Dogs bite because they have teeth is a saying among dog trainers. It is not said in the spirit of sarcasm, though in some benign cases it could be applied, it is said in an attempt to remind people, all people that dogs have teeth and they use their teeth and mouth for many aspects of their life. The point is; respect it and get used to it so you can communicate with teeth- and mouth- centric creatures in a safe and positive way.
Here are some facts about dogs and dog bites and the potentials that may alarm some, however the take home is that dogs are always more deferential than not on the whole, as a species. Individuality is the focus for dog bites and dog bite incidents. Not all dog bites are “attacks”. Not all dogs bites are created equal, and all dogs and bite incidents are individually centric to their environments and histories.
Fact – Dogs can bite in 2/10ths of a second. Human reaction time is roughly 3/4ths of a second.
Fact – Dogs can land roughly 25 bites in 4 – 5 seconds. Variables are the size and age of the human verses size and age of the dog, also experience or familiarity with the dog or dogs in general.
Fact – A 35 pound dog could sheer off a human adult thumb with little to no effort, if they wanted too.
Fact – A substantial dog of 35 pounds or larger could easily take, shake and “rag doll” an adult human, even a 200 pound plus human, with ease, if they wanted to.
Fact – Most dog bites are on par with kitchen and playground accidents. This are 4.5 million dog bites reported to emergency room each year source: (CDC) roughly a few hundred dog bites require any major surgery or hospital stay.
Fact – Most fatal dog bites are to children 12 and younger. 76% of dog bite fatalities fall into this category. Most of that 76% of fatalities associated to dog bites are to toddlers or infants. The next demographic of dog bite fatalities are the elderly. Most healthy average strength humans 18 – 60 years of age are usually going to come out ok if they do get bitten, even badly. I know, as I have been both bitten and attacked.
Fact – ALL behavior is contextual and all dog bites, basic, lethal or fatal have a human criterion attached. The truth is; most of the dogs on this planet have somewhere in there past or present a human is attached, even the feral dogs started somewhere with a human most likely at the starting point in history of the dogs having a hand in the process at the very least.
Humans are the variable here. Dogs are at our mercy, and any one that does not think so really needs a long conversation about what is known as emergence and complexity, how life forms, changes and interacts, and how humans are basically the game changers here on planet earth.
We are not “subjected to dogs”, we subject ourselves to dogs, in some form or other in some way, most dog bites occur due to people having chosen some proximity to dogs, not out of the blue attacks by dogs that they happen upon.
Yes dogs do “get loose” and attack people. Those dogs have a human that allowed that to occur, the dog is innocent; the dog is also unsound, fearful and abused. Just like the sparrow that shit on your head that dog that killed a person is innocent, like it or not, dogs do not possess a moral imperative, they do not have the serial memory to do so. They respond based on the environment and what their learned history is, Humans could and should be shaping that history or the dog so they stay as sound as possible.
That dog that “got loose” and attacked a human was also most likely not healthy in some way internally. Meaning kidney, liver or thyroid damage, or perhaps other ailments that are making the dog fearful and aggressive as the dog is sick.
Many dogs thought to be “fine” are actually not well cared for and or most likely have been subjected to some form of abuse, even it was improper “training” that counts. Electric “fences” and harsh disciplinarian style force based aversion-training counts as a historical reason why the dog has become unsound. Not taking the dog to the vet and or feeding the dog the cheapest food and or tap water, all can play into why a dog may be unsound. Dogs do not just “snap out of nowhere”, that is ridiculous. Dogs are living organisms and they are subject to the effects of their environments both external and internal and humans by and large control those environments.
Considering all the dogs and humans mixing, and all the potential for really serious bites to occur, the majority of time a dog bites they do not maul, or kill. This is due to the dog’s legendary deference, the ability to warn, to not want to be aggressive, but to create distances and end whatever the fear, stress or perceived threat is, if they can. If the dg is unsound they are cognitively damaged, or they have an internal ailment that is compromising their judgment. What they are not is doing it to “be aggressive” for joy. That is a fact. They are in pain in some way.
This deference, this desire to create distance rather than attack, is why there are so few deaths attributed to dog bites.
