Biting Commentary

It's been 12,000 years since humans and dogs set up housekeeping together, and -- despite booming markets in chew-hooves and retractable leads -- we're no closer to domestic bliss. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dog bites serious enough to require medical care increased 37 percent in the United States between 1986 and 1994, and they now account for about 800,000 of the 4.7 million annual dog bites. This January, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that U.S. emergency rooms are seeing 914 new dog-bite injuries a day. Add less serious bites and you've got a 12,000-bites-a-day average.Admittedly, most of the increase is due to better reporting systems -- and more insurance claims. (In 1996 the Insurance Information Institute tallied $250 million for dog-bite-related claims industrywide, and in 1997 State Farm alone paid out $80 million.) But the real question is why, after 12,000 years of mutual experience, are our best friends still biting us? * We think every puppy dog's Lassie, just waiting to bestow slobbery, unconditional affection on us (and go for the throat of a mugger two seconds later). Children -- and adults, for that matter -- aren't taught to respect dogs' physical boundaries and instinctive reactions, or to read their body language and distinguish a warning growl from an invitation to play. * We forget how polite dogs are, accepting unwelcome touch in stoic silence, taking whatever treatment we mete out and forgiving it. As a result, we fail to realize how shy, scared, wary or unsure many dogs really are in our noise-filled, motion-filled world. * We send mixed messages to our own dogs, sometimes communicating our own hostility, fear, suspicion and aggression, sometimes just failing to give a dog the simple, firm, black-and-white leadership she needs to feel safe. In other words, we demand protection from our dogs without extending any in return. * We choose poorly. People buy big dogs and then leave them alone, untrained, unexercised and unsocialized; they buy aggressive watchdogs and fail to work with them; they buy fashionably sensitive, hyper-reactive dogs and then bring home a baby. The results? Dogs are locked up or put down; people are frightened and scarred for life; society makes increasingly silly or fascist rules. And those rules make it even harder for people to socialize and train their dogs, developing the discipline, confidence and judgment they need to be reliable in any situation.The Perils of Mr. PeanutMarilyn Pona's been training dogs for 20 years, from show dogs (Toto at the Muny) to "seizure dogs" who keep vigilant watch for hours on end. She has a soft spot for the obedience-class rejects, though, and for family pets threatened with euthanasia because they snapped at the neighbor's toddler. Known for her gentle, imaginative, nonintrusive approach, she gets results the whip-crackers never see.With a 15-month-old Doberman who "bit first and asked questions second," for example, she tried an umbilical-cord method, taking the dog to live with her for three weeks and literally tethering him to her waist. "He was right there, everywhere I went. I showered, he sat outside the curtain. And every time he reacted to something, I could say, No, we're not doing that, you lie down.'"The Doberman's family had tried meeting aggression with aggression, treating him as a "bad dog" and perpetuating the badness. Pona realized his behavior was "total reaction. He was judging every situation as self-preservation: They must be trying to kill me, therefore I must eat them first.' By simply counteracting his reaction, I made him respond differently."It took patience -- something Pona learned from a chow, back in second grade. "I used to put on my roller skates after school and go around visiting the dogs," she grins. "The chow wouldn't come to the fence. I remember thinking, That's OK. Maybe if I come back every day, he'll come closer."He did. And eventually her parents broke down and got her Mr. Peanut, a cocker spaniel with a hobby. "We had a slot in the door for the mail, and every day he would sit there and wait for the mail and try to grab the mailman's fingers. Finally we put a gate there and forgot about it. Then one of our neighbors put a key in the mail slot for us -- and when we saw him the next day, the tips of his fingers were bandaged!"Those were the days before obedience classes; the days when people just had a dog, without any heavy-duty training or behavioral work; the days when it was more fun to note their humanlike tricks than try to understand the utter difference of the species. "The canine will take abuse from humans until they reach a certain point, because of the social order that's inbred in them," notes Pona. "But people think dogs' social nature means they want to meet everyone in the world. It's not about being lively at parties. It means the dog understands that there is a leader and there are other followers."A good leader, as any seminar-giver will tell you, is one who communicates clearly. "Ninety percent of the time, people have not made it clear to the dog what they want," remarks Pona. "I see the same thing in parenting -- too many variations, not enough consistency. Our world is busy, we are spinning and spinning, we don't always have that core of right and wrong. But too many gray areas in how you communicate with your dog lead him to think there is no leadership." Then he panics, and tries to take over himself. But if he hasn't had calm, firm leadership, he probably hasn't built up much self-confidence. "Dogs that have fewer life experiences, always live at home, see the same people every day -- We always have meatloaf on Tuesday' -- those dogs won't have the life experiences on which to place judgment calls."Are We Asking for It?Ever ring a doorbell and hear family members yelling in confused panic, "Get the dog!" "Has somebody got the dog?"