Special Note: This post contains some mild graphic photos and descriptions of a recent dog bite that I received.
I work with all kinds of dogs….various breeds, ages, temperaments, backgrounds, etc. Some dogs are friendly and happy to see me, and others….not so much! I’ve been training dogs since 1983, and working with aggressive dogs since 2008. In all that time, I’ve only been bitten twice. I use very safe measures when working with edgy, or aggressive dogs. But this past week, I encountered a really dangerous dog, and that’s the subject of this post….to educate my readers about what made this situation more serious than other aggressive dogs I see.
Earlier in the week, I had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of a 70 pound dog’s teeth being sunk into my leg. Zero fun. Naturally, since it’s June, and since the dog had no prior bite history, I was wearing shorts, so I had no protection at all between skin and teeth.
Prior to training any dog, I do an evaluation. I’m asking behavioral questions and observing the dog in his home where he’s comfortable and relaxed. This also helps me watch the interactions between dog and owner, and I can learn a lot through simple observation.
When I evaluate dogs who are aggressive with humans, I insist that they be leashed so that I can safely move and not be attacked. Typically, I want the dog back from the door and at a safe distance from me so that I can I observe the dog’s behavior and arousal levels from a safe distance as I come in and conduct the evaluation.
Some dog owners are very understanding and have no issue doing that. Others make it clearly known that they think I’m being overly concerned, especially when their dog has no bite history. Some dogs do well being leashed, and others not so much. The owners of the “not so much” dogs generally aren’t very happy leashing their dogs because they know that their dogs are likely to produce even worse behavior, which I completely understand! However, that leash and a careful owner are the only things keeping me safe, and whether or not an owner likes my methods, they do have a responsibility to keep me safe as a guest in their home.
The dog who bit me this week had no bite history. He was a physically healthy two year old dog in very good condition. He had been to his vet the previous week for a complete physical including a blood work up to determine if there was any medical reason for his behavior. He was given a clean bill of health, meaning that the vet could determine no medical reason for the dog to be behaving in an aggressive manner. That’s a great place to start with any type of aggression….a medical work up!
Two weeks earlier, he had nipped the pants legs of two males who came into the home, but responded well to them through the duration of their visit in the home. He had never shown aversive behavior toward women, so his owner felt very confident that he would be completely fine with me. He had no problem leashing his dog and was very compliant about keeping me safe during the evaluation.
As I came into the house, I heard minimal barking, and observed a small mount of piloerection (fur standing up on his shoulders and or back and rump) from the dog. He did pull hard to sniff me, but didn’t lunge or growl in any way. Comparing him to other dogs that I’ve evaluated who are aggressive to strangers in the home, I felt as if he was very calm at the door to be perfectly honest.
His owner let him come over to sniff, which didn’t make me very comfortable, but the dog wasn’t sending any super strong danger signals, and because he had no bite history and was early in his aggressive behavior, I felt as if he would likely be fine. However, I should not have allowed the dog to get near me, because the piloerection was only at the shoulders and the base of his tail, which can be an indicator of a dog who is unpredictable and aggressive, which this dog later proved to be!
He sniffed me over as all dogs do. He was polite, no muzzle punches or hard pokes. Very typical, gentle sniffing. He even licked my legs and hand very sweetly. He did some minor gentle biting on my fingers as many dogs will do, but again, it was really pretty polite given the dog. Looking back, the hand nibbles may have been the dog sending me a signal that he was thinking about a bite, and he was trying to intimidate…or testing the waters but deciding to wait for a more opportune moment.
As we walked through the house, we left the foyer and proceeded through the living room and into the kitchen, the dog was ahead of me. I always send the dog ahead, so that I know where he is. To stay safe with aggressive dogs, I try to always know where the dog is at all times. He stopped at one point and looked back at me with a hard stare as if to challenge my walking into his space. I stopped and froze, waiting for his owner to call his dog to come along, and waiting to see the dog’s response to that nudge on the leash. He quickly and easily complied with his owner’s direction, which is very good. Many dogs do not want to break a fixated stare, and the hard eye will continue. The dog was very compliant, and his body language was calm and relaxed as he went into the kitchen.
