A Bit of a Bite Problem

He's a lover, not a biter

Last night I got a call from a gentleman wanting to surrender his dog. As a volunteer for a Boxer Rescue organization for the past 8 1/2 years, I've received a lot of calls like this one. Sometimes we can take the dog and sometimes we can't. In this case, we can't.

The dog has bitten the man's son three times, including once in the face. The man has two other children and the dog does not have a problem with the other two kids. But the middle child, the one that has been bitten three times, slammed the car door on the dog's foot (leading to the first bite incident) and the dog has not enjoyed the kid's company since that day. Now, it could be that the dog truly just does not trust this one particular kid and that he would be fine with all other kids. But still, we can't take a dog that has bitten. For starters, our attorney and our insurance agent would both go into convulsions if they found out that we'd taken in a dog with three bites on his record. And next, we believe in full disclosure and so . . . who would read this dog's description on our website and, knowing that the dog has already proven that he is willing to use his teeth, adopt him? It's just the unfortunate reality of the situation, not to mention the tremendous liability that comes part and parcel with such a dog.

When I told the man that we could not take the dog into rescue he said, "But I thought that's what rescues are for." Well, no. We take in dogs that need a home (usually because the owner is moving, has no time for the dog, is losing their home to foreclosure, is being shipped to Iraq, etc.). We don't take in dogs that are a danger to their current families, and place them in other families. And before you suggest the old "home in the country," I can tell you that we've learned from experience that there is no home in existence where a dog will never, ever see a child.

Doesn't it seem like dog bites are becoming more and more prevalent? I have no idea if the actual bite statistics support that premise or not. I visit cnn.com at lunchtime and check the headlines. In recent weeks, quite a few of those headlines have pertained to dog bite incidents.

I do have a few theories . . .
  1. People are buying puppies that are far too young. I read a news story earlier this week about a baby that was killed by the family's puppy when the baby was left unattended in a swing. In some versions of the story, the puppy was stated to be six weeks old. A six-week-old puppy does not have bite inhibition. He has no idea what the force of his jaws can do. That's why puppies need to be with their littermates until at least eight weeks of age (many experts say that twelve weeks would be even better). Littermates chew on each other. They learn, "hey, that hurts." They learn important lessons from their mama that no human can teach them. We have seen a number of dogs in the rescue that were sold far too early, and those dogs invariably have issues. It's a mistake to think that you need to get a puppy early so that you can train it "your way."

  2. Dog owners are eschewing formal training. I know that everyone likes to think they are an expert trainer, but there is more to training than teaching a dog to sit. If you can find a good trainer who is well versed in modern canine behavior theory, the classes will be worth every penny. They are invaluable for socialization, as well as for developing communication with your dog.

  3. Many dog owners make the mistake of giving their dogs far too many privileges. Dog, like children, need boundaries. The good news is that dogs that have gotten too big for their fur (you know, the type that growls at you when you tell them to get off the couch on which you've allowed them to lounge all this time) can usually be rehabilitated using the NILIF program. It's a boot camp approach for pooches, if you will.

  4. And finally, I think many people expect far too much from their dogs. They expect their dogs to put up with ANYthing. I have a three-year-old and I know what kids can do to dogs. Not maliciously, but certainly ON PURPOSE. If you find my daughter in time-out, nine times out of ten it is because she has wronged one of the dogs in some way. Every dog has a point at which they will bite. Don't let your child be the one to find out exactly where that threshold is.

I do think it's possible for some dogs to suffer from what we call idiopathic aggression, where there's no known cause. I believe that some dogs are just wired wrong, just like some humans are wired wrong. Cesar Milan can't fix a dog like that, nor can anyone else.

A co-worker asked me what I would do if one of my dogs bit my child. A tough question, to be sure. I adopted Gideon a year and a half ago, when he was around three years old. I think it's easier to evaluate an adult dog and make a determination about his temperament than it is to make the same determination about a puppy. You'll have to forgive me for my anti-puppy bias. I've fostered a lot of puppies over the years (and raised one from eight weeks myself), and let's just say that the bloom is off the rose on that one. I really prefer adult dogs that are housebroken, tolerant, housebroken, trained, housebroken, etc. I found all of those qualities in Gideon. I have yet to hear him growl since he has lived with us. Does that mean he won't bite? Well, I suppose he could, but I've done my best to stack the odds in the other direction. My other dog, Karl, is ten years old and at this point in his life I doubt he would bother. If the kid is bugging him, he gets up and moves (and she heads off to time-out). To answer the question, though: if one of my dogs bit my child, the first question is one of severity. There are well-defined bite levels, starting with a nip that doesn't break the skin and escalating all the way up to death of the victim. For a minor bite, I would take the dog to the vet to determine if the dog had a medical problem that was causing him pain (and I think this is the case more often than people realize). If that wasn't the cause, I would probably take the dog to a behaviorist for a thorough evaluation. If the bite was severe and seemed to indicate a permanent crack in the dog's temperament, I would euthanize the dog. I would NOT give the dog away to someone else. I just don't think it's right to foist your liability off on someone else.

As for the gentleman who called to surrender his young Boxer, I definitely feel badly for him. I wish I had some sort of option to offer people in his predicament. As rescue volunteers we get a lot of calls like this, and we are always grateful that the caller is honest about their dog's history. And frankly, I think most of them are well aware (in advance) that the rescue can't take their dog. I really can't blame them for trying - in most cases they really are trying to do the right thing, whatever the right thing may be.

I don't claim to have any particularly sage advice for anyone who is in the market for a dog. I'm not an expert by any stretch . . . just a dog lover sharing what I've learned in eight years of rescue work, lots of weekends spent in canine behavior seminars, and more obedience classes than I can count. And, I have to credit my countless foster dogs for all they have taught me. Now, can I interest someone in a naughty little deaf girl who needs a home?


Kristy said…
I love the bottom photo!! I have two Bostons and they do the same thing. My husband and I call them a double decker bus! It's so cute!

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