? Ever walk down an alley, hear growling and see teeth embedded in a cyclone fence? People don't always confine and control unreliable dogs. Which is why, according to the U.S. Postal Service, seven of the 12,000 Americans bitten every day are postal carriers just doing their job.You can't blame the mail carriers. But you can blame the idiots. One of this year's contenders for the Internet's Darwin Award, given annually in recognition of extraordinary stupidity in the human gene pool, was a gentleman in Bremerton, Wash. As urban legend has it, he was engaging in bondage games with his wife, and they decided to spread peanut butter on his genitals and let their Irish setter lick it off. When the dog lost control and began clawing at the tied-down man's penis and testicles, the wife panicked and threw a half-gallon bottle of perfume at the dog. The bottle broke. Startled, the dog leapt back, tearing away the penis. The man lost consciousness. (The penis was later reattached; the perfume's stingingly high alcohol content had sterilized the wound.)After the idiots come the oblivious. "We need to look down at the end of the leash and see ourselves," remarks Pona, noting how many "problem dogs" simply reflect their owners' fears or neuroses. A woman once brought in a dog that was "hyper, overreactive, hard to settle down." After gathering basic information, Pona said, "Your life is very sporadic, and unless I'm off the mark, you are a person who verbalizes a lot when you're angry, and your dog just runs in circles. Give the dog something to do -- say, I'm going to be hollering at the kids, you just go lay down.' Then the dog will go, OK, this doesn't involve me.'"The most common dog-bite victims are children, with boys age 5 to 9 receiving the most bites (and some, no doubt, deserving it). Owners, too, are to blame: Most are so enamored of their Lassie-dog, they can't bear to admit the truth when a child asks eagerly, "Is he friendly? Can I pet him?"Pona tells children, "I'd rather you didn't want to pet a dog you don't know. But if you do, then after you ask permission, there's something else I want you to do: Stand a few feet away, pat your knee and see if the dog comes over to say hello. If he doesn't, he doesn't want to, and it's not your job to coax or change him. Dogs either feel comfortable meeting strangers or they don't."At last year's Strassenfest, a small boy ran at Pona's assistance dog and jumped on him. Luckily, Zeb endured the assault with his usual stoic good nature -- but Pona worried about the child's future safety. She told him, "You must never." At that point his father arrived and said, "If the damn dog isn't good enough to be around kids, he shouldn't be here." To which Pona tartly replied, "My dog is on leash and controlled; I can't say the same for your child."Once a family came to see Pona, heartbroken because one of their dogs had bitten a visiting child. (The children had petted the dog relentlessly, and when he jumped up onto the bed to politely evade them, they pounced to pet again. He snapped, quite literally.) Pona did what she usually does first: nothing. She sat quietly, defusing the tension of a strange place, observing the dogs' behavior. The other dog, a Pyrenees, greeted Pona exuberantly. The dog in question spent 40 minutes circling the room before he even approached to sniff her knee. "Nothing about him said he wanted me to pet him," she observes. "Yet some people feel compelled to make friends with a dog like that."For demonstration purposes, Pona patted her knee in invitation, lightly scratched the dog's nose -- barely raising her hand -- and predicted he'd then look to the family for reassurance. Which was exactly what he did. "A very loyal type. A burglar comes in, the Pyrenees is going to be showing him where the silver is. This dog's going to back him out the door. But is this a dog that can be around your child's friends? I think not. So you have a decision to make. Can you isolate him when friends come over? If your dog is not safe in the situation and you can't change the dog, you have to remove the dog from the situation. It's that simple."Fear BitersMany's the time a child has blurted to Pona, "We were just petting the dog and everything was fine and all of a sudden he just bit!" She always inquires further. "Was the dog turned toward you, wagging his tail, bumping your hand to say, Pet me, pet me'?" "Well, no, he was just being quiet." She sighs heavily. "A dog who doesn't like being touched, who's timid and sensitive to noise, is not a dog that should be around children."Dogs who are hypersensitive to noise often have a strong startle reflex as well, she's found, and they're "body-sensitive," dreading unexpected touch. "Their natural reactions sometimes get them in trouble with visitors, grandchildren, people who don't know them." Can you erase the fear? "Possibly not. But you can override it with calm directions -- Come. Sit.' -- so they know you're home base to them. It just takes more work to ground those dogs."Working with dogs kicked out of obedience class, or adult dogs who can't even be taken to the vet, Pona's noticed that many don't trust their owners to intercede for them. Maybe one day