But are those dogs really aggressive?
In my experience, a dog will only bite if the person/owner has trigger off a stimuli that causes the dog to react in such a manner, or if the person/owner has disrespected the dog. Whether in terms of space invasion or stepping beyond the comfort zone of the dog, a disrespectful behaviour has been read by the dog. Here, I’m talking about dogs with no psychological issues.
You will notice that I’ve been emphasizing about respecting dogs in almost all my articles. This is because dogs are very sharp when it comes to reading the human body language and associating scent, sound and sight into a command or an action. This does not mean that when we respect dogs first, we become losers or followers. As I’ve explained before, this is pure leadership. Like I always share with others as well as my team of associate behaviourists, we must stay current with the latest research and move on from the old ways. Humility in learning makes one a stronger leader. Here at The Dog Behaviourist, we do not discriminate trainers or behaviourists who do not share our sentiments and methodologies. We are all here for the very same purpose – to educate owners about their dogs and to help dogs understand humans. Therefore, rather than comparing between various trainers and behaviourists, we prefer to study and learn from best practices. We often teach people not to carry unhappy emotions when training dogs because dogs move on fast and they don’t dwell on the negative (although latest studies have shown that dogs do carry certain emotions, but I shall cover that in another article). As we learn the same from dogs, we too, should keep moving on.
I’ve heard many times over that when a person/owner gets bitten, they blame the dog. Seldom do I hear anyone admit that it’s their fault for causing the dog to react in that manner. I shall emphasize that whenever a human gets bitten by a dog, it is always the human’s fault, never the dog. And I’m not even talking about unbalanced dogs or dogs that have been pushed to their psychological limits. I’m talking about our companion dogs as well as feral (stray) dogs. As a canine behaviourist, my very first priority is my safety and the public’s safety, then the dog’s safety. Let’s be really honest; dogs are way smarter than what most people assume them to be! They are intelligent animals and they instinctively know how to take great care of themselves. Therefore, with that level of respect to dogs, I always ensure that when handling a behavioural consultation, I do not act as a hero. I take care to stay sharp and alert. If I’m able to handle a reactive dog without getting bitten, I know that I’ve respected the dog, and the dog is respecting me in return. But if I get bitten, I know that I’ve disrespected the dog’s space or comfort level.
In a recent session I had with a client, her dog Sally (not the dog’s real name) nipped my foot when I entered the house. At the first instance, it may seem like Sally was the one at fault. But in retrospect, I went in the door too fast, knowing that Sally is very nervous and defensive. Due to that sudden movement of the door opening and someone foreign walking in, Sally reacted, communicating to me using her mouth that she’s uncomfortable with me entering the door. This is my first time being nipped by a dog during a behaviour consultation session with a client. It was very clear that I’ve disrespected her space, failed to take heed in her high-tone nervous barking and went ahead to enter the door. When she used her mouth to communicate to me that she’s uncomfortable with my presence, she wasn’t baring her teeth. Her nipping was akin to how a sheepdog nips the heels of the sheep, only harder. The result: a small scratch on my upper foot.
I was once told that as long as you work with dogs, you will get bitten badly at least once. But I still choose not to hold this belief. In all my client consultations, I’ve never been bitten or nipped before. Yes, this was the first, and it shall be the last. All it takes is for us as humans, to learn how to respect dogs first. Be sharp and meticulous in reading and understanding the dog’s body language and its communication to us, and you can prevent not just a bite, but even a small little nip.
To conclude: don’t act a hero. Whether you are a trainer, behaviourist, dog handler, a volunteer in a shelter or an employee in a pet shop, educate yourself with dog’s behaviour and body language. If you are not comfortable handling a certain dog’s behaviour, don’t be too proud to turn away from it. And never be complacent when handling dogs even when you have long term experience in handling dogs. It just means you have more to learn from dogs.