This is why there are not thousands of people mauled by dogs in public, in shelters, in homes. If dogs had an innate need or basic perception to attack humans at the slightest infraction directed towards them, or a major infraction, dogs would have not made into our homes, period.
Humans do not have animals such as that in our midst among us working and living, common sense and logic have dictated that for some 30,000 years of domestication. Even in the dogs bred to protect and have some extra weariness of people, there is more deference’s than in a mountain lion or coyote.
Back to dog bites.
If you have never been bitten verses attacked, you really have zero idea of the magnitude of difference there is between the two experiences. I have been bitten and I have been attacked. I work with 100’s of dogs a year. All ages, all pathologies. I usually get bitten a few times a year by way of a mouthy puppy, or my hand was in the way of dog play. I have only been attacked three times. Two of them are on film.
I recently interviewed Jim Crosby. Mr. Crosby has been in the dog training and a dog bite assessment profession for over 30 years. He has “seen it all” as they say. Jim is a retired law enforcement officer and a renowned expert on dog bites and dog bite prevention. He is also a strong advocate for positive training and not using aversive methods.
You can view part one of the interview here – https://youtu.be/dANt3HllFv8?list=UUp8GJps8sdGlVrZE1cWwv-A
In the interview you can see footage of me being attacked by a dog. Two separate incidents in fact are included in the in the interview. Two different stories that sadly ended the same way; the dogs were euthanized.
I included this footage and the subsequent information in this blog for the sole purpose of education for dog guardians and dog professionals. It is in no way meant to glorify me or in any way promote me as a ‘tough guy”. These were very sad days for me, as the dogs would both lose their lives.
Incident One – A bona fide attack. No warnings.
You can see in the video from the link above at 4:12 the black & white American Bulldog mix lunges and attacks me. There was no provocation; there was no direct interaction by way of forcing the dog or moving towards the dog. I was roughly 4 ft. from the dog and moved slightly away to my left, I pointed to a bully stick on the ground, and the dog turns his head to the left if he “heard” something then as he lunges. He is biting in the air as he makes his way to me. I counted 6 – 7 bites in roughly 2 – 3 seconds, of which three landed.
What the video clip does not show is the set up and the history of the dog.
I met “Horatio” in 2008; by 2013 he was a different dog. Initially he was somewhat apprehensive, not shut down but weary, as many dogs that come from harsh pasts are prone to do. However he was still sound and could function as a normal happy dog. He had a great warm up time and I could train him as I would train any dog. There was zero concern based on assessments from multiple sessions that he was not sound or had any issues that would alarm me. I trained with him numerous times. He attended classes with other dogs and people.
The variable in his life was the 20 something daughter of the family in that was the dogs supposed “owner”. I use quotations, as anyone that would allow the dog to slip into this state is nothing more than negligent and ignorant, when they had the means to get help and do the right thing. Obstinacy and ignorance kills in some cases.
The woman in the video is not to be blamed. This is the daughter’s (dog owner) mother. The dog was hoisted upon the Mom and she was the only one that was able to actually take care of the dog in any sense. She was overwhelmed and stressed out.
The real trouble is the dog spent time at the “boyfriend’s families house”. I inquired about the dog’s time with that other family after the incident, I had not known about the dogs “duel home” status prior to the session, I didn’t think to ask, as I never knew the dog to have two homes.
Shock collar, choke, hitting, yelling and I was told “generally not treating the dog well” and “not socializing” the dog is what created the dogs pathology that you see on the video clip.
The boyfriend’s family was not willing to communicate anything with my client or me. BTW The daughter, who brought this dog home from college, never attended a session or a class! Ever. Typical. Does the damage then walk away. Many so called “dog trainers” are cut from this same cloth, the cloth of callous indifference to the problems they created. Wear that shame proudly, as that is what you own from the exchange with the dog.
Horatio attacked me at 11 AM and was euthanized by 5pm that day. The people that caused his behavioral issues were not at the session or when he was put down. Only myself and the last person that tried her very best to help the dog was there. This story is like lots of other stories I encounter, everyone parades around like they “know dogs” and hit them and shock them, and then when it all goes bad they quit and blame the dog. At least this woman was not doing that. I have never felt more pain for client in my life.
