'Dog Bites' by Dawn Cowan

Have you ever been bitten? I don’t mean by a fly or other insect. I mean by a dog. I have. My family has bred and shown purebred dogs my entire life. I have handled everything from a Miniature Longhaired Dachshund to the dreaded “Pit Bull” (American Staffordshire Terrier) and Rottweiler. None of those dogs are the ones who bit me. I was bitten by a Chihuahua and I deserved it. Over four MILLION people get bit by dogs every year. How many of those people could have saved themselves the pain and occasionally death, by following simple safety rules? How many dog’s lives could be saved?

I have been in dogs for 42 years now. I was 16 at the only time I got bit. It was summer and we were going to a dog show. We had a maxi van and so we were travelling with friends. The back of the van was already loaded with wire crates full of Siberian Huskies, my parent’s breed of choice in the 1980’s. I was loading my friend’s Chihuahua into the middle of the van. The poor dog took one look at the Huskies staring at him like lunch and didn’t see any cages between he and them he just saw danger. He bit me on the hand and literally bounced off the sides of the van trying to escape. We were able to catch the poor guy and get him safely in his crate, he didn’t show that weekend, or ever again. My hand was fine and I had learned a valuable lesson to think before I did anything that involved dogs. I still load the smallest dogs into a vehicle while they are in their crates to give them that sense of safety and security they need.

The “bully” breeds are the breeds with the worst reputations. Pit Bulls, Bullmastiffs, Rottweilers, and the like do have more of a chance of severely injuring or even killing you. Pit Bulls and Rotties are number one and two respectively in fatalities by dog bite. This is not a breed issue. The myth of the “locking jaw” is just that, a myth, as I will explain momentarily. These large and aggressive seeming breeds tend to be owned by large and aggressive people. People who do not tend to train their dogs, or if they do they are trained to do exactly what they have done-kill. Again, this has nothing to do with the breed and less to do with the dog. A dog will do what it is trained to do. An untrained dog, if confused or afraid, especially if their owner seems angry, worried or scared; will bite. A dog the size of most of the guardian breeds, the large bully breeds-bred to guard and protect us, can kill you simply because of their size. The mouth of a Rottweiler can fit around the thigh of a full grown man.

The term Pit Bull has been used to describe so many terrier breeds that it is difficult to know which one you are talking about; but, in general, it is the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The AmStaff is a gentle breed that was bred for a vicious job. They were bred to fight, and kill if possible, other animals-normally dogs, in a pit. However, the AmStaff today is a loyal companion and determined vermin killer. Better known to “dog people” as a goofy dog, most people who see one are instantly scared due to their reputation from media and film. This springs, as I said earlier, from bad training and irresponsible breeding that has led to aggressive animals being allowed near vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Why is the “Pit Bull” bite worse than even a Rottweiler’s? It comes from the way they were domesticated. Most dogs who were domesticated kept their natural hunting instincts. It worked well with humans and served its purpose well. Any Terrier, not just the Pit, but ANY Terrier bite is more dangerous for this very reason. Terriers were bred, taught and bred some more, over thousands of years to hunt vermin and protect us from the disease they carried or losing our crops to them. Pits were bred from these Terriers. Why is this bit so dangerous? It’s really not the bite, it’s the method. A “normal” dog will run down, hamstring its prey, and then go for the throat; much like the wolves they were bred from. A Terrier stalks its prey in the same way, but it kills it differently. There is no second bite with a Terrier. Their original prey was so small and so quick that a second bite often meant losing. So they bite once, grab wherever they can, and shake. It is the strength of that shake, the tearing it induces, and the blood loss that happens that causes the damage and death that you hear about.

So, how do we prevent dog bites? It is the hardest simple thing there is. We remember that, no matter how much we love them, they are dogs. Dogs do not understand what we are saying besides a few simple commands. They do not understand raised voices and quick movements. They only know that their instincts tell them this means threat and they attack threats. Dogs don’t understand that small children don’t know better than to poke or pull on ears and tails. They don’t understand that older children, who should know better, can be cruel on accident almost. A dog will just attack its tormentor. Sometimes a dog will growl before attacking, sometimes it doesn’t. NEVER ignore a growl. If your dog is a “talker,” you know that there is a difference between a grown and a growl. A growl means “No, get away, I don’t like this.” Whatever is causing the growl should be removed and the dog needs to be corrected, not punished, corrected. A punishment at that point tells the dog to not warn you next time. A correction tells the dog that it is not allowed to do harm.

Find an obedience class. Take it. Everyone in the home. EVERYONE. The busy dad. The small child. Anyone who is left at anytime as responsible for the dog needs to take the dog through basic obedience. This will establish dominance. At no point should the dog feel it is more important than a person. Dominance battles in dog packs are fights, do not set your child or your girlfriend up to be in a dominance fight with your dog.

Move slowly and confidently around all dogs. While Pitties and Rotties lead in fatalities they do not lead in the number of bites. Small dogs like Chihuahuas, Dachshunds and Cocker Spaniels do. This is because they can often be frightened just by the very size of you. Bending down and looming over the top of a dog is also a bad idea, kneel down and present yourself at the dog’s level. Petting a dog is an invasion of its personal space. Present your hand so they can get the scent of you and let them make the first move to be petted, if they don’t then forcing the issue will put them on the defensive. If you see the whites of a dogs eyes and/or it is growling at you move away. Do not jerk or move quickly just back off. Allow the dog to calm down. Do not try again. The dog has clearly said no in its language, it meant it and it will defend itself if it has to.

No animal understands “Don’t hurt me and I won’t hurt you” better than a dog. They are territorial, defensive, pack animals who are also amazing companions and workers for us, their human care takers. However, we need to be aware of what kind of animal we are taking care of and make certain that we treat them with the respect and concern they deserve. Not every person should have an Am Staff. Young children shouldn’t be trusted around animals they don’t know or they don’t know how to take care of. Dogs should not be left alone with the sick or the elderly. Any dog can and will bite. That bite could maim or kill someone. You will lose your dog if that happens. Train yourself. Train your family. Train your dog. Maintain that training, enforce it all of the time with consistency and that will never be an issue you have to deal with.