Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dog bite prevention faces one unseen but powerful barrier

Dog Bite Prevention Week encompasses a lot of topics regarding unfavorable interactions that result in dog bites, and one has been rolling around my head the past couple of days.

I've had *one* incident occur in all of my years as a professional, and it was very dicey because even though it was through no shortsightedness on my part, I still bore the inherent responsibilty of a lot of things as a result. It was my ethical and personal responsibilty to ensure that the individual was tended to medically, that emotionally, they were okay and that they had proof that my charge was fully vaccinated. It was not fun to contact my client and tell them what had occured.

It was a valuable lesson for me in that sometimes, no matter how much you advocate for a dog in your care (please don't approach, he's isn't comfortable with that), no matter how you try to explain that you're advocating for yourself and the other human (please don't try to pet him, he's not good at handling himself), regardless of you pointing out that the other person shouldn't stick their hand through a fence to pet a dog who is overly stimulated despite the handler’s protestations (which is what happened in this incident), some folks will still do it. I try to dodge situations like that on a daily basis when I’m with my canine charges, and yes, it can be frustrating.

My bigger problem is that I hear and see a lot of shaming from colleagues and others who work with animals. I find the practice unsavory, though I get why it happens: when you're a professional or a savvy family member who understands the ins and outs of canine and feline behavior, you see things through a very defined, clear lens. You see perhaps a less-idealistic view, one that's at times completely obstructed for those who don't have the experience and knowledge. And so the shaming begins, sometimes out of smugness, maybe out of frustration. Shaming that is directed at those who want to interact with other people’s dogs, and those who want others to interact with their dogs. Who can blame them?? For goodness’ sake, dogs are pleasant to touch, and known to be playful and happy. The bring out the best in us, they draw out fond memories from our past and break down proverbial barriers that we put up and break the ice in social situations. They’re a social lubricant of sorts, a drug even.

As a dog bite safety educator (a distinction earned through Doggone Safe), I have a lot of conversations with folks of all ages and backgrounds about how to foster safe interactions with their canine friends, and we talk about how they can help their dogs navigate challenging situations better. But often, I can tell that when they hear me, I’m sounding a lot like the teacher on a Peanuts cartoon. This is especially true when a dog is standing right in front of them. And the other day, it occurred to me why that might be. I don’t think I’m having a hard time articulating what I am trying to say, nor do I think what I’m saying is hard to understand. It could have something -- at least in part -- to do with our biology.

Applied ethologist and dog behavior consultant Kim Brophey pointed out in her rather powerful TED Talk ‘The Problem With Treating a Dog Like a Pet’, when we see a dog, we get a hit of oxytocin -- the feel-good hormone.  But that wasn’t the only profound thing she talked about. There was plenty more.

I’m all too familiar with oxytocin and how it helps us mammals. But what Brophy helped me to understand better is that it’s a little tough for us to behave rationally, to think about what a dog really wants or what they can reasonably handle in social situations, when we’re feeling that rush of oxytocin. Our brains can become as hijacked by that love hormone, which is a dangerous thing when we’re interacting with a dog who has been communicating to us that the unit of their brain and body is feeling equally hijacked by fear and anxiety by what we’re doing and they are running out of ways to safely convey that they aren’t comfortable with a situation we’ve put them in.


While it’s certainly not an excuse, but an explanation (though there are surely other factors involved), I suspect that is what really happened on the day with that interaction between my charge and his neighbor at the fence, and what happens during many interactions that I see on a regular basis.

The good news is that because we have the bigger brain, autonomy and the knowledge of what’s happening, we can get in the habit of regulating ourselves and stop and think about how our own behavior is affecting the dogs. We can learn to recognize the body language, the calming/appeasement signals that dogs are tossing around like confetti when we put them in a situation they might not be equipped to handle or are at their threshold. But we have to get a handle on our inherent addiction to oxytocin first.

I know that going forward, I’ll be a lot more cognizant of the notion that the person who so desparately wants to get up close and personal with my charges on any given day might be overwhelmed by a rush of oxytocin and not thinking as clearly as they would like to. An unexpected hit of that love drug is something that I think a lot of people could use a lot more of these days. Given that, I feel confident that my go-to tactic for dissuading others from interacting with a canine charge and I while we’re out on adventure will be effective, but in the kindest, most thoughtful way possible. I detail how I do that here. After all, it’s my job as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter to not only to provide the very best care to my charges, but to be a good steward of exemplifying, modeling and teaching in safe interactions between pets and humans.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

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