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When your dog bites

BY NICK BARNETT
Last updated 12:29 29/07/2010

A few minutes ago, my dog bit someone. A tiny bite, but it feels awful to be the owner in that situation. That it happened was fully my responsibility. Sometimes (not this time), a dog bite is caused by the victim. But so often, the focus of blame goes on the dog, when it shouldn't.

Connor with ballWorking at my desk at home, I heard Phoebe start barking. A man had come on to our fenced deck, seen the sign that has a dog picture on it and that asks people to close the gate, and closed it.

Phoebe has never bitten anything that wasn't in a food bowl but she's a dog, and if someone comes to the door, she barks.

The noise roused Connor from his sleep and he started yipping too. Both dogs were in the hall, barking at the front door pane, through which I could see a man in courier driver's colours.

"Won't be a moment," I called as I tried to shepherd the dogs behind a baby gate, as is my habit when someone firsts comes to the door. "It's okay, I've shut the gate," the man called back.

And, with the dogs still free, I opened the door. Mistake.

Connor bites ballThe dogs ran out to see him. Connor, jumpy with excitement, went behind and nipped the man through his long pants, on the back of his ankle. "Hey, I'm being bitten!" he said. The man wasn't happy but he did laugh as if to tell me it wasn't a big deal.

Well, it's not that big a deal because Connor is the size of a small cat and though his nip seems to be aimed generally at clothing, it does sometimes go through and you certainly feel it. It would probably make a child cry, though Connor has never acted like that with a youngster. The only recipients of his nips, so far, have been me and my partner. And now this morning's courier man.

The man stepped back from the dogs. I picked Connor up and signed for the courier pack, and the drama was over.

But it's a worry. And just to avoid a slew of comments giving me training advice, be assured we know what we have to do with Connor, and to protect people from his nip. We just haven't done it well enough yet, or successfully enough. Just a couple of sessions of having someone knocking at the door while the dogs are controlled from inside would probably make a big difference. We just keep putting off those sessions.

My point is that it wasn't Connor's fault. He's a breed with a watchdog instinct. He's more than averagely aggressive with other dogs, but generally fine with people.

Which is the kind of comment you see on news stories, after a dog has just bitten someone badly.

If Connor had been a big, powerful, scary dog, then the courier man probably wouldn't have laughed. (Mind you, I probably wouldn't have been so lax with the dogs.)

Today, I could start to imagine the guilty and shocked feelings I'd have if a dog of mine bit someone and really hurt them. Fellow dog owners, have you had the same fears? Or been through the experience of having your dog hurt someone?

Sometimes when we're walking the dogs and a child approaches to pet them, I hold my breath. Often, kids haven't been told to ask permission first, to approach carefully, to not offer an open hand or touch a dog behind its head, or to make no sudden lunges. My dogs are easygoing in those situations, but like many dogs they're capable of being spooked, and that could lead to a growl, a bite, a crying child, an accusatory parent, officialdom, fines... It all plays out quickly and scarily in my imagination.

Then I read the other day of that poor petshop worker attacked by a Rottweiler. The woman got too close in the wrong way, and despite her pain and injury she took responsibility for what happened.

That was a rare event. I wonder how many of us would question our own conduct if it had helped lead to a dog attack against us?

But also, how many of us dog owners would shoulder responsibility if our dog had bitten someone who hadn't contributed at all to the attack? I believe we should do so.

So this weekend, in our house, Connor will start getting the front-door visitor training he needs. We'll look at other methods too. And me, I'm relearning not to let the dogs run free around a visitor until they're settled.

My dog bit, but it was my fault.

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95 comments
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n   #1   12:38 pm Jul 29 2010

I'd certainly be honest if I was in the wrong. I've done it once and have the scar to prove it (and it was a dog the size of connor..) and wow do you learn from it ;p I think the big thing is not assuming your dog will be good because 'it always is'. My dogs are great with visitors, they love them. But last week when a friend came around Otis started to attack his shoes. I was surprised and kept an eye on him while telling him off. He got more bravdo going on and was promptly dragged off and locked in the shed. It's only the second time in his 7 years he's done this. You always need to be aware.

JeM   #2   12:39 pm Jul 29 2010

I don't really see this one as your fault personally. If you have a fenced property, a sign notifying that there are dogs and people still come in before you can restrain the dogs, then it's up to them from that point I think.

By all means if you invite someone onto your property and allow your dogs to run around then it becomes your problem...

This reminds me of an article I read years ago about a dog who was put down because it killed a cat. The dog was fenced in its own property and the neighbours cat jumped the fence and walked right into the dog. I have always felt that was hugely unfair to the dog and its family who did what was right by having the dog restrained on a section.

So ultimately, if I were out with my dog in public, or invited friends over and my dogs bit then yes, I would take ALL responsibility. However if a courier could see me coming, see I was about to restrain the dogs behind another gate and still came on the property, I think that would be his problem. IMHO!

Labs   #3   12:44 pm Jul 29 2010

Your dog (no matter the size) has bitten someone! there ends the lesson! it also bites you and your partner? the dog has issues, sort them out or put it down. This behavior will not just go away it needs to be addressed before it bites someone else - gate or no gate. Imagine if it was a child in your family and the wee tiny dog bites the wee tiny nose of the child!