in class, another dog attacked, and the owner just yelled at both of them. Maybe instead of recognizing the dog's fears and gradually exposing him to more of the world, the owner just threw him in the backyard by himself. "So where does this dog go to be safe? He doesn't have a friend in the world." She begins building trust -- and therefore touchability very slowly, often using a feather instead of flesh, or running her hand along the dog's body an inch above the skin. "Even something as simple as giving some advance notification of what you want can help," she adds, "so the dog goes, Oh, OK, I thought I was going to die.'"One of her own dogs is Tux, a sweet, complex, almost wolflike type given to her by a breeder who recognized his extreme reactivity and realized he needed careful handling. She's adjusted her expectations accordingly. "I ask him for compliance -- I can drop his lead inside a circle of dogs and he'll stay -- but to put sequenced dog-show precision on him would have blown his circuits. I'm not going to be able to show off my dog-training skills with this dog: He selects the people he wants to socialize with, and if someone's intrusive, he wants no part of them. People say, Oh, he's so beautiful, I wish I could pet him' -- but for me to make him go over and say hello would break his spirit. He is what he is."Try explaining all that to a jovial stranger. "People have no trouble coming up and touching your dog," she groans. "They assume if the dog's in public, it's a good dog' and wants to be sociable. A good dog, quite frankly, is one that ignores everybody else and pays attention to you."Branding the Evil PoodleOf all the dogs known to have killed between 1979 and 1994, five breeds account for more than one of every three deaths: pit bull, rottweiler, German shepherd, Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute. In 1979, great Danes caused three deaths; in the past two years, rottweilers have caused 10. Yet rotts can be great family dogs, and they remain one of the most popular breeds registered in the U.S. (second only to those chocolate-sweet, presidentially approved Labs).The number of fatal dog attacks usually holds steady at about 20 a year (except in 1989, when it shot up to 35), but the nonfatal bites are virtually uncountable, and they can come from anything from an uncontrolled Airedale to a passive-aggressive poodle who's been subjected to too much foo-foo. "Aggression is an innate characteristic of all dogs," notes Leslie Sinclair, a veterinarian at the Humane Society of the United Stated, stressing that dog-bite factors include care, supervision, socialization and training -- not to mention the behavior of the victim."Traditionally it's the working breeds -- rottweilers, German shepherds, Dobermans -- who need a strongly defined sense of leadership," says Pona. "They need to know who's in charge, where they fit and what is expected of them. Once they have that sense of belonging and leadership, they can relax." Pona's successfully had all three of those breeds as family dogs -- all it takes is training. Which is why, earlier this year, when the American Kennel Club (AKC) suggested that certain breeds were unsafe for children, people reacted like the stereotype of pit bulls, growling at the AKC's ankles until they withdrew the pronouncement from their Complete Dog Book."My real guess is that maybe as few as 10 percent of all dogs can be petted without any real concern," says Pona. "There would be less cruelty and abrasiveness in this world if people would just take a moment to look before they touch and a moment to think before they judge." She sighs heavily. "We've all seen too much Lassie. And I guarantee you, Lassie had her limitations." nSidebar: DogmaDo:* Give a dog the chance to see and sniff you (their version of "What high school did you go to?") before petting. * Spay or neuter; this makes dogs, on average, three times less likely to bite. * Pay attention to hints that your child is nervous about getting a dog, and delay until the child is comfortable. * Choose a dog with the right temperament for your family and your lifestyle.* Spend time with the dog before making a final decision. * Socialize your dog to be comfortable and self-confident around strangers. * Use calm, fair consistency to instill the conviction that you are the leader and you will keep your dog safe.Don't:* Play "attack" games or play roughly with your dog; he won't always understand the difference between play and the rest of life. * Approach a dog you don't know or a dog who's alone without his owner, especially one confined behind a fence, within a car or on a chain. * Tiptoe past a sleeping dog. She's liable to startle awake and react to possible threat. Hum or whistle softly. If you have to withdraw, back up slowly. Turning and running will only increase her alarm and agitation. * Bother with biscuits as a lure. An aggressive or fearful dog is not a stupid dog; he's liable to eat the biscuit and then come back for you. * Disturb a dog who's sleeping, eating or caring for pups. * Run or scream if a dog approaches you. Stand still with your hands at your sides and avoid making direct eye contact, which dogs can perceive as aggression. Teach children to "be a tree," and have them practice with a stuffed toy dog. If you're knocked to the ground, curl into a ball with your hands over your ears. Teach children to "lie like a log" until the dog leaves.Advice based on publications of the Humane Society of the United States.


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