When I did my intake for the session I knew the dog had bitten the women’s sister, a week prior, despite being told not to enter the home, she did any way. Another example of people not listening and feeling superior and getting bitten.
As Jim Crosby states in the interview “professionals get bitten because we get confident and screw up”, I can say that I did screw up in this case. However allow me to give you some background and why I chose to approach the session as I did.
1 – I had met with Horatio many times and never had a bad moment with him. So I counted on his scent memory to activate and my sense of boundaries to establish I was not a threat. If he was sound this would have been successful. He was not sound.
2 – I chose not to leash or muzzle him as I wanted him to be free, not stressed, not having his guardian be tense with the leash, which she would have been, as she was already. This was so I could see what is what with the dog as he is in the house. I know that the dog has bitten and what level the bite was, but I also know that the women he bit walked in unannounced and no one else was in the home and that spooked him.
I had the women go get him, after I was in and positioned so he had at least 20 feet of space and some duration coming down the steps to hear me saying his name gently. I had laid food treats on the stairs about half way down the steps which he ate, and treats all the way to me; which he ate. A bully stick is also at my feet, which he left.
I avoid any direct eye contact; fed him a few treats and he went and sat roughly 2 – 3 feet from me. At that point is where the viewers come in for the clip in the video.
Also in this home lives a 14-year-old girl. She has friends over regularly, or would like to. The dog is “usually” put away when people come over.
All I could think of after I got bitten was what if some kid bent over as I did to tie their shoe or pick up something? That is why along with all the other possible scenarios that could arise; I mandated the dog be put down ASAP that day. Some days my job sucks.
The incident in slow motion is here at 4:25
The results to my hand and leg from this incident can be seen at this point in the video 5:17
Incident Two – Resource Guarding Dog
The next clip of the other dog that attacked me, the tan and white dog starts at 6:17
This dog had a severe case of resource guarding. Again, I knew this going in. Had done an extensive intake. This incident takes place at my training facility, neutral ground, and no past experiences there or with me that could trigger anything based on history with the environment or me. Also the resource guarding was related to food bowls and bully sticks, not work to eat toys, or so had been determined prior to my assessment that day.
In addition there was no substantial determination of distances at which the dog would not guard resources, as the triggers were very fuzzy.
As with all dogs that have novel things or novel food, if they have a predilection for resource guarding that novelty will exacerbate it in some cases. I should have taken that into account.
I had given this dog a novel toy, filled with novel food, I was roughly 2 – 3 feet away and slightly bent down to toss a treat, which simulates if someone will “reach” for the item, sure enough the dog froze, I retreated, dog snapped and I retreated, then the dog lunged and bit me in the chest. Luckily I had my forearm in place to push the dog off me after the initial bite, but as I retreated farther to jump over the divider the dog bit me in the leg.
After the incident I was able to feed the dog through the fence, and be around her without her experiencing the level of stress you see exhibited in the video clip. We took the work to eat toy away and all was fine. I stayed behind the fence for the rest of the session.
The slow motion clip of this event is here 6:34
I had never met this dog; we’ll call her “Percy”. This was the very first time I had ever evaluated her. The dog bit me within the first 20 minutes. All I did during that 20 minute time was happy talk, speak with the other people in the room in a normal tone, keep respectful distances and toss food, this was the result, and the dog attacked me. That is an example of a dog that is sound and yet needed to be euthanized. Resource Guarding is something that can be reduced and managed as long as the dog is lucky enough to have the proper dynamic to get the work done, but those scenarios is usually rare.
This dog too lost its life eventually. The efforts of the person who took the dog in for fostering, a trainer in training, worked trying their best to help the dog. But after a few more slip ups, getting comfortable, and the realization that there is not home for this dog, even the foster home could not take the dog in forever or until the dog was adoptable, as that would take an undisclosed amount of time. Sadly the dog was euthanized.
As the dog had safe harbor and was in the hands of a rescue and a trainer in training I issued euthanasia as an option. It was not my call to make in total. I also detailed how difficult it would be to reduce the amount of resource guarding the dog had due to the close proximity of other dogs and people that would inevitably cause some form of rehearsals of guarding. Outside of resource guarding Percy appeared to be ok, but dogs always have resources of some kind, and fear generalizes easily for dogs. This dog’s fear of losing resources had spread way beyond the context of a food bowl in a home. It had spread to a novel toy in a novel environment to a person that had they had just met.
