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Who or What is Responsible for Dog Bites?

Written by Val Bonney

Edited by Christian Bonney


Who is responsible for the dog bites? Is it the dogs themselves? Is it their owners? Is it the trainers/clubs who are training the dogs? Is it the breeders? Is it due to a lack of education about what it means to own and manage a dog? There are so many possibilities it is impossible to answer them all here, but where does the blame lie?


I have been asked to write this, but it is not an easy question to answer, and it doesn't matter what I say; some people are going to disagree somewhere along the line, so all I can do is use my experience to try and open a conversation on the matter.


The intent of this article is not to upset anyone, but this problem has become huge and will not just go away. It is going to get worse before it gets better, and the one who ultimately suffers is the dog.


A person who gets badly bitten by a dog can suffer great trauma. Not only pain from the actual bite but mental anguish. Some never really recover emotionally from a serious bite. It stays with them for the rest of their lives. This is not acceptable in our society, and it is our collective responsibility to do something about it.


At its very core, I believe we have lost sight of the fact that a dog is a dog. It is not a human. It doesn't think, talk, walk, or eat like us. It is not a person dressed up in a dog costume. It is and always has been and always will be a descendant of the wolf, with over 20,000 years of heritage and instinct. Primary instincts are fight, flight, bite, and hunt. All dogs are accepted as being descendants of the wolf and are, therefore, natural predators. Without consideration for your circumstances, would you take a wolf into your home?


Over the years, we have domesticated our furry friends and made them a massive part of our lives; however, education about the causes of dog bites is still surprisingly limited!


Your new dog!


Let's start from the beginning when new owners decide on what breed of dog they are inviting into their life. A dog can sometimes become an extension of the owner's personality, which makes sense; we all want a dog compatible with our lifestyle. The macho person may want a macho breed, so they go for the stronger, more dominant breeds and encourage it to become arrogant and often aggressive for "protection". This is quite often the situation that causes problems. Put simply, the first reason for dog bites is that people consider their wants more than their needs when deciding to get a dog and rarely consider the situation of their neighbours and surroundings.


For example, let's say when you were little, you grew up with a certain high drive breed, such as a shepherd, border collie, etc. As a result, now that you are in a position to get your own dog, your mind defaults to the familiarity of those breeds and often leaves little space for further consideration. So, you get that dog, and it grows up, and you realise, "I never considered how I would manage this dog with my two young kids, in our small apartment, with our neighbours that are extremely fearful of all dogs", and so on, just as an example.


If more people took the time to sit down and consider their situation, what they are capable of doing when it comes to looking after a dog, what their living situation is like, what the disposition of the breed they want to get is, and account for potential changes in lifestyle over the 10-15 year commitment that is owning a dog, owners may find a better match with dogs they can handle, and subsequently, the bite rate will go down.


Obedience Training


Another large area of dog ownership that can be done poorly and result in dog bites is obedience training or lack thereof. Unfortunately, it is all too common that owners find obedience classes unnecessary and learn everything about their dog through online videos and articles like this without practically using the information to work with their pup. Owners may cite that "my dog sits and drops when I tell it at home and doesn't jump up on people; I don't really need anything else."


I have lost count of the number of times I have been told this. Then the dog came to training and was immediately anxious and aggressive towards other dogs and people, and the owners told me, "he isn't usually like this; I swear, he's being so weird tonight." Assuming a dog will maintain a constant disposition in every situation you put it in is naivety, and this is what causes dog bites.


In reality, a good dog training school is, first and foremost, a people training school. It's fine to give your dog to someone else to train, but you are robbing yourself of developing a deeper understanding of your best mate, and you won't be able to identify the body language your dog displays when they feel anxious, overwhelmed, scared, and everything else. An uneducated owner is, in my opinion, the leading cause of preventable dog bites.


Do yourself a favour, and maybe save your dog's life, your friend's dog's life, or your neighbour's kid's life and so on, by spending some time with your dog at training, learning their in's and outs, and understanding what makes them the dog they are. You will be better equipped to identify signs of distress earlier and have the skills to avoid casualty.


