I read an article today about an on-air bite incident that occurred at a Denver NBC affiliate, leaving the anchor severely wounded and needing cosmetic surgery to fix the damage. Gladiator, a Dogo Argentino, had just been through a horrible ordeal. He had fallen through the ice at a lake and was rescued by a caring firefighter. Gladiator's owner brought him to the studio for an interview segment and during their on-air interview anchorwoman Kyle Dyer bent over to hug and kiss the dog. Gladiator spooked and bit her in the face. Gladiator, who has already been through a traumatic situation, is now in quarantine because the owner did not make sure Gladiator was up-to-date on his vaccinations.
Here in Michigan, a situation has just been resolved regarding a dog, her owners, and Royal Oak Animal Control. Heidi is a Doberman pinscher who nipped a man in the face when he bent down to pet her at a local market. There are too many discrepancies from the owner's version of events and the victim's version, as well as the official statement from Royal Oak Animal Control for me to feel like I have an accurate picture of the events. Whether Heidi was over-excited or feeling defensive, the judge's verdict is Heidi must wear a muzzle when in public.
Those of you who read this blog know how dogs often misinterpret our primate need to hug and kiss. Hugs are often viewed as restraint and close face-to-face contact can be threatening. The online community has been blowing up com-boxes condemning Ms. Dyer and the 45 year old victim in the Heidi case, calling them everything from foolish to deserving for bending over to hug, pet, and talk to a dog face-to-face.
As a dog trainer, I'm around all kinds of dogs all the time and I frequently am inviting social interaction with dogs I hardly know. I can do that because I know dog body language and I know when bending over and putting my face in a dog's face will be welcomed with kisses or unwanted.
I don't think it is fair to expect the general public to be well-versed in dog body language. This is part of the reason I cover these subjects in depth here at Furry Four Paws. Most of my clients and other dog guardians (even rescuers!) have a very Disney-esque view on dog behavior and attribute all kinds of thoughts and emotions to dogs that are not part of a dog's thinking ability or emotional capacity. I have misjudged a dog's intention or body language on rare occasion, and I have narrowly missed a couple bite incidents myself. If people who should "know better" make mistakes, why are our expectations of non-experienced dog handlers so high?
I also feel that animal issues are people issues and when we, the animal rescue and welfare community, start throwing blame at anyone except the irresponsible owner, we look anything but compassionate. We have a responsibility to increase the human-animal bond and increase education efforts in out mission to prevent cruelty and neglect. We must not forget it was the owner in Gladiator's case who let an unvaccinated animal run at large and then bring that animal in an unfamiliar setting hours after a traumatic event. Education on vaccination and proper containment should be a key component of this discussion as well.
Because of this event, I will be writing all of my local news affiliates and offering a free 30 minute class on avoiding bites and other injuries when doing on-air interviews with pets. I encourage everyone to think of how they can be part of the solution to educate children and adults on my five best tips to avoid a bite situation.
1. Dogs Bite Because They Are Dogs.
Growling, air snaps, nose punches, and bites are appropriate means of communication to dogs. Never forget that biting is a species-appropriate way to tell you, "Back off!" or "I really don't like what you are doing!" or "I feel threatened right now!" All dogs can bite and will bite under the right conditions.
2. Always Ask First!
If the dog is with the owner, always ask, "Is it ok to pet your dog?" Notice I didn't say, "Is your dog friendly?" No dog owners ever want to say their dog is not friendly. Often dog owners can be just as uneducated about dog body language as non-owners and let their emotions or feelings of social acceptance overtake safety precautions. Asking, "Is it ok to pet your dog?" makes the owner think and gives them a socially safe option to tell you no.
3. Greet dogs appropriately
Standing on an angle so you are not face-to-face with the dog, offer the back of your hand to sniff. Permit sniffing without additional touch or talking. Remember that sniffing is a dog getting more information. A well-trained socialized dog should sniff for a few seconds and be able to disengage on command. Most of the dogs I work with do not have this level of socialization or training, so I will let them sniff for about 30 seconds before stepping away to signal I am done being sniffed. Avoid bending over the dog or petting the dog from above. Avoid prolonged eye contact and standing head-on or face-to-face.
4. Look for body language that signals the dog is inviting interaction.
Look for loose, wiggly body language with soft eyes and relaxed ears. A suspicious dog may approach you to sniff and get more information with a tense body and erect, quickly wagging tail. Tail wagging can be a sign of excitement, so be sure to look at the whole animal. As my dad always says, "The tail isn't the end that bites." Look for all-over loose musculature and curving body arcs.
5. Be aware of stressors.
Is this a new environment for the dog? Is this a highly stimulating environment like a busy day at PetSmart or an outdoor market? Are there other dogs around that the dog is focusing on? Are there intermittent loud noises like amplifiers at outdoor concerts or construction areas that could startle the dog? If yes to any of these questions, it may not be a good time to add more tactile (touching) information to the dog's already overloaded system.