by Michelle Lafleche
Webster Animal Control Officer
Recently, there have been two public hearings in Webster regarding to two different dog bite incidences. One was requested due to the fact that the dog had a prior bite history.
The other was a first time bite incident and the hearing was requested by the bite victim.
Just like the age old question, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” it is often questioned how many bites does it take to deem a dog vicious or dangerous?
People tend to think that dog bites are relatively simple issues. Either they feel that dogs in general or specific dog breeds bite, and that is just part of their natural instinct, or that dogs should never bite and when they do, it is not acceptable no matter what the circumstances surrounding the bite may be. All dogs have the potential to bite. There is no specific breed that naturally bites more than others despite popular myths regarding what some consider aggressive breeds. What concerns me is the term “aggressive breeds.” There are, in fact, many types of aggressions. Is this term stating that these so- called breeds encompass all the aggression types? Obviously, the term “aggressive” is ignorant and incorrect. The truth is that a dog can be dog aggressive yet would be hard pressed to ever bite a human.
The truth of the matter is that dog bites are actually pretty complex. There can be many factors which can cause a dog to bite. Environmental situations (rough play results in a dog becoming overly stimulated); lack of socialization and proper training (may result in certain problem aggressive behaviors or fears); physical condition (illness or injury); prey or herding instincts can all play a part in why a dog bite occurs. A dog may not have learned bite inhibition as a puppy, which would inadvertently cause the dog to bite down hard by accident as when taking a toy or receiving a treat, thus causing injury to the person giving the toy or treat to the dog.
Many dog bites also occur due to humans’ lack of acknowledging warning signs that the dog is exhibiting. Dogs growl to warn people and other animals that a bite may be forthcoming if provocation continues (whether the provocation is readily evident by the person or other animal). However, growling is not the only method of communication that a dog possesses to express anxiety or that the dog is uncomfortable in a certain situation. Dogs communicate in more subtle ways as well. A dog may turn its head away from the person or animal or get up and walk away. The dog may show “half moon eyes” – referring to white part of the eyes. A dog may raise one paw to show insecurity. A tail tucked between the legs or tail position low with only the end wagging; ears back; barking and/or retreating; attempting to hide behind person or an object; and even a dog that rolls over on its belly (along with other body language) is showing signs to be left alone due to its insecurity. Bites that occur from ignoring these signs often result in the dog being blamed for an unprovoked bite when, in fact, the dog was attempting to communicate and avoid the bite in the first place. Therefore, the resulting bite, in actuality,was a provoked bite.
There are other types of communication that are even more subtle, which are also often misread or ignored classified as displacement behaviors. Displacement behaviors are normal canine behaviors but expressed out of context. Yawning, licking, sudden biting or scratching at dog’s own body part or parts, body shake like done when wet (but when the dog is not wet), and sudden scratching can all be displacement behaviors. It is imperative to know when the behaviors are normal and when they are out of context. If a dog is being petted or hugged and yawns, this should be noted as a displacement behavior and measures need to be taken to correct the situation before a bite occurs. Once again, bites that occur as a result of these displacement behaviors, may be considered as unprovoked by the average uninformed person when in fact, the bite was actually provoked.
Approaching a dog in an improper manner may also result in a bite. Never bend and lean in towards an unfamiliar dog. A dog may view this posture as threatening and resort to defending itself. Never present your face close to a dog’s face. People forget that dogs communicate differently than we do. Smiling and showing our teeth is a friendly gesture. When a dog shows its teeth, the intention is a warning or threatening gesture. Just imagine what a dog thinks when someone leans towards its face smiling, showing teeth. It is evident what the outcome will be.
Dogs should never, ever be punished for expressing that it is uncomfortable or anxious – whether by growling or other subtle signs or displacement behaviors.
The dog is communicating to avoid a bite from occurring. This is a good thing!
Punishing a dog for communicating may result in the dog suppressing its communication attempts and the dog may just bite without any warning the next time it is in an uncomfortable situation or anxious.
Of course, there are other situations where warnings are absent. A jogger running by and the dog (loose of course) comes out of nowhere, chases and bites the jogger. Herding instinct? Territorial aggression? The dog would have to be evaluated in order to determine what caused the behavior and resulting bite to occur.
In more rare instances, irresponsible breeding can result in a dog being predisposed to aggressive behavior that cannot be corrected or managed.
Puppies need to learn bite inhibition, to accept and enjoy being touched all over, to be hugged, and examined. Socialization with children of all ages, teenagers, and adults is so important. The more positive exposures and experiences a dog has as a puppy, along with proper training, will result in a stable adult dog. Of course, any old dog can learn new tricks as well, it just may require a bit more time and patience.
So, back to the question, how many bites until a dog is considered vicious? Obviously, a dog that has an aggression issue that is not managed can be considered vicious through no fault of the dog’s. Is it fair to consider a dog vicious if the dog repeatedly communicated its attempt to avoid bites from occurring and the attempts were ignored?
The only way to prevent bites from occurring is through education. We must learn and acknowledge what our dogs are trying to communicate and take the appropriate actions. Dog ownership needs to be taken more seriously. If your dog has bitten, don’t ignore the incident. Consult a behaviorist and/or vet and find out why the event occurred and what can be done to prevent another incident from occurring. It should not be an option but the requirement of being a responsible dog owner. Dogs have always been referred to as man’s best friend. It is sad that we cannot be considered a dog’s best friend, when we tend to fail our dogs on so many levels that result in our dogs’ unfair judgments and deaths.
Till next time, respect and appreciate each other and all the wonderful critters that share our world.