Training Methodologies


It is becoming clear that the dog training world is moving towards what has been labelled a "positive only" style of training. The idea is that you praise a dog for doing the right thing and ignore it when it does the wrong thing, and instead try to re-direct it back to doing the right thing again to praise. Whilst there are a million different styles of training, this style often involves not correcting the dog when it does the wrong thing, including but not limited to lunging at other dogs or people, growling and barking, and other issues that are created as a result of serious aggression issues, whatever the root cause may be.


Positive-only training certainly has its place, and those methodologies are certainly applicable to heeling training, basic obedience training, and other things such as agility. However, completely writing off measured, calm, and appropriate corrections for unwanted behaviour removes a critical element of training that helps to establish the boundaries around the dog's lifestyle.


Without these well-executed and effective corrections, the dog will slowly begin to feel that it can do whatever it wants without considering if it is "supposed to". This can be as seemingly innocent as jumping up on the lounge or as frustrating and dangerous as pulling on the lead and lunging at other dogs on a walk.


This is yet another element that may be playing a part in the prevalence of dog bites. Please ensure you are not using a one size fits all approach to your training, and consider all different avenues of training that may help you keep your dog safe and under control.


Breeding


It is critical, when looking to get a puppy, that you consider the circumstances in which it was raised and in which it is currently living. It is in a litter with other good-tempered dogs and parents? Is it in a shelter with no interaction with other dogs or people? Is it forced to fight for attention, food, and affection constantly? How will this dynamic affect your ability to manage the dog in your situation?


Evaluate all of these points, speak with a trainer or another trusted breeder, understand the likely results of the puppy's situation, and decide if you are ready for that challenge.


Council and Regulations


Here is another little bit of food for thought. What if instead of registering each dog, we, as owners, register for the privilege of having a certain breed of dog? What if we, as owners, were required to show that we are capable of managing that 30 - 40 kg german shepherd? Would it not make more sense, and foster more confidence, if we knew that owners in control of these potentially very dangerous animals are willing to invest time in training and understanding them and have the facilities to manage them effectively?


I know this suggestion may seem abrupt, but think about it, where is the downside? I understand you may want to own a Rottweiler, but if you are told that you can't, for a specific reason, maybe that is for the best, and maybe it is preventing a tragic event from occurring that you haven't thought about yet.


This may assist in removing what I lovingly call "passion blindness". Where you are so excited about the thought of owning a dog that all of the relevant considerations around it are not able to be understood by yourself, and you may need an external body to help you with that and perhaps suggest a more suitable breed, or changes to make to your situation prior to getting the breed you are wanting, to give you the best chance of success. Does that not help everyone?


Just think about it!


Human Behaviour Around Dogs


We do many things as people that may be exacerbating the issue of dog bites. These could include going up and reaching over fences to pat dogs, putting our face down to the dog's face, lying on the floor with our dog, and many more.


Often our behaviour, no matter how comfortable we think the dog is with it, can cause immediate distress, enough to trigger a bite response from our pups. Think back, for example, to when you accidentally stepped on your dog's paw, did they yelp and maybe briefly sharply turn and mimic a biting motion towards your leg? Did they potentially just nip you?


This is an example of a microcosm of dog bites. Unfortunately, children are often responsible for behaviour that contributes to dog bites as well. This, again, is a combination of a lack of communication with the child, a lack of boundaries when managing interactions between the child and the dog, and/or a lack of education and training for the child or the child's parents.


Be sure to include the whole family in training and understanding your dog and, in turn, lower the chances that your child is involved in an avoidable bite.


Conclusion


All in all, there are an endless amount of factors that influence if a dog bite occurs or not. It is our responsibility as a community to evaluate our personal scenarios and training methods continually, as well as consider appropriate changes to legislation and breeding methods etc, to ensure that avoidable dog bites are just that, avoided. Love your dog, love them enough to understand them, train them, and put them in the best environment you can that is conducive to that.


(Give your pup an extra pat from me!)


Val Bonney

Bonnies Dog Obedience and Puppy School

Founder


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