Dog bites are a tough subject to talk about. Whether you work with dogs, are around dogs, own dogs, or even just go anywhere that has the potential of having a dog, there is a potential that you could encounter teeth. For most people, it is a small encounter. I don't anticipate getting bit by a dog when I go to the grocery store, but I know my chances of receiving a bite can increase substantially when I go to an owner's home for the first time and I have been informed the dog already has a bite history. In my last blog post "All Dogs Bite, Part 1", I discussed my few encounters with dog teeth I have had out of years of working with them as well as how I have not had any incidences with my own dogs and why I think we have been successful thus far in not having any issues. In this post, I am going to share why I as the human in this equation have been so successful in preventing myself from getting bit and how you can use the same tools to assist you as well.
The two largest factors in my success by far are my ability to read dog body language and communication as well as looking for consent from the dog I am interacting with. Understanding body language is key in working with any species, humans included. Non-verbal communication takes part all the time. How many times have you interacted with someone where they are saying one thing, but their body language says another? In those instances, I trust the body language every time. It's the same with dogs. If I ask if a dog is friendly and the owner says "absolutely", yet the dog through body language is asking me to please go away, I am going to respect the dog. If you were to look at the image above, to the untrained eye, it may just look like a cute fluffy dog. To the trained eye, it is a dog clearly uncomfortable with the situation. The factors I can see in the image are a tongue flick, ears back, side eye movements, head off to the side, and the body is tense and everything is held close together. In real life, I could even see a dog like this slightly wagging the tail and maybe even trying to get onto its back if I tried to keep approaching. All these signals are known as distance-increasing signals, meaning the dog is asking "please go away or stop what you are doing". Then compare this to the image of the golden retriever below. The body language is very different. The eyes are forward and alert, ears forward, facial expression is relaxed, tail looks neutral, and body language is loosely-goosey. This is a dog more comfortable with what is going on. Two fuzzy dogs, but two very different messages being conveyed. With your own dogs, literally sitting and just watching them, you can start to see changes in body language and pick up on the subtle changes.
When interacting with other dogs, if you want to be better prepared, learn about dog body language. If you want to learn to communicate with someone/something that doesn't speak the same language as you, you need to take the initiative to learn their language. If you don't, you can't blame the dog when you didn't know what they were saying. They meet us halfway by trying to interpret our body language to see what we want and even learn some of our language through cues we ask them to do. It is only fair we do the same. A couple of excellent resources out there you can learn at home. A DVD called "The Language of Dogs" by Sarah Kalnajs is excellent. It shows you in detail different forms of body language and greatly shaped how I read dogs when I was learning to be a trainer in the early days. It is sold on Amazon (make sure you don't accidentally get the Cesar Milan garbage that is also titled the same). Another great resource is "Calming Signals" by Turid Rugaas. She has a book and a DVD and also is instrumental in my early learning days.
Another big piece I mentioned was consent-testing. If a dog doesn't want to be interacted with, I should respect that. Dogs were not put on this earth to be part of a walking petting zoo. When we go out in public and someone exclaims "oh my gosh, look at that dog!" it can be baffling at times because I know they have seen a dog before. Just because I have fuzzy dogs that they think are adorable doesn't mean they get to pet my dog. If a dog comes up to sniff me enthusiastically and I put my hand down and the dog backs up, I don't try to reach for the dog. I wait for the dog to come back to me and look relaxed. Look for reciprocity. If I put my hand down and the dog leans in, the dog probably is enjoying the interaction. Again, I am always watching the signals of the dog throughout the whole interaction to see if it changes at any point. No one likes the guy that doesn't break of the handshake or the person that hugs and doesn't let go. At some point, something that was fine, isn't ok to have continue. It is the same with dogs. There is an excellent video from Eileen Anderson showing consent testing with her own dog. I would strongly recommend watching it and here is the link to it: https://youtu.be/-cGDYI-s-cQ. Consent is just as important to animals as it is to humans.
Consent testing is a large portion for why children are commonly the ones on the other side of the bite. Kids do not consent test. Kids are more likely to be bitten by their own dog or a dog they know than a strange dog. This is because they falsely make the assumption that if it is in their house or they know the dog, they assume it must be friendly. Or they have been obnoxious before without being bit, so they assume the dog won't ever bite. When the trainer gets a call is typically after the dog has bitten someone, usually multiple times. By that time, there have been multiple instances a dog was uncomfortable and it had worked up to a bite. Teaching safe interaction is crucial. www.FamilyPaws.com has excellent resources for families with toddlers to learn about safe interaction. An adult should always be present and actively supervising dogs and children together. And don't think kisses are cute when your dog is suddenly licking your child's face at their level. Dogs don't view licking as affection; they view it as an attempt to dismiss or get the interaction to stop without using teeth.
The last skill that has helped me is in reading thresholds. Thresholds are knowing what the dog can handle and not trying to push past that. When working with students in personal lessons, we discuss thresholds a lot! If someone says their dog doesn't like people, we have to start with what are they comfortable with and at what distance. This tells us the dog's threshold. So if a dog is only comfortable with someone sitting and not moving or looking at them from 15 feet away, we never change that until the dog is completely loosey-goosey in that situation. At this point, we can either decrease distance or change what the person is doing. The dog dictates what is comfortable and putting the control back in the dog's paws to say what is ok and what is not will make behavior work go significantly quicker than someone that expects the dog to do it just because they live in your household.
Stay tuned for Part 3! In Part 3, I will talk about what you can do with your dogs right now to prevent bites in the future and stop nips and bites that you may have already experienced. Make sure you check back for more!