This week is dog bite prevention week. And so, what better way to celebrate than adopting a dog who needs a little extra support when it comes to preventing a bite?
There, I said it. Let’s all just quickly acknowledge the 800 lb gorilla in the room, masked in the body of a Shepherd with adorable ears, so we can go back to not making eye contact with him, tossing a couple delicious treats on the floor for him to find, and I will then happily escort him out and put him in his crate upstairs with a frozen marrow bone.
Oh, but yes I do, my dear, sweet, Balton.
For the last 8 months, I have fostered a dog who bites. This weekend, I adopted a dog who has a bite history, because I have learned (partly through my educational development, and partly through my mistakes) how to safely handle him, and wish to provide him a good quality of life, as well as continued opportunities to build his confidence and learn skills to help him cope with and better handle his fears in public settings. And you know what, I need to own that fact, and be responsible in dealing with that fact for our own betterment, and in a way that maybe can help increase some awareness, create some empathy, and help us all learn and grow together.
A preliminary note: Even if you have a little dog whose bites have the capacity to cause less damage, or a dog who has put their teeth on skin, but hasn’t actually done damage, you need to deal with the cold, hard fact that those bites count, and any dog that bites, or has bitten, needs help. “Little bites” can lead to big problems if not addressed, and getting to the root of the problem and addressing it is so, so, important. See Dr. Sophia Yin’s article on “Was It Just A Little Bite or More? Evaluating Bite Levels in Dogs” for more information.
Here’s what we know – Balton is reactive to people on leash (and although he does better with accepting them when they also have a dog, he is a bit of a frustrated greeter with dogs on leash, which isn’t exactly helpful for his situation). He is also reactive to strange people in our home. Namely, he reacts in places and situations where he feels he is unable to retreat. He has had a good history of providing people clear “please stay away” messages for some time, but unfortunately, Balton has also had a couple incidents early on where his teeth made contact with scary humans. No medical attention was required in these early incidents, and his teeth left little more evidence than a bruise in all incidents. But, the bite is what made the scary thing go away, and ultimately, he learned what got results.
There’s a good piece on how practice makes perfect on a Paws Abilities, a training blog I follow, which states, “the more your dog engages in any behavior, whether you approve of that behavior or not, the better your dog will get at performing that behavior.” Such is the case with Balton. He practiced biting people, and got results. Ergo, he got pretty good at practicing biting and learning that if barking while backing himself into a corner wouldn’t make his voice heard (I presume he used more subtle communication tools with strangers before we began fostering him, but can’t speak well to those since he wasn’t with us at the time), the best defense would be a good offense.
Multiple trainers have affirmed that Balton’s behavior is a fear response. He doesn’t seek to hurt, but to create space.
Nevertheless, he can (and regretfully, has), hurt people in his efforts to create space, and I would be an idiot to act like this isn’t a real problem. Having said that, it is my hope that people would be empathetic of DINOS (Dogs in Need of Space) like Balton. And that people would also understand while Balton is the canine embodiment of Level 57 Tetris, all dogs are like a Tetris board. And all dogs can be pushed to bite.
Let me repeat that. All dogs can, and will, bite, if their warning messages go unheeded. Also, all dogs have a need for and a right to their own personal space. Some dogs have a stronger need for personal space then others.
Balton has a stronger need for personal space than Ollie does. Ollie is an exceptionally tolerant and sociable dog, and even though he (as does any dog) has his limits, I would liken him to Tetris Level 3. It takes a lot to get him to a point where he feels a need to growl or snap. I’ll take on the “easy” dogs in my next post, but as a new reactive dog owner, I may as well embrace it and go into detail on what we do to prevent a dog bite, which is significantly more challenging and requires a great deal more management than what we do to prevent a dog bite with Ollie.
As Balton’s handler and caretaker, it is my responsibility to protect him, and protect others, by managing him, and the space between the things that cause him to react. Here is a list of things I do:
- When we walk out on leash, Balton wears a basket muzzle.
