An online Great Dane group I sometimes check in with, recently had a member write in about his concerns with his dog who had bit a vet's assistant. The dog was left at the vet's office for observation one morning because it had very bad diarrhea and vomiting. The assistant was holding the dog's head as it was being given a shot when the dog bit her twice, badly enough that she had to go to the hospital. The dog was so enraged that it forced the vet and the assistant into a back room where they stayed until the dog calmed down. They managed to get the dog into a kennel but it proceeded to destroy the wooden door of the kennel and they had to move it to another kennel where it did the same thing.
When the owners went to pick up their dog, they were asked not to return with it. Two days later, the dog bit the wife and at that point the couple decided to drop the dog off at Toronto Animal Services for observation (rabies hold) and euthanasia. Previous to these bite incidences, the dog was described as a "true gentle giant" whom the family had grown to love. The family was devastated and the dog is now, or very soon will be, dead. It is indeed a tragedy all around.
On the surface, the story seems pretty straightforward. A big dog bites, can no longer be trusted, get rid of it before it causes more injuries. While I have real sympathy for all the people involved, I can't help but think that maybe some terrible mistakes were made which lead up to the bite incidences. The first may have been at the vet's office.
Four years ago, Stella, my own Great Dane, had to go into the vet for some surgery. I thought they might have some problems with her because she was absolutely petrified of the place but they figured they could handle her so I left her with them.
Around noon, I got a call. It was the vet's office saying they had called the surgery off and I had to bring Stella home because she'd crawled into the back of her kennel and refused to let anyone near her. She didn't bite anyone, but probably would have if anyone had pushed it. They were experienced enough to know when a dog was too much to handle.
So, here's the thing. The other dog's vet and the assistant should have been experienced enough as well to know when too much is too much especially with a big dog. The dog was probably giving off all sorts of leave me alone signals and that means that either they should have muzzled him or called off the procedure. I'm not excusing the dog's behaviour and I feel really bad for the tech who was bitten but when it comes down to it, the humans should have known better.
That time when I was asked to take Stella home, I rescheduled the surgery for later in the week and that second time I stayed with her and though she was still scared, I held her for her shots and I held her as she was going under. Everything, behaviour-wise anyway, went smoothly. And also, now, whenever I take Stella to the vet, she's muzzled while the vet examines her. I know, it sounds bad - muzzling - but it isn't. It's precautionary and necessary because I want to be able to bring Stella to her vet and I want the vet and staff to feel safe and able to do their jobs properly.
The second mistake that may have occurred with the other Great Dane is what happened after it was brought home. When a person undergoes a traumatic experience, it usually takes a while to psychologically recover from it. I don't see why that would be any different for a dog.
I made a huge mistake with Stella a couple of months after I first got her. One night it was raining quite hard and the backyard was a big mud pit. I let Stella out for a pee and when she didn't come in after a few minutes, I went out to see what was going on because I didn't want her getting any wetter and muddier than absolutely necessary. I can't remember now what she was doing but whatever it was, I ended up grabbing her collar to lead her back inside.
Now Stella initially had a thing with people grabbing onto her collar which I thought we had all sorted out with lots of positive reinforcement with praise and treats but I was mistaken. Maybe because of the storm, maybe because she sensed my impatience, maybe because of some flashback to a bad experience with her previous owner, she thought that by my grabbing her collar, she was going to be punished for something and instead of following me back into the house, she submissively flopped onto her side right into a big puddle of mud. Instead of realizing that she was scared and was already doing all she could to appease me, all I could think about was the mess of a dog I would now have to clean up. So, I pulled up on her collar to try to get her to stand up out of the mud. That's when she bit me and she bit me hard. My hand started bleeding from several puncture wounds and I was shocked but when I looked down at Stella, I saw that she was even worse off. As a matter of fact she was so scared, she was shaking and had a hard time catching her breathe. I tried to coax her out of the mud without grabbing her collar but now every move I made made her flinch. Besides the throbbing hand, I felt terrible about what I had done to her.
It took a few days before things got back to normal between Stella and myself. Stella was traumatized by that experience and we were walking on eggshells around each other. Stella knew she had done something terrible when she bit me and was expecting to still be punished for it at any moment. I was trying my hardest to not force her into any defensive posture because I was thinking that any bond we had would be irreparably damaged, if it wasn't already, if I allowed another incident to occur.
It took a few days but Stella recovered and she started to trust me again but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had chosen incorrectly and instead of giving her time to ease out of her anxiety, I had played the tough guy and forced her to submit further to my will. Would she have bit me again? And would I have sent her off to be euthanized because she was a problem dog?
Dogs can bite but almost never do which is amazing if you consider all the idiotic and sometimes nasty things we humans put them through. If they do bite, it's usually for good reason, a good reason for them anyway. Maybe because they bite so infrequently, we sometimes forget that they can bite at all and so when they do, we freak out and think it's the end of the world, well, the end of the world for the dog anyway. It's become almost taboo to even admit to such behaviour - not surprising given some of the legal repercussions in our Disneyfied world view of dogs where there are villain dogs and hero dogs and nothing in between.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we make is made even before a dog is brought home. We expect them to be toothless angels. Great Danes, for example, are billed far and wide as "gentle giants" and while many, maybe even the majority, most definitely are, assuming that all dogs of the breed have the same mellow personalities creates false expectations. I suspect (and I'm not saying that's what happened in the particular case I mentioned above) that many people have taken home a Great Dane under the assumption that it would fulfill all expectations of being a super laid back couch potato who would never snarl, let alone bite, another living creature. To believe a dog, any dog, but especially a 130 pound plus dog, would never bite under any conditions is a false premise and to not take realistic precautions - precautions like being carefully observant, practicing humane training, being prepared to use physical restraints like kennels or muzzles - doesn't do the dog any favours. Later, if something bad does happen, to be utterly shocked that the dog could have committed such a crime and then to quickly abandon the dog because it's too much to handle, isn't fair.
I don't want to point a finger at the Great Dane owners I used in the example above as being bad dog owners. I don't know. I wasn't there. They probably tried their best to give their dog a good home. Given the mistakes I've made with Stella and other dogs, I know how easy it is to find oneself in a situation which seems both terrible and heartbreaking at the same time. I was lucky I muddled through it okay with Stella and since then, from time spent with the dogs at the park and at TAS and everywhere else, I've learned that while dogs are wonderful creatures, they are not plush toys. They can bite but a bite doesn't always mean the dog is bad. Very often, it happens because the dog knows no other way out. It sees no other way of resolving a dire situation. In those cases, it's our job, as responsible and ethical dog owners, to put away the emotional baggage we have with dog bites and figure out how to give our dogs a way out of the corner, something that works for everyone.