Saturday, May 21, 2011

Preventing Dog Bites

This week was National Dog Bite Prevention Week, a topic that is dear to my heart - four years ago, we adopted Sadie, who soon began exhibiting fear-aggression.  From day one, it was paramount that we prevent the possibility of any dog bites, in addition to working on training and socialization to rehabilitate her.

This happy girl was once not so happy and confident!
Sadie's fear aggression was not the worst case nor was it the mildest - she never has bitten anyone since we've had her (though I have no idea her history before we adopted her at 1 1/2 years old).  But from day one, she showed a tendency to snap at people when she was scared, which was all the time, with everyone (except me - she's even snapped at the hubbie a few times).  I do believe the only reason why a bite never occurred is due to our management of her when she was in situations that we knew caused her anxiety and fear. 

Most advice out there on dog bites comes from the perspective of how to prevent yourself from being bit.  Not much is covered on how to manage your dog if you worry that the worst may happen.  From experience, I know that bite prevention management is possible.  We did it - without a muzzle, without a trainer (though had she bit, I think we would have gone the next step to seek professional help).

The first and foremost rule is to never allow anyone to pet your dog while out of the house.  When you have a dog who is fearful of people, it is important to only allow people to touch her that she knows, that she is comfortable with and to allow her to get comfortable with those people in her own time and way.  I have lost count of the times that I have told people "Sorry but my dog isn't always comfortable with new people".  You don't have to say she's fearful or that she's aggressive but you do need to say no.  Four years later, I am confident that Sadie is at the point where she will not snap - the reason for this confidence is because I see her tail wagging happily when we pass people on a walk (we've shown her people = affection + treats).  But do I let strangers pet her?  No.  It's simply better to be safe than sorry, no matter how confident I am that she is mostly rehabilitated.

The second rule we instituted to prevent any bites from happening is how we ask people to interact with her when they come to the house.  If you are new to our house, we ask that you refrain from petting Sadie for the first 5 minutes.  We ask that you treat her as you would a skittish horse (this is the best and most effective analogy that we've ever come up with to make people understand her needs when meeting new people).  The #1 rule is to go slow.  Let her sniff you out (I tell people she is just making sure you're not a serial killer come to do us harm, which generally gets a laugh).  And when she has finished sniffing and the 5 minutes have passed, you can pet her but please pet her on her side versus her head (touching a dog's head signals dominance and fearful dogs especially can have a problem with this type of petting from someone they don't know).  After four years of requiring this type of interaction when Sadie meets new people, she is now a confident and happy dog that engages with our visitors and seeks their attention.  I do still ask people to meet her in this manner.  Why?  Because it's on her terms and when something that made her fearful in the past is introduced to her on the terms that she is most comfortable with, I'm setting her up for a successful interaction.

Rule #3?  Stay away from crowds.   A large group of new people can still make Sadie uncomfortable to this day.  So I keep her away from any outside gathering of people where she may have a negative reaction.  Yes, this means she can't go to the concert in the park with us but she is a happier dog for it. 

The bottom line?  I had to put my selfish notions of what type of dog I wanted aside and embrace her for the dog she was/is, while at the same time managing her behavior and working on training and socialization to help her realize her doggie potential.  This meant for us that we don't go to campgrounds (mostly now because she will bark and disturb others but at one point, we were concerned about controlling her interactions with the children that run around those campgrounds, often unsupervised), it means we don't take her to crowded events.   Each time we do something new, we set her up for success rather than pushing her too far.

I am happy to say that I can't even remember the last time Sadie snapped at anyone.  One year? Two?  While she still runs and barks at people who come over, she is excited to see them rather than scared.  I have redefined her from fearful to sometimes shy and sensitive.  We have taught her that being by our side is the best place to be when she's just not sure of the situation.  It was a long road but ultimately a successful one and I believe the main reason for its success was that we stuck to these rules, no matter how far we think she has improved.  Because once they bite, it's a whole different story.  Especially when you're talking about a pitbull mix. 


  1. Very admirable. I am impressed at the years and wise, loving nurture you have invested in Sadie. She sounds like a wonderful dog! Visiting from the Pet Blogger Hop :)

  2. Hi Y'all,

    It never ceases to amaze me at the stupidity of people regarding animals.

    Y'all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to teach so many owners that there is no Bad Dog ...only bad owners. With love, patience and knowledge every single pet will be the best. All of them are worth the try!!!!
    I love this blog ...... Congratulations !!!

  4. I'm loving all these great posts about dog bites. It's not an area where I think I could contribute much since I have almost no experience. While my dog Shiva was definitely human-reactive I wouldn't label her fear-aggressive. She never snapped or came close to biting, but I do believe if we hadn't handled the situation like we did and found an awesome trainer, it could have devolved to that point.

    What you said about putting aside your selfish notions of what you wanted her to be and accepting her as she is really hit home. There was a lot of stuff I had to put aside in order to look after Shiva's needs. Luckily we now have a dog we can take most places under most circumstances. She still barks at strange men who stare at her, but then, I would bark at them too.

    Great post, really. I may have to link to it!

  5. Thanks for the great comments!

    Kristine - I feel likewise about your posts - the one today on vaccinations was so timely as we had just gone through that process with Hurley. I'm so glad there's a great blogger community where we can all learn from each other and contribute to us all being the best doggie parents we can be!