AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Although Benjamin Franklin’s 1736 well known and oft repeated phrase, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, originally referred to safety precautions to prevent house fires in Philadelphia, the analogy has been applied in multiple contexts. This and other proverbs (Better safe than sorry; A stitch in time saves nine; Measure twice, cut once) all address the same concept: it is better to be careful and avoid a predicament, than to have to deal with undesirable consequences afterward.
This was never more true than when one considers dog bite prevention. Ramifications of a dog bite incident (even a very minor bite) typically include some of these consequences and can have broad and significant implications, including:
Impact to the individual (human or animal) that was bitten
- physical pain and injuries
- potentially lifelong physical, emotional and psychological scarring
Impact to the owner
- home owner insurance increase (or revocation)
- ostracism by neighbors
- emotional and psychological fallout
- damage to relationship between owner and dog
Impact to the dog
- misunderstanding of the dog’s intent by humans, eroding dog’s trust
- lifelong restrictions on dog’s activities
- unwanted learned behavior (for example, the dog has learned that if he is
- teased by a human, if he nips or bites, the human goes away, so he is
- more likely to repeat the behavior)
- euthanasia (regardless of extenuating circumstances)
Impact on the neighborhood
- polarization re disposition of the dog
Impact on observers
- lifelong fear of dogs, or dogs of a specific appearance
Impact on local and state policies
- breed specific legislation
- fast track regulations for euthanasia
So, most of us would agree with Franklin’s recommendation: better to prevent a circumstance in which a dog bite could occur, then to deal with the consequences. But what exactly does that mean?
I would like to bring up two points that we as trainers frequently hear from our clients.
Point One: that a dog bite occurred “unexpectedly” and “out of the blue”. Sadly, the vast majority of dog bites are not out of the blue, but occur because of a communication breakdown between human and dog. With the best of intentions, the owner misinterpreted, did not recognize, or did not respond to a dog’s more subtle signals, and the dog then attempted to make his point more clearly, by moving on to a bite.
How in the world could a dog living in a loving home bite a human or another animal? The sad answer is: it is easy, and it is often caused by human error. Our dogs communicate with us and each other primarily through body language, rather than verbally. They signal when they are relaxed, happy and inviting play, patting, scratches. They also signal when they are uncomfortable, stressed, fearful and annoyed. Sometimes they signal multiple things almost at once, as they go from comfortable to uncomfortable or uncertain and conflicted. We fail our dogs when we miss their signals, and when dogs then try to send the message more clearly, we typically react negatively and without true understanding. Learning to recognize and respect our dogs’ body language, prevents escalations.
The reality is, any dog, given enough provocation, will bite. How much provocation? Depends on the dog. Which brings us to point two.
Point Two: often, that the client would never have expected “this” dog to bite. The client loves his dog and has given the dog a comfy home with two square meals a day, reasonable exercise, etc. However: simultaneously and with the best of intentions, the owner has set an unrealistic standard for his dog: i.e., that the dog behave perfectly, despite any provocation or stress.
In all fairness: do you behave perfectly in all circumstances, never lose your temper, never raise your voice or speak sarcastically, despite annoyances major and minor, under conditions when you are under pressure? How much does it take, before you speak sharply? Speaking for myself, I do sometimes speak more sharply than I would have wanted (and regret it), when I am under stress. The point is: my “breaking point” is different than yours, and is a consequence of my temperament, background, concurrent stresses and pressures, and the provocation. In fact, even my interpretation of what is stressful or provocative, likely is different than yours. If you accept this premise: then what of our dogs? Every dog is an individual, and has different preferences, tolerances and perceptions based on genetics, early socialization, life experiences. Every dog has differing likes and dislikes. How can we expect our dogs to not have a breaking point where they finally “speak sharply”, if they are pressed to their own limits, when we ourselves have that breaking point?
Ironically, in the majority of cases, once a dog has delivered a bite and the uncomfortable situation ends, the dog considers that the issue has been resolved, that the obtuse humans have finally gotten the message, and we can all can move forward with no hard feelings. Humans typically don’t share this interpretation; we respond with anger, fear, frustration and/or resentment toward our dog’s “misbehavior”, without realizing that we inadvertently contributed to the predicament by failing to observe the warning signals that preceded the bite. If the dog is punished, sadly, the dog typically doesn’t understand why he is being punished (or feels the frustration of his prior signals being disregarded), so the “punishment” often is not a deterrent to repeating the behavior, but damages his relationship with his family.
And, given the relative rarity of dog bites even though our dogs’ signals are so often disregarded, I have to say here…I think, by and large, our dogs are saints. The vast majority show restraint despite frustrations because they love us so much. Mutual respect has nothing to do with permissiveness or showing who is in charge. Just as we would strive to teach a child (setting guidelines and boundaries while understanding for example, when a child is too tired, doesn’t comprehend or is too frustrated to respond), we can learn to recognize those identical signals in our dogs—and manage the situation fairly and safely for all.
So here is the big picture: the majority of dog bites are preventable, and many dog bites have ripple effects that extend beyond the dog who has bitten. Each of us as dog owners can lessen the risk that it will be “our” dog who delivers a bite. So, as a dog owner, how can you keep yourself, your family and friends, your dog, and others (human and animals) safe? Next week I’ll give you some guidelines in Part Two that will help to keep you, your family and friends, your dogs and “others” (human and animal) safe.