Dog Bites and Human Expectations

Here in Arizona, where we now spend the winters, we’ve read about two serious attacks by dogs on people.  One was fatal, the other resulted in permanent disfigurement of a four year old little boy.  The dog responsible for the fatal attack was euthanized, while the fate of the dog that maimed the child is yet to be determined and has created somewhat of a furor.

The child’s baby sitter had taken him to the house of a relative where the dog was kept on a chain.  The little boy ran past the dog within the radius of the chain.  According to a newspaper article in the Arizona Republic, the dog caught the boy from behind, pulled him to the ground and attacked his face.

Supposedly, a bone was lying near the dog and the speculation is that was the dog’s motivation for the attack.  Our only source of information is the newspaper article, but even from just this brief description, we can think of several other possibilities, especially given the fact that the dog had recently killed another family dog.
The child underwent 5 ½ hours of surgery for facial injuries that were said to be so severe, medical personnel with lots of experience dealing with traumatic injuries were sickened. The child is still breathing and being fed through tubes until more surgeries are completed to repair his injuries.

A court hearing later this month will determine whether the dog will be euthanized.  Interestingly, there seems to be more support for keeping the dog alive, than there is for the child and his family – or at least the dog’s supporters are more vocal.   Apparently, more money is being raised through online sites for the legal defense of the dog than to help pay the child’s medical expenses. 

In the fatal attack, a 77 year old woman was bitten in the abdomen while feeding her daughter’s dogs.  The woman’s husband reports the dog had previously shown aggressive behavior, and had ‘nipped’ some of his daughter’s friends.  News reports state she was on “blood thinners” and had a heart and possibly other medical conditions that could have contributed to why the bite resulted in a fatality.

In this case, the implication was that the same bite(s) in another individual may not have been fatal (an autopsy is being done to determine cause of death).  Yet this dog was euthanized even before cause of death is known, without the furor and the controversy the attack on the child produced.

Why the difference in these two cases?  First, the older woman’s family requested the dog be euthanized.  Apparently the owner of the dog that attacked the child (who is reported to be the mother of the baby sitter) has not requested euthanasia.  But what does this say about the expectations we have of dogs?

A “sacred cow” belief about dogs is that it’s normal for them to protect their food and other things that are important to them.  Yet children, and adults, take food and toys away from dogs every day and aren’t mauled.  Granted, it’s not something anyone would advise a child, in particular, to do, but it happens, every single day, and we can safely say the majority of dogs don’t disfigure a child in response.

Family dogs manage to figure out a way to share toys and other items, and when disputes do arise more often than not they are settled without bloodshed.  We’ve certainly seen dogs injured fairly severely from fights among both family and unfamiliar dogs, but most dogs don’t kill other dogs.  We’ve seen only a few dog-dog fatality cases in our practice. 

So what is “normal” social behavior for dogs?  Is it “normal” for dogs to kill or severely injure someone in response to a relatively harmless threat?  Would not a growl, a snarl, or an inhibited bite be the “normal” response for a dog in these contexts rather than a full blown, all out, almost impossible to stop attack?  Don’t pet behavior and training professionals work hard to teach dogs to tolerate their food and toys being taken away?  Shouldn’t we expect dogs to allow us to do this? 

It seems humans are almost schizophrenic about their attitudes.  On the one hand, we say “don’t bother him while he’s eating”, yet we aren’t happy if our dogs threaten us over food, toys, or space.

These are intriguing and thought provoking questions, and ones behavior scientists can shed some light on.  Come join us to hear two Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists who have studied and worked with dogs and their behaviors chat about Social Roles and Relationships in Dogs. 

This CAABChat takes place Thursday, March 27th at 2pm Pacific Daylight time (3 Mountain, 4 Central, 5 Eastern).  The live event is FREE, and the recorded replay can be pre-purchased for a mere $9 (the price increases to $18 the day after the CAABChat).  Members of Behavior Education Network have access to ALL Chat replays as a member benefit, so consider joining BEN today!  

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  • Kathryn

    Reply Reply

    Dogs bite to the extent of their intent and those that are overly assertive do not have the skills to control the ‘situation’ without undue or excessive reaction.

    (accidents excepted — like the beaver that bit the man (hit the femoral artery) who bled to death – could well have been the case of the older woman with the abdominal injury.

  • Suzanne and Dan

    Reply Reply

    Kathyrn – thanks for your comment. We agree that dogs have exquisite control over the force with which they use their mouths to bite. And we also agree that the degree of force doesn’t always correlate well with the extent of the injury – we had a legal case years ago where the dog had delivered a relatively inhibited bite to a woman’s face, but because a tooth caught in her tear duct, did much more damage than normal. We disagree however with your assertion about dogs not having the skills to control a situation. Dogs make choices. Some dogs choose to hurt their victims, sometimes quite severely. The other behaviors they could have chosen – retreat, growl, etc. are ALL within the behavioral repertoire of ANY dog. There’s not a dog we know of who doesn’t know how to growl. Whether he chooses to growl, or bite instead, is a different story. And the factors that go into influencing what choices he makes can be quite complex, some of which are about the dog’s characteristics, some of which have to do with the bite context and some have to do with the victim’s behavior

  • Kim

    Reply Reply

    I hadn’t heard of this case until I received your newsletter. I searched for news articles afterward. I was saddened to see there there were numerous articles about the fight to save the dog but nowhere did I find on how to contribute to the child’s undoubtedly high medical expenses.

  • Evelyn Haskins

    Reply Reply

    It seems to me that there is a lot of difference between ‘normal’ and acceptable.

    As ‘they’ say, dogs are domesticated wolves, and as such I think, that they shoud still be subjected to active human selection.

    We will contine to get dogs whose behaviour is unacceptable in a domestic situation, and it seems right and proper to at least remove these individuals from the ‘gene pool’.

    They do NOT deserve ‘punishment’ or even incarceration, but I do think that euthanasia is the kindest solution.

    Then I like to balance this with the high number of beautiful healthy dogs whose only ‘crime’ is inability to find a caring home it seems almost cruel to spend so much money, time and emotion over an individual with such serious anti-human-social behaviours.

  • Suzanne and Dan

    Reply Reply

    I know Kim. Sad, isn’t it.

  • Suzanne and Dan

    Reply Reply

    We agree with you Evelyn. And ever since our dogs were attacked by a loose dog in 2009, and I (SH) broke my hand trying to save my dogs from further injury, the question we always ask ourselves – Would we want THIS particular dog living in our neighborhood? The answer is no. If the courts order the dog that attacked the little boy to be euthanized, and the owner appeals the ruling, the dog will end up staying in the shelter for months and months as the case winds its way through the appeals system. That’s not going to do the dog any good, particularly since euthanasia is likely to be the ultimate outcome anyway after a protracted legal battle.

  • Nice post, my belief is that it is never acceptable for a dog to touch you with their teeth. Extensive bite inhibition training is essential. It is important to educate every one who is caring for a child that a dog,food, and a child is a very dangerous combination. Thanks for sharing.

  • What a terrible story – here in the UK the dogs would have been put to sleep right away. That poor child. šŸ™

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