Sometimes good dogs bite. And that’s ok. I know I’m in the minority on this one, and that is ok with me too. But I will never change my mind, no matter how many gasps it elicits. Sometimes good dogs bite. And sometimes (wait for it) people deserve to be bitten. Oh yes, I said it. Here goes more; sometimes a kid deserves a good nip, too.
Why do we hold dogs to standards we don’t hold ourselves to? Standards we don’t hold any other companion animal or livestock animal to? It is so unfair!!!
If someone was bullying me day in and day out I’d give them a good punch in the mouth. I try hard to turn the other cheek and as an adult I’ve certainly learned to walk away when someone becomes physically confrontational. But I don’t feel all that bad about the deserved punches I handed out in my younger, less spiritual days.
So what has brought on this post? I am currently rehabilitating a little dog that bit a child. She bit a child on the lip and would be immediately executed by any shelter that took her in. Many rescues wouldn’t touch a situation like this and a very large percentage of dog trainers and animal behaviorists don’t like to work with these kinds of cases. Too much liability involved.
Fortunately for this little doggy there is a wonderful couple in the sunny south that will be bringing her home to live with them very soon. This will be the perfect, quiet home for her. The couple has no small children and they are retired. They have dogs in the neighborhood for her to see (she loves other dogs) and lots of time to devote to helping her become un-frightened of the world. So this home will be absolutely perfect for her… that is so long as she proves to me that she is safe to be around and did, in fact, only bite when seriously provoked (which was my hypothesis and continues to be what the most likely scenario is).
What happened with this little girl and bite situation? The family has two daughters, one of whom has obvious boundary issues and is very loud and aggressive. She is an in-your-face kind of child somewhere around 8 years old. She is also a big, beefy girl who is more than capable of throwing her weight around. The family had the dog for only about three weeks when the little dog bit the girl on the lip.
Normally I have a very firm opinion about the fate of biting dogs. But this case is so clearly different from the “dangerously aggressive dog” case we are led to believe biting incidents involve.
Of course the mother of the girls told me a story of how the dog bit the child “out of nowhere” and of course you know that is a fabrication. Also the mother admitted the child was alone with the dog when it happened, and was with the dog unsupervised very frequently. They had noticed the dog growling the days preceding the event and they punished her for growling (HUGE mistake).
Naturally I was pretty concerned about having this dog around my children so we have been taking precautions (like keeping her leashed to me with the “Buddy System” leash.
What is very clear to me is that the child was tormenting the dog and the dog finally had enough and bit the child.
The child had her mouth bitten which doesn’t mesh with the story that the child was sitting up on a bed next to the dog watching TV and reached over to pet the dog when the dog suddenly turned and bit the child “out of the blue”. The dog would have bitten the child’s hand, not her face. The child would have had to have her face very close to the dog to get a bite there. This dog is very small, only 15 pounds, barely. She is low to the ground when she is lying down. She’d have to jump up to bite my 2 year old in the face if she wanted to while lying next to him. The story is to be believed as much as one can believe the story of a little kid. She’s certainly old enough to know that teasing the dog is misbehavior and isn’t likely to admit to wrongdoing when garnering sympathy after this incident.
The girl could be telling the truth, but the dog’s behavior since at my home doesn’t paint the picture of a cranky, intolerant and snappy dog.
Furthermore the dog delivered an inhibited bite (meaning she was quite gentle on purpose) and the child did not require stitches or any medical care (despite the parents rushing her to the ER). That is a huge plus for this girl. Had the dog bitten without holding back she would have permanently scarred the child and I would have recommended she be destroyed.
You can’t train bite inhibition for an aggressive situation. If a dog doesn’t have bite inhibition you have a serious problem. This dog didn’t want to hurt the child; she just wanted to be left alone.
Compound the whole thing with the knowledge of the recent growling. Didn’t the couple realize something must be wrong if the dog was growling at the child but not at anyone else in the family? Wouldn’t they think to keep a better eye on things and instruct the child to give the dog a large berth? I can’t imagine leaving my children unsupervised with a dog that was showing intolerance for their antics.
The couple made a huge mistake in punishing the dog for growling. Never punish your dog for growling. You want them to be able to communicate with you. If you refuse to allow them to give a warning you force them to go straight to biting, skipping that valuable warning (enabling people to back off and get out of the way!)