Lee   #4   12:51 pm Jul 29 2010

I have an Irish Wolfhound who has never bitten anyone in the whole 5 years that she has shared her life with me. As the owner of a giant breed of dog, the majority of people we encounter on our walks are great. We do encounter several small dogs - some can be really friendly and quiet and some are just annoying with their behaviour. Most owners do nothing to address this. Why is it that owner's of small dogs seem to think it is OK for their dog to bite, yap, pull on the lead, nip etc. It is not OK and the when this type of behaviour occurs, it needs to be addressed immediately. There are several good books on dog training, several by Cesar Milan, Jan Fennell (The Dog Listener) is excellent. You should know about dog behaviour, interaction with other dogs and people, how to be top dog before you contemplate getting any dog. As you say, you are lucky your dog is small.

Karen   #5   12:58 pm Jul 29 2010

It's a shame to see you making the all too common mistake that a small dog only has a small bite. A 2kg lap dog can kill you. Don't believe me? Google the 1984 Cincinnati Law Review which included a list of dogs that had killed in the space of a year.

Sydney Silkies had killed 7 people. We've known this stuff for decades so what's taking so long for the dog-owning public to get it?

It's the nature of the incident that dictates the severity of the injury, not the type (or size) of the dog. Granted, a Great Dane can obviously bite harder than a Chihuahua but when a Sydney Silkie can kill a human why quibble about jaw strength when obviously we need to understand why a dog bites in the first place?

matt   #6   12:59 pm Jul 29 2010

Sounds like you could benefit from this book: http://www.trademe.co.nz/Books/Nonfiction/Pets/Dogs/auction-306629884.htm

I can get you in touch with the author if you like. These problems are not hard to fix in young dogs. We sometimes just need a little help.

Angie   #7   01:05 pm Jul 29 2010

My dog has not bitten anyone but he has been aggressive with other dogs. I have taken responsibility for this by ensuring he wears a muzzle when off lead, even though he has not been classified as menacing or dangerous. However, he is a large breed and if he ever did attack anyone would be called a 'pitbull type' dog, even though he looks nothing like a pitbull. And probably have to be put down.

So what I found most disturbing in this blog was the comment that "it's not that big a deal because Connor is the size of a small cat" and by implication the bite was more 'acceptable'.

A dog bite is a dog bite, regardless of the size of the dog. Admittedly a large dog could do more damage but a small dog could also do serious damage if they bit a child or someone who could not fight back so easily.

No dog bite is acceptable regardless of the size of the dog.

tinnyliz   #8   01:13 pm Jul 29 2010

Yes I sympathise. We have the cutest little Aussie terrier who is 7 years old now, but when small children see him out walkies, they say "Puppy puppy puppy" because he is so cute. But actually he isn't so cute at all. He thinks he is a rottie or something big and fierce. We keep a very tight rein on him at all times and to our knowledge, until a couple of weeks ago, he had never bitten anyone in his life. We had our baby grandchildren visiting from Oz and I don't know what the just-2 year old was doing to the dog but all of a sudden there was this awful commotion of dog growling, child screaming and someone saying the dog's bitten someone. Sure enough, he had jumped up and nipped our grandson on the cheek just below the eye, enough to make a wee mark but not enough to draw blood. I could see the headlines already - dog bites toddler in the face etc etc. But the fact is, dogs are dogs and they behave like dogs. Just like they bark, that's what dogs do. Even the cat would've responded in a similar way if provoked enough by a toddler or anyone else for that matter. No amount of training is going to stop a dog instinctively reacting to a situation when it suddenly feels threatened, and it's up to we humans to learn and understand how they behave and prevent those situations, rather than expect to humanise the dog and make it conform to the way our society behaves. I know of a 14 year old golden lab who was part of the family, never hurt a fly in its life, who suddenly turned on the toddler in the family when she crept up behind it while it was eating and gave it a fright. All dogs are capable of vicious and nasty behaviour, given the right (or wrong) circumstances.

KJ   #9   01:16 pm Jul 29 2010

I was a Postie many many years ago now ;] And the scar I still have on my outer knee is from some Grannies little dog jumping up and nipping me! It used to be annoying every time and this time got me. Wow did I try to get it with my reaction leg - it hurt and bleed lots for a little cut. Agree with Lee and Karen about the little yappy misbehaved dogs !!

Sydneysider   #10   01:21 pm Jul 29 2010

What to do? I remember our Lab Harry she was sleeping in the car in the garage when a courier ran through the garage (the garage was attached to the bottom of the house and and front door was next to the garage)to knock on the door that lead from the garage to the house (heaven know why he did not use the front door like everyone else). Harry must have got a fright as she woke up, jumped out of the car barking and bit the courier man on the backside. While we were shocked at Harry's behavour, and I must admit it was a chunky bite, was she really to blame? The courier should have used the front door, as a stranger he did technically enter the house and Harry was only protecting her house. When do you blame the dog? and when do you blame the person?


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