are often, and they sustain the injuries that are the most severe — often bites to the head and neck.

  • The vast majority of victims were bitten by a dog that they knew, not a stray dog roaming the streets, contrary to popular belief.
Those statistics speak to me clearly, and illustrate some of my previous points on why most dog bites occur. These situations are preventable, and it comes down to humans (both kids and adults) understanding what facilitates them and how to best deal with a dog who bites.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, has offered some sage insight when it comes to dogs who bite.
One point that stands out is that, quite often, a dog is conveying to the human that he is uncomfortable, but said human is not understanding the message. It's up to us to learn the cues that dogs exhibit by way of body language.
This is especially important for kids, since they are the ones who fall in the demographic of often bitten most often. So, what factors create these dog bite cases? 
Many times, children have not learned how to approach a dog correctly and they don't know how to 'read' what a dog is saying when they communicate that they are not comfortable being approached. Other scenarios include a child approaching a sleeping pet — surprising them — or not understanding how to greet dogs. (Embedded in the text are great video links that you can watch with your children.)
On the other hand, many dogs who bite are fearful.
Yin explains this concept in a blog post.
Generally fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defense because it makes the scary people go away.
Fortunately, there are ways to help dogs learn how to navigate through encounters with humans that they find challenging, by way of desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC). And with some diligence, finesse and patience on the human's part, their dog can behave more confidently when it comes to being social, regardless of the situation. 
Yin gives more detail on this and other concepts, such as how canines can be taught to carry out proper replacement behaviors that are disparate with the fearful behavior they have become so familiar with exhibiting, in her blog post, 'Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs Who Bite'. 
Excellent resources related to the topic of preventing dog bites are included as well.
All dog bite situations happen because of an oversight on the part of a human. 
Canines need to be empowered to not be pushed to the point that they bite, no matter their size, age or the company they're in. That happens when the humans in their life (and in many respects, those who are unfamiliar to them) see to it that's the case. With diligence, proper education and understanding of canine behavior and body language — as well as ensuring that dogs are not placed in a situation where they will react by biting — we can keep everyone safe. 

Click here for more resources on Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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