May 4, 2018
Dog bites and maulings of humans have been in the headlines for many years. Not surprising, since it is extremely disturbing when ‘’man’s best friend’’ is involved in the serious injury of a human being. We are often shocked and frustrated, and there is a deep sense of betrayal and disbelief that a trusted member of the family would behave this way.
I am certain that the majority of people who decide to adopt a dog imagine spending only the happiest of times with their furry friend who quickly becomes a true member of the family. It is certainly true that pets provide many positive and pleasant aspects to our lives: they make us laugh, provide a source of exercise, and encourage us to socialize with other pet owners on walks and in parks.
However, we must always keep in mind that dogs are animals. Domesticated, yes, but animals none the less. There is no guarantee of the behaviour of that adorable little puppy, once he has reached maturity.
What determines the behaviour of a dog is multi-faceted. First indicators include the individual genetics (what is the temperament of the parents?), and the social and physical environment of the puppy’s birth home and new home where he begins to grow up. Has the dog had training in a safe, secure family environment, or has he passed through several homes, spent time in a rescue or been abandoned? Has the dog been raised in a quiet country setting or in a busy urban center surrounded by honking cars, construction noise, and crowded sidewalks? Has the dog learned socialisation skills with regular exposure to diverse groups of people such as babies, children, men, women, or unfamiliar people? Has he had opportunities to meet other dogs, familiar and unfamiliar? These are all possible factors that influence the behaviour of a dog in any given situation.
Also important to note is the context in which the aggressive behaviour took place.
Did the person ignore cues or signals from the dog leading up the attack?
Many adults do not know canine body language. The position of the ears and tail, growling or bearing teeth are all indicators of a dog’s emotional response in any given situation. A dog with normal behaviour patterns will warn us before reacting. A nervous or frightened dog that we approach too fast, without allowing him time to scent us may have a posture of discomfort, his ears and tail down, his eyes averted, he may yawn or lick with anxiety and he may growl. If the person does not heed these cues and recoil immediately, the dog may decide to bite, responding to his own fear and anxiety in the situation. It is therefore vitally important to listen and to read what a dog is telling us with his body.
The most difficult cases are those in which a dog reacts without warning. A dog with abnormal behaviour will not exhibit any or very few body language cues before reacting. These are the most dangerous situations because the normal sequence of canine behaviour is too short or nonexistent.
Dogs, like human beings, may suffer from mental illness. Some may be helped with a combination of psychotropic medications (for treating depression, anxiety, etc), behaviour therapy, and training for the dog and its owners. Vigilance and patience are key, with constant reinforcement for positive behaviour. Some more serious cases present an unacceptable level of danger with no hope of rehabilitation. In these most serious cases, euthanasia is the only option to avoid a serious accident.
The adoption of a dog must be made with a minimum of research into the breed, the breeder, the temperament, and the bloodline of the dog. A conscientious breeder will select the reproducing parents for their physical qualities such as colour, size, absence of physical problems (hip dysplasia, osteochondritis of the shoulder or elbow, cardiac or ocular problems, etc), depending on the breed, but will also select for certain behaviour characteristics.
Dogs who are anxious, aggressive or hyperactive (this does not refer to dogs that require lots of physical activity, but rather those who suffer from true hyperactive behaviour), should not reproduce. A good breeder will select for favourable characteristics of the breed, whether physical or mental, and remove a parent that engenders specific problems in its offspring, whether this refers to skin allergies or behaviour problems.
It is important to be sure that the breed of dog you select corresponds with your needs, your capacities and your experience with dogs. Certain breeds present more challenges, others less. Consider the exercise level of the dog you choose. A lack of exercise for an active dog (such as a Pointer or Weimeraner), may quickly lead to a problem with anxiety.
If the adopted dog will be living with children, it is imperative that the children learn basic canine body language, including what kind of interactions the dog likes and doesn’t like. For example, some dogs do not like to be held tightly or hugged, which is often one of the first things children like to do with a dog.
Even if you do not own or intend to own a dog, you and your children should be aware of how to approach a dog for the best possible outcome.
Here are 4 steps to approaching an unfamiliar dog with its owner
1-Always ask permission to touch or pet the dog.
2-Allow the dog to scent or smell your outstretched fist (this is a polite request for introduction).
3-If the dog chooses to interact with the person, he will willingly approach to smell you. If he retreats, this indicates he is refusing contact. End of interaction. Do not insist.
4-If the dog chooses to approach, offer your fist for scenting, then slowly and calmly rub his chin and then the side of his body. Never pat the head of a dog you do not know. Many do not enjoy being touched on their head.
What to do if you encounter a loose dog with no owner
Make like a tree. If you or your children are approached by a loose dog, never run away. This could encourage a predatory behaviour in the dog. Instead, freeze where you are, feet together, hands crossed to protect your throat, head lowered and eyes on the ground. Do not meet the gaze of the dog’s eyes, as this could be interpreted as a threat. The dog will scent you, inspect your feet and legs, and leave after a few minutes, if you do not talk, move, or yell. .
If you suspect that your companion animal exhibits inappropriate behaviour such as anxiety, excessive fear, hyper vigilance (always on guard), hyperactivity, biting, attacking, etc., we recommend you consult a veterinarian for a behaviour consultation as soon as possible, before the situation becomes unmanageable. Call us for more information.
Puppies and kittens, in play mode, will sometimes exhibit behaviours such as barking, biting, jumping, or excited running around. A consultation with your veterinarian, and if possible an accompanying video of the behaviour, will help to identify whether the behaviour is normal, or if there is work to be done to remedy the situation. Some puppies, even at a very young age, will show signs of unacceptable aggression or hyperactivity. These issues should be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Obedience classes for puppies and their owners are highly recommended and a very good start for practicing discipline, socializing, and learning basic commands (come, sit, lie down, stay, etc)in the presence of other dogs and humans. Our dogs may be very well behaved in our own homes, but may have difficulty in the presence of unfamiliar people and dogs, a reality once you are out in the world with your companion. Obedience training can be just the right ingredient to make your relationship with your dog, and his relationship with the outside world, a pleasant and joyous one.
The adoption of a dog should include a budget for veterinarian visits (preventive care and emergencies), but also for at least 2 sessions of puppy or basic command classes. These sessions are important not only for the dog, but for the owner as well. You will work together and learn together how to be responsible members of society.
Educational material including images (in French) for children on how to avoid dog bites.
Videos and flyers (French and English) geared towards children to avoid dog bites in collaboration with Ste-Justine Hospital.