Wednesday, March 28, 2012

First Do No Harm

I was consulted recently to help a family with a small breed dog who had bitten a pet sitter.  The bite had barely broken the skin.  The family was concerned about the dog's behavior and whether or not it would escalate to more biting and more serious biting in the future.

We are right to be concerned about dogs who bite -- a bite is a "red flag" that the dog is experiencing some sort of stress and seeks to resolve it through biting.  It is important to realize one thing...

All dogs bite.  All dogs can bite.  If you poke, prod, chase, tease, hurt or stress any dog intensely enough it will bite you - all sentient beings have the potential to show aggression, the thresholds for this aggression vary.  The severity of the aggressive responses vary.

As a trainer and behavior consultant it is my professional responsibility to know 1. when to refer to a Certified Veterinary Behaviorist 2. to first do no harm.  

My clients often want to show me the dog's aggressive behavior first hand,  I don't need to see the dog I am visiting demonstrate any aggressive behavior whatsoever. Regardless of the problem I don't need to see the dog snarl, snap or bite to understand the nature of the problem.  Furthermore as someone hired to help the dog with the issue - creating a situation where the dog does indeed growl, snarl, snap or bites means I am making the dog worse.  Because any time a dog is triggered to make an aggressive response that behavior is being rehearsed again - each time it occurs the dog is getting better and better at being aggressive.  I was hired to help the dog and if I provoke it to bite I am making the dog worse.

In this case the dog was two years old, he had a history completely free of any biting until this incident.  He had been to the groomer many times, the veterinarian many times, to dog training classes, to doggy daycare - he had met and interacted with hundreds, if not thousands of people in his lifetime all without demonstrating any aggression whatsoever.  People had handled his collars thousands of times. So what did happen that day?

A strange man entered his home when he was in the crate, he was scared -- he let the petsitter know that through growling.  (the pet sitter made no efforts to get to know the dog)  The pet sitter opened the crate.  The dog was still scared and ran downstairs to their lower level...the stranger followed.  The dog was still scared and continued to scamper away, the man followed.  The dog was finally cornered - the dog was still scared.  He grabbed the dog by the collar...the dog bite him.  The bite barely broke the skin there was no bruising.

This is a good dog -- it is a dog who when under severe distress bit but bit with a great deal of inhibition.  The dog had said over, and over and over and over again...please I am scared, leave me alone.  The petsitter's intentions were also good (I need to take you for a walk) but his behavior was at fault.  He continued to place social pressure on the dog - instead he should have taken time to get to know the dog and put it at ease.  If he could not put the dog at ease pet professionals should be knowledgeable about how to leash the dog without putting themselves at risk or being bitten.

I reassured my client's that indeed they had a good dog.  We did spend some time working on some obedience behaviors in the home they wanted to polish up.   As pet owners we do need to be concerned about aggressive responses we see in our dogs, we should consult with someone qualified to help us with the problems we are seeing right away.    And it's essential that we are advocates for our dogs - no one needs to enter our homes and poke, prod, pull on or provoke our dogs into biting.  That kind of behavior is not helping our dogs - it is causing harm.

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