I know full well the difference between a dog bite, as in a puppy that has sharp teeth, and or a dog that may have had a mistaking of a toy, and getting bitten verses being attacked.
Both of the dogs that attacked me were IMHO, and I am sure in the assessments of many other legitimate professionals, they would also classify these dogs as candidates for euthanasia. Sadly both dogs had no more options for people to help them. Even if they did, in the case of Horatio, he was gone. Percy maybe would have had a chance, but she would have needed the golden parachute of a bona fide behaviorist with great dog skills to counter condition her resource guarding. Those scenarios just do not exist. That is the dog lottery.
There is also another dog that makes appearances throughout the video. He is a tan and black peppered dog with a red harness and a young man handles him. We’ll call him Briscoe.
A nice family adopted Briscoe. The dog came to them with some fear issues. He barked and reacted at some people, nothing too terribly concerning, but they wanted help. They hired a “pain trainer”, an ex cop. The ex cop “trainer” uses a shock collar on Briscoe and of course makes Briscoe worse. The ex cop “trainer” says he “can’t work with the dog now”.
Fortunately for Briscoe he never bit anyone, he almost but me twice as you see in the video. Both times I was assessing him and figuring out his distances for interactions with people in different contexts. In public and in his home. You can see in the video I was not antagonizing or pushing anything on him. The walk into his home was the first time I had been there. It was literally below zero outside and he was freezing, that is the main cause for the shaking you see in the video. He was fearful but the shaking is due to the cold.
Briscoe lives with adults, no small kids, and no wise guy relatives. His people know they hired a hack and messed up, they live each day working to repair that decision and train and condition Briscoe to feel good about life as much as possible, not train him to be a robot. It has been a few years since I saw Briscoe, the last time I inquired how was doing last year it was reported that he was doing well and was happy.
He has not lunged at or bitten anyone since the sessions when I was evaluating him. He has a good life, somewhat small, but his people are ok with that and realize they adopted a dog that had issues and they made them slightly worse. They are not fearful of him; he displays no aggression towards anyone in the family. He was at first apprehensive of one of the sons, and a girlfriend, all of them are now in his club and he loves them. This family “did the work” and they helped Briscoe feel better, not be a trained auto-matron.
Briscoe and his people were lucky. Sadly not all dogs get a second or third chance after they get shocked or lunge, or growl, or bite, even slightly.
I see lots of great dogs euthanized due to ignorance in training and behavior. I see many dogs not doing well, potentially unsound; could do well eventually, become worse due to ignorance in training and behavior.
I also see many dogs on the line where it could go either way that pull through due to their people getting over themselves and doing the proper work needed to help the dog.
I also see many dogs holding it together, being really great in face of all that convoluted love – pain they get as “training” and “discipline”, when in fact they are living in a state of learned helplessness and the people are getting away with it literally and figuratively.
This is just a small widow into my life and what I have had conscious contact with in terms of being attacked by dogs. So I know what it feels like. I know.
As I am sure many other legit trainers and behavior people that choose to take cases where bites have occurred, we absorb lots of pain and misery in our travels, and our goals are to create safety for all.
I work tirelessly to teach people how to prevent dogs from getting worse behaviorally and how to maintain a dog’s soundness so they do not develop into dogs with inordinate fears. Learning from legitimate sources about dog behavior and adopting an approach to training that is not based in causing the dog fear or pain of any kind, this is how to maintain a safe and sound life with dogs.
This is the other aspect of the interview with Jim Crosby that I would hope really hits home with people, he is a staunch advocate of positive reinforcement training that does not include aversive methods to obtain behavior.
As he discusses and so eloquently puts it, he does not want a dog to think he is walking around with “anger issues” and that he will “go nuts” and he levels the truth about the dogs perceptions ever so accurately when he says, “your dog does not understand it when you beat him up”.
The people that want to turn dog bites some sort of hyperbolic issue have the intellectual capacity of 5th graders. These are the dog haters, the anti dog lobby. I am not saying that we should not do anything; on the contrary, there are bona fide ways to prevent dog bites and dog attacks. There are legitimate ways to reduce the prevent dog bites and dogs from becoming unsound.