Also stopping a dog from growling doesn’t change the fact that the dog is feeling threatened in the first place. It makes a lot more sense to fix whatever is worrying the dog or causing a fear response, etc. Fix the problem as growling is merely the dog’s communication to you that something is wrong.
But let’s look at the evidence presented by the week spent with this dog at my home. First she had a trip to the vet (sometimes dogs become upset and growl or bite because something is wrong with them or hurting them so a vet check is a must). She was manhandled by the veterinary team and carried from one end of the place to the other. She submissively urinated on the poor nurse but she didn’t give us any indication that she was aggressive in the least.
The night before I was able to get her an appointment at the vet I gave her a full exam myself along with a careful measure of her patience and tolerance levels and this little dog is a real sweetie pie. I gave her a full groom (she needed one) and this involved pulling on tangled hair, scrubbing her up with shampoo multiple times, trimming hair with a pair of clippers which is loud and irritating and the vibration feels odd, I brushed her teeth, cleaned her ears and eyes, clipped her nails and in general I squeezed and felt all over her body to assess her response to handling along with whether she had any injuries to take note of.
The dog was clearly not thrilled with the whole operation (they never are) but was patient and tolerant. I had my face right next to her and if she wanted to inflict damage she could have. I was quite aware of the fact that she might bite me any second, I was certainly nervous and that anxiety could have served to make the situation worse as dogs are quite sensitive to our emotions. She didn’t even so much as lift a lip or make the softest growl in her chest. She was completely sweet and compliant and tolerant. I did get a few licks but that was all. I also got ingratiating tail wags at the end of the whole thing.
The dog has also been around my children and is happy to be. She loves kids. She tolerated full body hugs from my two year old (once he woke her up from a sound sleep by giving her a big hug… she was at my feet and leashed to me. I wouldn’t have allowed him to do this but he jumped right in out of the blue before I could stop him). She woke up, surprised, and gave him several doggy kisses. Clearly, she is not an aggressive dog. If she was going to bite that would be the perfect opportunity. She was woken up abruptly with a full body hug by a toddler that was not being gentle. But she was only affectionate in response.
The dog is inordinately terrified of the kitchen and of cars. I’m working on counter-conditioning with her so she’ll feel safer in these places and so she will tolerate the car ride to NC.
I also know that the couple admitted to “disciplining” the dog when she was “bad”, like when she growled and when she nipped the child. And I got that they had no problems with a “bit of spanking when it was warranted”. With the reaction this dog has to me raising my arms up I’d guess she got more than a gentle smack from this couple. It doesn’t help that both the woman and her husband were very large people and both over 6 feet tall (and wide). I have a 6’4″ husband. He thinks he is gentle sometimes when he plays with me or the kids and often he is quite rough. Larger people don’t always recognize their own strength and also what can be painful for a smaller body. I’m only 5’2 so I know that if my husband can hurt me while playing “gently” that couple could very easily seriously hurt a 15 pound dog when “disciplining” her with a “spanking”.
Don’t misunderstand; I don’t necessarily have a problem with spanking children (though I do not like spanking because I am tender hearted). But dogs are a different story. It isn’t effective at all and it actually encourages aggression. It only teaches the dog to be frightened of you, and depending on how the violence is administered it may only teach your dog that you are extremely unstable and untrustworthy.
Dogs aren’t people and they don’t need to be “punished” ever. They need to be taught and helped and they can’t understand consequences to their actions except those that occur the instant the dog performs an action of some sort. Understanding a consequence after the fact (even just a couple minutes) is beyond their mental abilities but people don’t always know that (or believe it). Dogs can certainly benefit from carefully applied negative actions as a result of their unwanted behavior (that is life, afterall) but hitting a dog is just asking for trouble. Every time. And it is ineffective. So just don’t do it.
You know what I think about that kid that got bitten? Served her right. She was teasing the dog, there is not once single doubt in my mind. I saw her in the dog’s face myself. The mother allowed the child to act more aggressive and grabby with the dog than my two year old would act without me to inhibit his behavior. The mother looked dotingly at the child and I have my suspicions of spoiling parenting taking place. Clearly the child was not being parented properly when around that dog because I saw it with my own eyes (though I did not say a word because I do not interfere with other people’s rights to parent their children as they see fit).
