During my police career I frequently dealt with people in crisis that bore uncommon loads of stress and reached their tipping point. They were normal folks who simply reached the limit of their ability to act rationally. Everyone has a threshold, and they reached theirs.
Trying desperately to cope with their ordeal, something triggered their behavior. Usually it was a combination of events that, had they occurred singularly, they could have coped with. The result was frustration, inability to communicate their feelings and an outburst of aggressive behavior.
They were not “aggressive” people and their behavior wasn’t abnormal. Rather, they acted out of proportion to their circumstance because they lacked coping skills.
The same thing happens to dogs, and it is incumbent on all of us who interact with dogs to learn to recognize the signs of a dog pushed to its limit.
I sometimes work with dog owners whose beloved pet growled at, lunged, snapped or bit someone. They are shocked and question why their dog acted that way “for no reason”. What they didn’t realize was there actually was a reason.
Dogs don’t bite out of the blue. Like humans, dogs have emotions and 90% of bites are inflicted by fearful dogs. They communicated their concerns to the humans in their proximity but nobody responded to them.
When a dog in a scary situation tells its owner but is ignored, the dog must escalate to more obvious expressions. The sequence may be subtle and is based in canine body language. Dogs and humans speak different languages and nobody taught us how to understand one another.
I never knew about canine communication until working in a dog daycare. Initially I only understood the end of the process: growls, lunges, air snaps and bites. It was like reading a sentence and only grasping the meaning of the exclamation point. I found myself reacting, wondering what I missed.
My co-worker was good at comprehending the language of dogs and intervened before things turned violent, but was unable to tell me what she saw. I undertook a serious study of canine communication and was then able to participate in conversations with dogs.
My path to understanding began by attending a presentation on the topic of canine body language by Sarah Kalnajs, a local certified trainer and behaviorist. I studied her DVD (“The Language of Dogs”) and Brenda Aloff’s book (“Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide”) repeatedly until the concepts were clear to me.
While working five years in a dog daycare I used a video camera to record hundreds of canine interactions. At night I studied each recording frame-by-frame, looking for individual body language signals and watching them in clusters. Returning to work, I set a goal of identifying a single body language behavior as many times as possible each day. One day I looked for play bows, on the next day it may be lip licking, or soft eyes, or any number of other signals.
I learned to recognize when dogs felt stressed, tense, frustrated, frightened or compelled to act out. Finally, I understood what was happening and intervened to avert the growls, lunges, air snaps and bites. I suppose the dogs felt relieved I understood what they were telling me.
Most dog bites to humans occur because the person does something the dog perceives as threatening, and the person continues to engage in the behavior in spite of warnings. Early stress signs include looking away, moving away, lifting a paw, lip licking, closing the mouth, staring with a “whale eye”, freezing in place, and growling.
What often follows is a snap in the air or a bite. The dog tries desperately to NOT bite the person. Adult dogs have 42 teeth perfectly designed to rip flesh from and to crush bones, yet they seldom do so. That is bite inhibition.
We hear about dogs mauling toddlers, but according to Dr. Ian Dunbar 99% of bites are no worse than a scratch. As a veterinarian, trainer and founder of Association of Professional Dog Trainers he describes such bites as lunging with no contact, or teeth touching the skin without causing damage.
Of those dogs that actively display warning signs, only 15% actually bite.
Dogs account for about 15-20 human fatalities annually.
About half the victims are children. By contrast, in 2011 there were 3.7 million child abuse cases in the United States, resulting in 1,750 deaths.
Clearly the most dangerous animal in the home is not the family dog, or the dog living next door.
So how dangerous are dogs? According to researcher J. Bradley, people are at greater risk from “front-porch steps, kitchen utensils, five-gallon water buckets, bathtubs, strollers, stoves, lamp cords, coffee-table corners, Christmas trees, balloons or bedroom slippers.”
In “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs” author James O’ Heare puts things in sharp perspective on page 17, describing numerous things more harmful to children and adults than dogs.
Fear is the cause of much canine aggression, as experts such as Dr. Sophia Yin point out.
To prevent dog bites pay attention to the dog’s early stress signals. If the dog displays stress or fear identify the stressor in the environment and either remove the stressor, or remove your dog from it. When a dog feels safe and calm, there is less reason for aggressive behavior to develop. Dogs are amazingly safe animals and bites are nearly always preventable. It is not all about the dog; we must do our part as well.
1.“The Dominance Myth: Fearfulness, Reactivity & Aggression in Dogs” seminar, Madison, WI September 5th, 2013.
2. Guy N. C., Luescher U. A., Dohoo S. E., Spangler E., Miller J. B., Dohoo I. R., Bate L. A. “Demographic and aggressive characteristics of dogs in a general veterinarycaseload.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2001; 74(1), 15-28.
3.Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings, U.S. & Canada, September 1982 to December 2001. http://www.dogsbite.org/dog-bite-statistics-study-dog-attacks-and-maimings-merritt-clifton.php
4.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Child Maltreatment” PDF, http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/datasources.html#1
5.Bradley, J. (2005). Dogs Bite: But balloons and slippers are more dangerous. Berkley: James & Kenneth Publishers.
6.Preventing Dog Bites: Stop Aggression Before it Starts. Sophia Yin blog, posted 8-14-11. http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/preventing-dog-bites-stop-dog-aggression-before-it-starts