My post for this month is late. As expected, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I have been hit by writers block. But that’s not the only thing that was bound to happen sooner or later. I also got bit by a dog! A little introspection revealed to me that the bite was the reason for the block.
I consider the season between Diwali and New Years to be one big party season. Time for merriment and in my mind, there is no merriment without food. So I wanted to write about food. But the dog bite did not really put me in a merry mood as such and so the creative juices just stopped flowing. That’s when I realized that I had to be honest and write about the bite. I had to face it!
You see, the thing about bites is that, for canine behaviourists, it is a low point in our career. At least, I don’t look on bites with pride as I have seen some dog trainers do. Dogs don’t bite unless they are stressed to the point of biting. So I went wrong. Terribly wrong! And that is hard to admit. But I have decided that I am going to prod more into this case and put the pain to good use. So, here it is. The post mortem of what really went so wrong.
As my teacher taught me, dogs have something called the “Ladder of Stress”. The lower rungs of the ladder are the “green zone”. In this zone, dogs show that they are stressed by some subtle signs like yawning, licking their lips or turning their face away. Next comes the “yellow zone”. Here dogs are more clear. They growl, bark, cower or even try to run away. And finally, there is the “red zone”. That is where a bite or several bites happen. Most normal dogs climb this ladder gradually and as a behaviourist I am trained to look for all these signs and instantly start working on removing the factors that are stressing a dog.
Imagine picking up your phone and making a call to a friend in a distant land over a sketchy line. You don’t know the line is sketchy. So you start talking normally. Soon you realize that your friend can’t hear and slow your speech down and get louder. Before you know it, you are yelling on the phone. Next time you call your friend the same thing happens again. By the next call you come to expect that talking normally is quite useless. So the next call you make, you don’t bother talking in a normal voice at all and start out yelling. This is exactly what is happening in the case of a dog that has chronic stress.
The first few times a dog is stressed, the dog is showing this with subtle signs. When we ignore the signs the dog starts using more explicit language like growling or trying to walk away. When that is ignored, the dog might resort to a bite. After trying a few times the dog may learn that using subtle language is completely useless. In fact, using explicit language is useless too. Such dogs are the ones that “bite out of the blue”. But you see…the dog is not really biting out of the blue. The dog has tried to talk, talk loud and slow too and nothing has worked.
The dog that bit me had been subject to chronic stress. The dog had perhaps tried to show it all along. But not everyone is trained to read a dogs stress signs. The unfortunate fall out of this lack of training is this – the dog quickly learns that talking is useless, shouting it necessary. If a dog remains in this state for too long, the dog is no more able to differentiate between situations that require such rapid escalation and situations that don’t.
In my case, I had biscuits in my hand and it took me a second to pull them out of the packet and toss it towards the dog. The extra second irritated the dog and the dog has completely forgotten to use any polite language. So out came the “yelling.” And I am now in a world of pain. I had failed to recognise how much of the polite language had fallen out of this poor dog’s repertoire. Now starts the arduous journey of teaching the dog polite language and teaching the humans to read it well and read it early.
With such dogs, it’s almost impossible to know by looking at them, that their language is so limited. Hence it’s critical that when dealing with a dog with bite history, one be very aware of what can stress a dog out and absolutely avoid it or better still, just avoid interaction with the dog entirely. Let the dog approach you. Don’t approach the dog. Don’t even lure the dog to approach you. Infact, to avoid accidents based on miscommunication, here are my top tips:
- When meeting a strange dog ALWAYS check with the guardian if the dog bites. If the guardian hesitates even a little, then don’t be over eager towards a dog. Stay away.
- If there is no guardian with a dog, don’t approach a dog at all. Let the dog approach you. Dogs are social. A normal friendly dog will approach you if interested
- When a dog approaches you, don’t make eye contact. Don’t sit. Just pretend not to notice the dog and look away. Let the dog inspect you and get comfortable before you make any move towards the dog. This holds true for pets accompanied by their humans as well.
- If your dog bites and the bite punctures the skin, go to the vet immediately to get the dog checked and follow that up with a visit to the behaviourist. Make it your top priority.
Over the next few blogs I want to talk more about bites, why bites happen, how to avoid it and what to do in case of bites. I don’t believe in punishing dogs at any point. So all my methods are humane and understanding. For those who have had bites and fears resulting thereof, please do share them and I’ll try my best to address all the specific issues during subsequent blogs.