Dog bite raises discussion on canine behavior

A Feb. 8 incident that left a Colorado morning news anchor hospitalized and sent a Mastiff to animal control is raising discussion about canine aggression and how to interpret dog behavior.

The Argentine Mastiff bit Kyle Dyer, a morning news anchor, on the face as she was doing a story about the dog’s rescue from an icy pond by a firefighter the day before. Dyer was taken to the hospital and the dog impounded at the Denver Animal Shelter. The owner was cited for failure to have his dog on a leash when the dog fell into the pond, and for failure to have a vaccinated dog.

Dyer was bitten as she bent her face down to nuzzle the dog’s head.

Debra Horwitz, DVM, animal behavior specialist and former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, presented her insights on canine aggression in "Understanding Canine Aggression" at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando, Fla., in January.

Aggressive behavior such as biting or growling, Horwitz said, is a normal part of a dog’s repertoire, and is used as a tool to change a circumstance.

"Most aggression is motivated by fear and anxiety, not dominance," Horwitz explained.

Most dogs act aggressive when they feel threatened and perceive a danger, Horwitz said. A threatening situation generally entails an interaction without an escape route, or a situation that is characterized by a quick, unexpected approach.

"Aggression is a response to a social encounter," Horwitz said. "Dogs choose it because it seems appropriate for the situation."

Such interactions can include hugging, close contact, and other actions that humans might not view as threatening but can make dogs feel threatened or uncomfortable.

"It doesn’t matter what we think [of our action], it matters what the dog thinks," Horwitz said. "Dogs are sentient beings. They aren’t always expecting what happens to them."

The key problem, Horwitz said, is that dogs do not have the proper vocabulary to use when it comes to dealing with humans. This communication gap leads to misunderstandings and interactions gone bad.

"Just because we think we’re not doing anything threatening, the dog may think otherwise," Horwitz said. "Proximity does not mean a willingness to interact. We initiate interactions that often go badly."

Horwitz went on to describe a series of actions that indicate a dog may be uncomfortable with a given interaction.

Dogs who are uncomfortable in a situation may start yawning, blinking, licking their nose, turning their head or body away, or pinning their ears back. Dogs may also try to lie down, or put their leg up, then stiffen their bodies or begin staring. If the threatening situation is not alleviated, this may turn to growling, snapping and biting.

Matthew Levien, a behavior technician from Denver’s Dumb Friends’ League, talked on air about the signs the dog had displayed prior to the bite.

"Panting, that was something that was prevalent throughout the entire segment, also, ears were back, and he was just continually just trying to move, he was trying to get away, whether it was just to stand up or move, and he was restrained," Levien said.

Levien said additional signs of stress in a dog can include raising a paw, leaning away, dilated pupils and quick head turns.

Levien and the Dumb Friends’ League suggest approaching unfamiliar dogs in a safe manner and looking carefully for signs of stress in the dog.

Before you interact with a dog, it is important to be aware of the body signals you exhibit, according to Levien and the Dumb Friends’ League:

· Present your side to the dog – not your front – from a standing or squatting position.

· Don’t lean over the dog.

· Let the dog come to you rather than approaching the dog.

· Avoid direct eye contact (don’t stare the dogs in the eyes).

· Extend your hand toward the dog.

· Don’t ever put your face close to the dog’s face.

· Talk in a friendly voice.

Terry Curtis, DVM and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, said in a NAVC presentation that behavioral problems, including aggression, are the number one reason dogs are given up or euthanized.

"Behavior problems need to be given the attention they deserve," Curtis said.

An important part of handling behavior problems is working to educate pet owners, Curtis said. Providing CDs, informational brochures and handouts can help to educate clients on handling their dog’s behavior issue. Educating the veterinary team and your clients can help prevent bad scenarios from occurring.

"We need to prevent injury to our clients, to our pets, ourselves, and we need to prevent euthanasia," Curtis said.

This means, when you are not comfortable treating a particular problem, refering the client to a behavior specialist when necessary, just as you would with other issues you may not be confident treating.

As a veterinarian, it is important to describe to owners how the dog is behaving as you walk into the exam room, Horwitz said. This helps clients understand how their dogs behave and why they might act a certain way.

"The standards we hold pets to, we don’t hold ourselves to," Curtis said. "We don’t always have all the answers to why our pets do everything."

Dogs are complex animals that often display a variety of behaviors in given situations, Levien said. Being aware of changes in the dog’s behavior and the environment can help to ensure safe interactions.

"Because there is such variation with each dog and environment, it is important to understand how to interact with dogs in as safe a manner as possible in any situation," Levien said.