What needs to be done is proper education at all the levels that exist from the responsible breeders (they exist) to the shelters & rescues and the trainers. Also, the Orgs that tout they are advocates for dogs, all of the efforts of the canine collective in culture should step up their efforts to properly educate communities about dog safety and positive training. This is how dog bites are best addressed and prevented.
I speak at High Schools every year and the one thing I always discuss is how to be safe around dogs and why the kids should not approach any do that do not know, even a friends dog they are meeting for the forts time. There are ways to orchestrate things so they are as safe as they can be.
It is education by way of legitimate means that will help people be safe, feel safe and act safely with and around dogs, not media hysterics or the ranting of dog haters.
Attempting to single out a “type” of dog or a “breed” does nothing to prevent and prepare people to act responsibly with dogs. All that does is make people; even normally dog-loving common sense people have a fear of a type of dog. This creates euthanasia rates to go up.
When you look at the “anti dog lobby” they have no legitimate dog people backing them, it is lawyers and lay people with an axe to grind. So how can they postulate about dogs in any way? They can because they have free speech, but as far as anything of value to add to the discussion, it’s all the rants by people that have zero skills to help, it’s all fear. These people are Dangerous Bullies with Dumb Opinions. (DBDO).
I will say that the larger media outlets have actually been better than in years past when it comes to reporting on dog bites. It appears that the main hared of dogs and the prejudicial foments towards types of dogs are mainly coming from one or two sources. It is the same DBDO as I mentioned above.
As far as the theory that you just need to “discipline” the dog with force and “back it up with “love”, that fails due to spontaneous recovery and the neurological fact that the more stress and fear and pain a canine or primate receives their hippocampus shrinks, that is long term memory storage, that is where the pain trainers get their “success” they shut down the dogs ability to create new learning, they are shutting down dogs. With chronic stress or pain, the amygdala will grow more neurons, thus fear is generalized even further. The amygdala is where fear is processed. So no matter how it is sliced and diced using harsh “methods” to solve behavior issues fails. The dog may end up brain dead and living in learned helplessness, or aggressive and unsound, that is not humane or sane.
All dogs can bite, because they have teeth. All dogs have the ability to experience fear, stress and have memories of these events that will influence future events.
If you have a dog with fear and or aggression issues, or you work with dogs and you take cases that involve fear, aggression, proven bite histories, as Jim Crosby says with no nonsense honesty ”you damn better well better be able to defend your actions” as there is “too much loosy goosy stuff out here”. Meaning, wannabe hack trainers sending dogs to their deaths or making things far worse than they would have been had the people and the dog been in the hands of a legitimate professional.
Do not waste time and or money with any one that cannot simply and plainly explain your dog’s behavior and how to make your situation safe based in math and science, common sense management, and training with non force methods. Period. That is the way, the modern way. The safest way.
If you want to know how to prevent dogs from being unsound, if you want to get a handle on how to behave around dogs with kids in the mix, how to train and maintain dogs so you have less stress and more success, watch this interview with Jim Crosby and check out the links below on dog training. Obtaining proper information about dogs and dog training is crucial. As Jim and I discuss, it is the two-legged animal that is the hard part, dogs by and large are easy, and once the humans have a common sense safe plan and positive non-force training practices.
One thing is for sure; anytime you make the safest decision for a dog or a child you have made the smartest decision. Many times that is all it takes to avoid problems and tragedies.
Have a safe summer! Thanks for reading!
Links and References
AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association Dog Bite Prevention
The Heavy Hand Myth – You Don’t Need Fear and Pain to Train Dogs.
Things to Consider When Training
Counter Conditioning – Reducing dog stress on leash
Cognition & Memory – How dogs process information & store memories.
Interview with Dr. Karen Overall on proper training and dispelling many myths about dogs and breed types.
Dr. Karen Overall Part 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xIDI1bkomQ&list=UUp8GJps8sdGlVrZE1cWwv-A
Jim Crosby Interview https://youtu.be/dANt3HllFv8?list=UUp8GJps8sdGlVrZE1cWwv-A
Puppy Development https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ab1rdFQchyM&list=UUKQCCGM0Y-KiOojUtlInJ9w