Now, I get that there’s a wacky stigma of using the muzzle, and for a long time we didn’t use it because we were so self-conscious about it. In hindsight, that was mega poor judgment. He has gotten comfortable with wearing it, and he can pant, receive treats, and drink with it on. But what he can’t do is bite people. We had a terrifying experience one evening, where Balton actually broke away from us, despite our best management tactics, and clipped a bypasser that got him particularly freaked out on the leg, which sadly was the catalyst for the muzzle on all walks to follow (though we had used it previously in introducing him to our dog walker). The guy went to the ER, and although he went home with no more than antibiotics, we were horrified and felt horrible. Balton was quarantined for 10 days. And if the guy wasn’t so kind about the fact that he was a rescue in rehabilitation, it could have been a lot worse.From that point on, we were not willing to risk any future damages caused by a bite. We use the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle, which is made of a soft, Kong-like rubbery/plasticky material. He is unbothered by it and happily sticks his nose in for a treat before our walks. Getting your reactive dog comfortable with a muzzle is important, so this piece from Best Friends Animal Society is useful for reviewing when you utilize this management tactic. No one benefits if your dog is extra stressed because of the muzzle.
- We work with a trainer, and do our homework.
Balton is enrolled in a Relaxing Rowdy Rovers class at All About Dogs, which provides us professional direction to skill build and develop management strategies, while helping change Balton’s state of mind and reduce his stress in settings that make him uncomfortable. A good piece on how to choose a good trainer can be found here at Love and a Six-Foot Leash. We go to All About Dogs because they fit the criteria in this piece, including encouraging us sit in on a class to observe, speak to trainers, and make sure it was the right fit for him. Of course, no training class can truly help us unless we put in the work outside of the classroom walls. They give us homework each week, and we do it. I also do a good deal of independent study, which helps me understand the hows and whys of reactive dogs. More on that as I work to build our resources page, but we are fans of Suzanne Clothier, Grisha Stewart, Victoria Stilwell, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, Dr. Sophia Yin, and Dr. Ian Dunbar, to name a few.
- We take the road less traveled.
Although on leash encounters can’t always be avoided, we try to minimize them by sticking to wide roads that have exit routes, and work to avoid narrow trails if we can. If we see joggers, cyclists, or families with their dogs and strollers up ahead, we get off the trail, make a u-turn, or do whatever we have to in order to create space and keep under threshold.
- We try to make it clear as can be that we need space.
This is an example of what your dog can wear to communicate this message:
And this is an example of what you, as their human, can wear:
Balton’s vest was hand made by a talented Lucky Dog Animal Rescue volunteer, but a version can be purchased from The Pawsitive Dog, LLC. The human shirt can be acquired through the Team DINOS Store. And, in the absence of clearly labeled “give us space” garb (or in combination with it), never underestimate the power of standing up for your dog.
- We do not force him on guests, nor do we force guests on him.This is a critical error we had made in the past, when we wanted so badly for Balton to be okay with people coming to our home, and because we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. Our fearful dog fails of exposing him to what scared him, at a level that overwhelmed him, created great fear in Balton, and in most cases, also created fear in our guests because Balton could not make it out without needing to react. While we work on the best ways to safely and effectively get Balton comfortable with strangers in the home, our best bet is to minimize exposure so nobody gets hurt. This typically means using 2 forms of management, in case one fails. Last weekend, my sister and her 18 month old baby came to visit for a few days. The first night, Balton went up to his crate behind the closed door of our bedroom to rest, after being thoroughly exhausted from time at training class. He was happily occupied with a bully stick, removed from his stressor, and my family was safe from Balton’s reactions to stress. The next morning, Balton went to board at Wagtime until they left the following day. Meanwhile, we adults managed our far-less-reactive dog safely at home with our nephew (this will be integrated into tomorrow’s post about dog bite prevention). We picked Balton up after their visit, he was happily tired, and no humans were bit during their visit. As we learned from Balton, the best defense can indeed be a good offense, so why risk anyone having to put up defenses and getting hurt in the process?
I’ll save for tomorrow the next part of the conversation – on what YOU can do to help dogs like Balton when you encounter them in the world, and how to also prevent bites among the Ollies and dogs in between of this world (if we can get there tomorrow – may have to save that until Saturday for our Dog Bite Prevention closer).
Meanwhile, for more complete information on Dog Bite Prevention Week (and making every week your own personal Dog Bite Prevention Week), visit www.doggonesafe.com