As I came into the kitchen, I set my briefcase on a chair in their breakfast nook and got out my evaluation binder and pencil. The dog was calm and relaxed, watching me without a hard stare or any negative body language. His owner was talking to him, and offered some quick pets and ear rubs to reassure his dog. I focused on writing some quick notes about the dog’s behavior at the front door.
At the moment of the bite, I was standing at the table in their breakfast nook, writing notes, not moving, not talking, looking right at the table and quietly writing. I may have slightly shifted my weight from one foot to the next in the direction of the dog and his owner. That’s it. If I moved at all, it was very subtle, and nothing that would have been threatening or have startled the dog in any way. The bite came within thirty seconds after his owner had sat down and petted him.
I thought the owner had his dog right at his side and I was positioned far enough away that the dog couldn’t get to me. As a result, I was focused on my writing and I was not looking at the dog or even in his general direction. I had some sense of where he was from my peripheral vision, but I thought I was safer than I actually was. Hard lesson learned in a painful way.
Next thing I knew, I felt a quick little lick, a fairly gentle muzzle bump against my left leg and then boom! He gave me a quick, hard, and very sneaky bite and released his grip. One or two seconds from start to finish. There was no time to back away and prevent the bite, as it came immediately after the lick and nudge. After the bite, as I quickly jumped back, I instinctively grabbed my briefcase to create a protective barrier between myself and the dog in case he came back for more.
I can’t tell you what the dog was doing right after the bite. I didn’t see him to know what his body language or facial expressions were like! His owner didn’t even realize that he had bitten me! When I jumped and said, “Woah!! Darn!!” The dog’s owner asked if he had nipped at me! He was as surprised as I was when I said, “No, your dog just bit me, and I’m bleeding all over your floor!! Instead of looking at the dog, I was honestly focused on the streams of blood running down my leg and starting to pool on the floor at my foot, and trying to figure out what supplies I would need to get that stopped!
This is a very important post for me to write, because this dog was absolutely a seriously dangerous dog and his owner never knew it! Clearly, the owner had noticed a negative shift in his dog’s behavior and that’s why I was there to evaluate him, but this situation was honestly far more dangerous than many aggressive dogs that I evaluate. Here’s why:
- This dog bit while completely unprovoked. I did nothing at all to create a venue that would have made the dog startle and react, or feel threatened in any way.
- There was absolutely no warning at all, aside from a small nose bump. He didn’t growl, posture, snarl, or give me any obvious indication that he was going to bite me. He was Ninja-like….and sneaky!
- He had already received me into his home, although it’s definitely debatable about how comfortable he was having me there. With stranger aggression, most aggressive dogs will bite right at the door. This dog greeted me fairly well at the door, but seemed to wait for a chance to offer a hard bite when he felt that it would be more opportune.
- Dogs who are stealthy and sneaky pose a much higher bite risk because they are unpredictable. When there are unknown triggers, it’s impossible to moderate the dog’s behavior, and an owner is left with a very dangerous dog who is honestly more liability than asset.
At at a recent vet visit with Rugby, one of the vet techs who often helps treat Rugby said something I really liked! She said, “Rugby is an honest dog. You always know where you stand with him, and he always tells you if you’re crossing a line with him. He gives you time to back off.” That really made me smile, because I completely agree!
Rugby is an edgy dog to be sure. He absolutely is. But he has pretty clear triggers, and for the most part, he will give a clear warning that he’s uncomfortable. That’s an honest dog. He clearly doesn’t want to bite, and he’s willing to wait to see if the humans understand his position and respond accordingly. That’s fair.
The dog who bit me was sneaky. Unpredictable. He did a bait and switch with me, letting me think he was okay with me, when instead, he was simply waiting for a more opportune moment to strike. Those are the dogs that I honestly don’t feel safe training at all, bite history or not. I never feel safe with them. And honestly, those are dogs that are not likely to work through their aggressive behavior to ever be trusted. Ever.
