Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I'm Such a Crank

So that whole dog-gets-rescued-from-freezing-river-and-proceeds-to-bite-pretty-anchor-in-the-face thing. Scary, right? Kind of puts all those hilarious outtakes of reporters getting spit on by camels or goosed by geese into perspective.

I've been paying pretty close attention to this story through the various dog trainer blogs I follow, and I've noticed a difference in how dog trainers are responding versus how lay dog owners are responding. The trainers, rightly to my mind, are generally focusing on how this dog gave out multiple signals that he was stressed and was about to bite. Every human on that stage failed to notice clear signals that the dog needed space: showing the teeth, trying to look away from the anchor, and even growling. The dog also gave signals that would be less clear to a layperson--the "whale eye" (rolling the eyes and showing the whites), licking his lips, and yawning--and we can hardly expect non-dog people to understand those signals (although any parent who thinks it's okay for his or her kids to pet strange dogs should take time to learn them). But we should all know that a dog who is growling is telling us that he needs space.

The lay dog owners, on the other hand, often want to either "not place blame" or want to lay it at the feet of the anchor who, yes, should've known better than to put her face right into the face of a strange dog. One owner wanted to do both; she insisted that we not place blame at the same time that she blamed the anchor for not knowing better. What she meant was that she didn't want to blame the owner. Another owner listed a litany of dog bites she has been involved in or aware of in an attempt to make the case for the owner's innocence; she only emphasized that she herself is an irresponsible owner. 

I understand the owners' impulse to blame the anchor and not the dog owner. We are, of course, owners, too. We've all been in situations where our dogs suddenly did something that we didn't see coming--not that there were no warning signs, but we simply didn't recognize them. That's precisely why those of us who read dog trainer blogs read those very blogs! We've also heard the horror stories in which the owner did everything possible to keep a dog and the people around the dog safe, but was ignored, resulting in a bite. We've seen cases in which a municipality overreacts to a single incident with mitigating factors and orders that a good dog be euthanized, or even ignores the fact that there never was an incident but uses breed-specific legislation to condemn a good dog. That ultimately is our fear: That the owner will be forced to euthanize a pet he presumably loves as much as we love our own dogs.

And, oh boy, do we LOVE our dogs. It breaks our collective heart to share this owner's pain.

That's why this owner in particular, and we as owners in general, have to take responsibility for what happened in that television studio. Yes, the anchor (who reportedly is herself a dog owner) absolutely should not have put her face right into that dog's face. But it was the owner's responsibility to ask the anchor to back off. First and foremost, we as owners are responsible for being able to recognize our dogs’ signals so that we can warn strangers when it isn’t safe to approach. When they ignore our warnings or don’t give us a chance to give a warning at all, as in the case of a child who runs up from nowhere and hugs a strange dog, they have to accept the consequences. But our responsibility as owners comes first.

I haven't always lived up to that responsibility. Just ask my poor Dad and his index finger. Just like that anchor, Dad should've known better than to back Brewster into a corner and stick his hand in Brewster's face in a misguided attempt to make friends. But it was my responsibility to keep an eye on both Dad and Brewster, and I didn't do that. I am very lucky that the person Brewster snapped at was my understanding father and that the injury was slight (although I'm sure it pinched like the dickens). I learned the hard way that it really is my responsibility and only my responsibility to keep my dog and the people around my dog safe.

So I do research, I follow several dog trainer blogs, and I take every class I can afford. And, yes, I have become a complete crank on the subject of Dogs in Need of Space. You don't have to be a crank to be a responsible dog owner, though. An hour with our friend, Google, can provide a lot of information about dog behavior and effective training tips. (Just please do me a personal favor and ignore all that Dog Whisperer dominance theory bull. I'll let Dr. Yin tell you why.)

I've commented on several different forums that I hope part of the legal judgment against the owner is that he be required to attend a class on dog training and behavior. But more than that, I hope that all of us, those of us who are familiar with our dogs' warning signals and those of us who've never really thought about it before, will look at our dogs with fresh eyes, that we'll recognize that our dogs are always trying to communicate with us, and that we can understand them if we take a little time. They'll tell us what they need us to know. We just have to learn their language.

No comments:

Post a Comment