So all of that to get to my point about good dogs biting, because this isn’t about one dog and one situation. This is about all dogs and the unfair way we humans treat them.
The vet gave the dog a clean bill of health today, so that is good, but he was flippant about the unclear circumstances surrounding the bite and he was dismissive about the fact that the bite caused very little damage and was clearly inhibited. The vet did give me a lecture about how there is “no excuse for a dog to bite a person, ever” which is absolutely ridiculous.
I felt it was very unfair. And you know I argued with him (I’m bad like that) and I won the argument because his was illogical.
If a kid pulls the cat’s tail she will be rewarded with a nice set of deep red, stinging scratches and perhaps a bite mark to compliment it. No one rushes out and euthanizes the darn cat. Nope. The kid just learns a very valuable lesson: don’t pull the cat’s tail and the family of the cat thinks “serves you right”. Everyone knows that the kid needed to learn a solid lesson. Respect animals because they can hurt you (even the nicest animals will defend themselves eventually).
I said as much to the vet but he countered by saying that people require this standard because dogs can cause so much more damage than a cat. A dog can kill a child.
I looked at him sideways and said “we’re talking about an inhibited bite. A nip. Something that is meant to tell a person to “leave me alone, I said I’ve had enough”. Not an attempt from the animal to kill a person.
And we train dogs to do that, too, by the way. We expect them to protect us against other people, even with their lives, but if they nip us they’re a “bad dog” and need to lose their homes over the inexcusable behavior”.
The vet shook his head and argued that no bite can be tolerated, even the smallest nip. They will easily progress to larger, more vicious bites and that is the danger. The bite that causes real damage or death.
So I said “a horse can most definitely kill a person and no one euthanizes a horse for biting, kicking, bucking, rolling or stepping on a person. Even if a horse throws a rider and tramples him nearly to death no one runs out and shoots the horse.
I’ve been riding horses my whole life and when I was a child I learned to be respectful of those animals. They can (and sometimes do) kill people when they panic or are angry. You have to be careful with them. No one executes their horse because it reared or kicked or stepped on a foot and broke some bones. And no one would expect a horse to tolerate a child harassing it. The child would either heed his parents (and perhaps the parents would get off their rear ends and not allow the child unsupervised around a horse if the child showed an inability to be mature) or the child would get knocked into a stall door or kicked in the shoulder and would learn to respect the horse.
Dogs don’t get a fair break.
The vet said “well, I guess that’s true” and then added under his breath “well, nice dogs don’t bite” and I just hugged the little dog in my lap and said “and nice cats don’t scratch, and nice kids don’t hit, and nice horses don’t kick. We’re all a sorry lot, then, aren’t we? There isn’t a single “nice” animal in the world by those standards.”
And he just smiled at me, that defeated smile and told me that he wasn’t going to charge me for her rabies shot.
So anyway that’s the story. I’m so glad I changed my mind about biting. I initially thought this dog would be doomed to euthanasia and that I’d have to be the one to bring her on that long trip to the vet, but within a week I knew I was wrong.
Why is it that our dogs are held to standards that we humans don’t even hold ourselves to? Dogs deserve to be respected just the same as any companion animal or livestock or wild animal we come into contact with.
So, little girl, I hope that the next dog that comes through your house will be treated with more gentle dignity as you have hopefully leaned, albeit “the hard way” that every dog has its limit. The next dog might not have such a long rope, either, nor such a soft mouth. I hope this small lesson is all you’ll need.
And the next time you see hear about an “aggressive dog” remember that dogs never, ever bite “for no reason” or “out of the blue” but that somehow communication was being missed by the people around the dog and while the dog may need to be euthanized it is still a loss that is completely on the hands of the humans responsible for educating the animal and controlling her environment (or on the intentional breeding of vicious dogs for violent purposes – can’t fight genetics no matter how hard you try).
Paws down, great post!!!!
My wife and I and my son drove 10 hours last Sunday to New Jersey to be able to pick up the little girl who was the subject of this excellent blog. Our little girl made it back safely to Charlotte NC after a 12 hour car trip. That was (1) week ago, and our little princess is amazing and the sweetest loving dog we could ever hope for and just loves her new life.
So glad this story has a happy ending for the puppy. She just needed the right home.