So how are dangerous dogs like this created? That’s always challenging to know. It’s generally a lot of things all coming together like a perfect storm!
- The first consideration is the genetic makeup of the dog. Nurture will never trump nature, and if there’s a history of aggressive behavior in parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. there’s a good likelihood that there’s a wacky aggressive gene in the DNA. That’s something that simply can’t be fixed, and unfortunately, with rescue dogs who are mixed breeds, an owner is taking a chance with any rescue where backgrounds and breeding is unknown. This should really, really be a very critical decision when someone is choosing a dominant, aggressive breed who is large and has the potential to really do some damage with his bite.
- Right along with the genetic makeup of the dog is the early development of the puppy. Diet is critical to healthy brain development, which will also include the dog’s ability to reason and think well. Puppies who are abandoned, or who have gone without food for an extended time, have a poor diet, etc., are at a higher risk for incorrect brain development, and that can have far reaching effects years after the puppy grows up.
- The next consideration is the physical health of the dog. Dogs who don’t feel well are likely to be aggressive. Ear infections, sore teeth, injuries, etc., can cause a dog to become very dangerous in their responses to humans because they are simply trying to protect themselves and their space. Their aggression can be unpredictable if owners don’t know that they aren’t feeling well. Generally once the medical reason is cleared up, these dogs can be retrained to respond in a kind way. The exception could be for dogs who are chronically ill, especially as young puppies, where their opinions about life are formed. Some dogs are more able to process and forgive and trust again, while others simply can’t make that leap.
- Lack of socializing dogs is huge! HUGE!! Did I mention that socialization is huge? Think people, places, and things, when you are socializing your dog. You want your dog to see all kinds of people, dogs, places and things, both animate and inanimate. Ideally this starts as soon as you bring a new puppy or dog home, and continues well into adulthood. Socializing your puppy teaches him how the world works, and exposes him to potentially scary things so that he learns not to be afraid of them.
- Lack of training is also HUGE!! Big. Enormous!! I wish all dogs could receive basic training, but large dogs, especially dominant aggressive breeds should be professionally trained at least to an intermediate level. Puppies are so enthusiastic about training, and generally compliant, happy students. In adolescence, dogs often start to throw their weight around as they begin to wear their big dog pants! That’s most often when I see aggressive behavior rear its ugly head. When those dogs have had strong prior training, adolescence is a speed bump or small hurdle to get over. We train right through it, most generally, and in a very short time, that dog is right back on track. When aggressive adolescent dogs have never had any prior, professional training, it’s much more difficult to train through the aggression, and the odds go way down in terms of a dog successfully working through the aggressive behavior. (This is based upon my own experience in working with dogs)
Sadly, for the dog that bit me, his life ended that afternoon. His owner agreed that his dog was simply too dangerous to the public, and shortly after the bite, he was euthanized by his vet.
While my heart just broke for the family, I applaud the owner for making the choice that he did. His dog was indeed a very dangerous dog, and I honestly do not believe that training would have modified his behavior to the point where he would ever have been safe to the public. It took courage to make the decision that the owner did, and as the recipient of his solo bite, I can tell you that I felt a huge sense of relief knowing that this dog would not be biting anyone else….especially a child!
Don’t let this happen to your own dog! Many, many times, aggression can be prevented. Don’t wait!! If your dog is exhibiting any questionable behavior, please consult a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer or behaviorist to get help immediately. Please remember that this dog went from nipping to a full bite in only two weeks time, so waiting may end up causing injury to a friend, family member, child, or another dog! Once a dog is biting, there are very few options available, and bites often end up costing a dog his life! Aggression does not go away by itself, so waiting will never make things better. And just in case you aren’t quite sure….here’s another photo to remind you that aggression is not anything at all to play around with. I’ve missed about a full week of work nursing this injury. My physical injuries are healing up nicely, but my heart will never forget that this bite cost a dog his life. I’ll have more than one kind of scar to carry through life as a result of this bite, and that’s not anything I wish for anyone else!