This post is really important to me, but before I start, let me make two quick notes. Firstly, names in this post have been changed — reasons for which will become obvious. Second, there is a slightly gory picture of a dog bite. Consider yourself forewarned.
This is Benji. Benjamin, if we are being formal. He’s a rescued Great Dane, and I love him. He’s a total snuggle bug, and loves treats. He’s a good friend.
Benji was adopted 10 months ago by my friend Adam. Adam loves Benji more than anything except, maybe, his older Great Dane, Riley, who is one of the best dogs I’ve ever met. Riley truly fits the breed stereotype of “gentle giant”; Great Danes, on average, bite fewer people than even Labs. Benji and Riley love each other.
Benjamin has some trust issues. Recently, Adam had to leave town for three days, and asked me to take care of the boys. I was delighted; I love big dogs. I love all dogs. I’ve known Benji almost since Adam first got him. He’s a sweetheart who wants nothing more than to make his humans happy.
Benji didn’t like me being in his house. The first day Adam left, I stopped by to check on the boys. Benji barked at me, a lot. He was in my face, a lot. But he didn’t do more than that. I fed them, and took them out for some exercise. He warmed up, and snuggled with me. He tried to sit on my lap. He head-butted me when I stopped petting him.
The second day was more of the same. It escalated though; he wouldn’t let me put on his collar. He panicked and barked and growled and snapped at me when I came near him with it. I think he missed his dad, he felt safe in his home, and he knew I was trying to take him out of it.
The last day, I went by with a friend of mine. He was obviously nervous; barking and snapping as before. This time though, he retreated to the bedroom. Smart boy; he felt uncomfortable, and removed himself from the situation. I waited ten minutes or so, then went to check on him. That was a bad idea; I should know better. I should have given him his space. The second I went into the bedroom, poor Benji, frayed to his last nerve, lunged and bit my hand.
The first picture I posted, of Benji and I snuggling? That was not an hour before he bit me. Benjamin isn’t a bad dog; he’s a scared dog. He’s a nervous dog. Every time the door opened over those three days and it wasn’t Adam, Benji got a little bit more upset.
We don’t know anything about Benji’s past. What we do know is that when Adam got him, he was over a year old, hadn’t had his shots and had worms. His previous family decided he was “too much work”. He was over 20 pounds underweight. Adam describes it as “not abuse, just neglect.” I call a spade a spade; abuse and neglect are one and the same.
I had to go to the ER. My bite wouldn’t stop bleeding, and it was on a part of my hand that tore it open again every time I moved.
After I’d registered at the ER, I ran into a couple paramedics, and a trainee paramedic. I knew the wait in the ER was going to be hours, and it was already after midnight. I showed my cut to the paramedic and asked him, “Is this worth waiting over?”
He said to me, “How did you get that?”
“A friend’s dog bit me.”
“You know, dogs get a taste for blood. Now that he’s tasted human blood, he’ll want it.”
I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “I raw feed my dog,” I replied, “does that mean she has a taste for blood?”
“Human blood and animal blood are different,” he told me, confidently.
And here is what makes me so mad: people should talk about what they know. If this paramedic had told me, “your wound needs stitches”, I would appreciate that. But for a paramedic to talk to me about dog behaviour? And be incorrect? That’s unforgivable. This is a person in a position of authority, saying things that he has no experience or education in. People trust doctors, nurses, EMTs. An EMT doesn’t know dog behaviour, and should talk about it no more than I talk about how to deal with a heart attack.
I had a similar experience when I took a pet first aid course. My instructor told us, “prong collars are very effective when used correctly.” I pointed out that I don’t believe there is such thing as correct use, and he didn’t know how to respond, because he didn’t know anything about it. He was a great instructor, and was very knowledgeable about first aid; he just wasn’t knowledgeable about dog behaviour, and I wish he hadn’t spoken about it when he was in such a position of authority.
When a dog is afraid, their behaviour escalates slowly. First, they may try to look away, or remove themselves from the situation. If that doesn’t work, they may get worried; put their tail between their legs and their ears back. If that doesn’t work, they growl, then they bark, then they snap at whatever they’re afraid of. If none of that works, they resort to biting. Dogs learn what works – a dog who had to resort to biting to cope with a situation enough times will learn to skip the first few steps and jump to what works.
Dogs who are aggressive are so because they are afraid. Most dogs aren’t just malicious; most dogs are afraid, and react out of fear. When my Doberman is nervous, she hides behind me, and sometimes people laugh. “Aren’t Dobermans supposed to be tough?” I laugh, and am proud of my girl. She knows her mom will protect her, so she doesn’t have to protect herself. Not all dogs are so lucky.
Another paramedic, the trainee, actually, was much nicer. He, on his way out, warned me, “They’re going to ask you what dog did this to you. If it’s a big breed, they’ll put it down. If it isn’t, they’ll give this as his one and only warning.” He seemed to understand I didn’t want that. “You could lie?” he offered, “and say it was a squirrel or… a beaver?” I laughed and thanked him for the heads up. Then, after nearly three hours in the middle of the night, I left the ER without treatment.
For the record, as far as I can tell, his information was inaccurate. Municipal code chapter 349 in Toronto basically states that they’ll enforce that the dog wear a muzzle, and potentially enforce confined isolation. That said, even if the dog isn’t going to be put down, being confined and isolated doesn’t really sound like a great solution either.
Dogs who bite need help. They need security and trust and a lot of work. They may need to be muzzled as a management tool while they work on their issues. What they don’t need is to be killed. Almost every time, a dog who is aggressive is that way because somewhere in his or her past, a human made them this way.
If I’m going to work with dogs, I am going to get bitten once in a while. That is a reality. But I am not going to punish the dogs, I am not going to yell at the dogs, and I am not going to allow the city to confine and isolate them. I am going to encourage their owners to work through their problems with a professional behaviourist. I’m going to encourage their owners to be realistic and aware of the issues so that no one else gets bitten. I’m going to encourage them to use a muzzle as a tool, for as long as they need to. I’m going to encourage them to understand that their dog is afraid, not mean, and punishing their dog will just make it more afraid, thus more aggressive. It does not help.
I am not going to encourage owners to give them up, as longs as they are willing to work through their issues, because most rescues won’t take dogs with a history of aggression to humans; this means they end up somewhere that is not a no-kill shelter, and a massive dog with multiple past homes and a history of aggression… he needs a no-kill shelter. Or else he will be killed.
This is Benji. I love him. He just needs some work. Who doesn’t?