That dog will bite you

Some of my most desperate clients find me because they have a dog that can’t be approached by guests.  Folks who love their pets, but can’t enjoy having visitors over for a barbecue or pool party without securing their dog in a crate or the garage for the duration of the visit.

The legal liability and stress of owning a dog that has or is likely to bite someone without what humans consider “provocation” leads many owners to give their family pet up because they don’t know that in most cases this behavior can be corrected.

My typical first interaction with these clients goes something like this:

Me: “I’m going to go through your back gate and introduce myself to your dogs alone.  Would you mind staying in the house while I do that and I’ll come back around to the door after I’ve finished evaluating how your dogs react to a friendly stranger entering their territory?  You can observe through a window if you like.”

Client: “Oh, that’s a bad idea.  He will bite you.  Nobody can go into that yard without me being with them or he will attack them.”

Me: “That’s okay, I’m used to being bitten.  I’ll be fine, and even if your dog does attack me there won’t be any liability on your part.  I’m taking full responsibility.”

Client: “Well, okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

A few minutes later I am sitting on a patio chair, curb, or even the ground, unharmed, no bites, and the dog is either right next to me being scratched behind the ears or just doing the usual sniffing around to investigate the interesting scents that tend to accompany me from my own dogs and others I might have had training sessions with that day.

The owners are often astonished.

Some twenty plus years ago, not long after I graduated from the police K9 academy, my wife and I were hosting a dinner and card game with our friends who lived next door.  These friends had a Chow-chow that would attack anyone other than the owners who came into the back yard.

Having experienced plenty of dog bites in my K9 training and learned to minimize injury by not flinching or trying to pull away when a bite did occur, I had lost my fear of being bitten.  I don’t enjoy being bitten, but I know it isn’t the end of the world if a dog bites me, and I know how to avoid being bitten in the face or on the hand where there’s a chance of losing a digit.

So I convinced these friends to let me enter their back yard and introduce myself to their Chow-chow alone.

They were astonished to find me sitting on their back porch, unharmed, moments later petting their ferocious canine, which was actually a very affectionate dog.

Since then the scenario has been repeated many, many times with different breeds, from pit bulls to mastiffs to German Shepherds, etc.  I haven’t been bitten yet, but I do carry a medical kit just in case and I can suture my own wounds.  Maybe some day I’ll have to use it, but that day hasn’t come in nearly thirty years so far.

The key to introducing yourself to most of these “aggressive” or “territorial” dogs with the lowest risk of attack is in the following combination:

  1. Making the owner stay inside, and away from the introduction area.
  2. Having the confidence to approach the dog with “no fear”.

Many times the anxiety of the owner at the thought that their dog might bite someone is easily sensed by their dog.  When a dog senses that anxiety, it has no idea that the anxiety is about it biting someone.  It just knows that its beloved human is upset, and dogs, being the intense empathy mirrors they are, become anxious themselves as a result.

Not knowing the level of anxiety the owner may have, a professional and experienced trainer will often keep the owner out of the picture for the initial introduction to a dog that is known to be aggressive toward strangers.

Anxiety and fear is the trigger that results in one of two responses in animals: fight or flight.  If the animal is in an enclosed area it will most likely fight.

“No fear” doesn’t mean being courageous and approaching the dog in spite of your fear.  Courage, in this case, is the same as foolishness and will get you bit sooner or later, probably sooner.  Any fear and lack of confidence on the trainer’s part is going to be sensed as anxiety or insecurity by the dog and its own anxiety or dominance tendencies will escalate as a result.

“No fear” means you know what a dog bite feels like, you understand there is a risk that you are going to get bitten, and you know that if that happens you can easily endure the pain without flinching, pulling away, or panicking.

The inability to remain calm during a dog attack is what turns minor punctures and bruises into massive lacerations, jagged rips, and sometimes fatal blood loss.

Staying calm and moving with logic and purpose to disengage an attacking dog will typically make these incidents relatively insignificant without any trips to the emergency room or animal bite investigations by over-zealous city officials.

Being mentally prepared for an attack without fearing the attack is the ultimate attack preventative, and the hardest skill for a dog trainer to master.

That said, if a dog has actually been trained to attack, all bets are off.  Professionally trained military and police dogs do not typically bite out of fear or anxiety.  They bite because it’s their job, they enjoy it, and it is nothing more than a glorious game of tug of war for them.  The more you try to disengage them the harder they will clamp dog and the more they will try to get a better grip.  In that case, your best way to minimize injury is to hold perfectly still and wait for the dog to release on its own or at its handler’s command.