Monday, November 2, 2009

Dog bite - part 2

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.


Social Mange said...

I feel so badly for that dog. It must be traumatized out of its skull, to have bitten, destroyed two wooden doors and then bitten again, along with having vomiting, diarrhea and whatever is causing those symptoms.
The dog wasn't enraged. It was frantic.
Why a rabies hold? Were they not keeping up the dog's vaccinations?

Social Mange said...

"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."

And that's it, in a nutshell. Well said.

Fred said...

From what I understand, a 10 day rabies hold is done automatically if a dog is brought in after a biting a person.

The thing that bothered me the most about this event was that the dog was abandoned before it was euthanized. If the owners really felt it was in everyone's best interest to euthanize the dog, it would have been much more humane to have brought the dog directly to a vet for euthanasia, muzzled if necessary, without putting it through a rabies hold, and to at least be with the dog in its last moments.

If the dog was distraught at the vet's office, I can't imagine how it must have felt being at animal services for 10 days.

Stacey K said...

Hello. Not sure if you heard about this so I thought I'd pass it along

On Wednesday, November 18th, 2009, MPP Cheri Di Novo is attempting to have this ban removed so that these certain breeds are no longer targeted and will now hold all dog owners accountable. We are inviting all supporters to join us at Queen's Park, Toronto to show visible support for Cheri and her quest.

I'm not affiliated with the above just so you know.

Fred said...

Yeah, I heard about it just a couple of days ago. I'm going to try to talk to Cheri Di Novo about this if I get a chance.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of us forget how understanding our dogs really are when it comes to some of our behavior. I'm not proud to admit that I, too, have grabbed my dogs' collars out of frustration on occasion, and none of my dogs have ever so much as growled at me over it. Regardless, that doesn't make it okay and it doesn't mean they wouldn't be well justified if they had.

Thanks for this post- it is a good reminder that we often expect our dogs to be more tolerant than we'd ever expect of ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Seems that vet missed the whole point and now the dog is going to or has died for no fault of its own.
The dog was sick. Sick. Sick dogs have to be treated with caution.
They are in pain, feel crappy and bite out of frustration.
That vet should have muzzled the dog in the presence of the owner, had the owner stay to assist and keep the dog calm and finished the exam.
Its ridiculous to blame the dog.
If that dog is still alive, I`d be happy to bring it into rescue after your vets have found out what is making him sick.

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

All shelter workers should read your post to gain some understanding of the stress dogs are put under when placed in their care and that a dog biting them should not be a death sentence which today in most shelters it is.

Anonymous said...

The same is true of any animal that we domesticate. My cat mauls me frequently and has since she was a kitten. She sustained a spinal injury at the shelter (a volunteer dropped her) when she was very small that temporarily paralyzed her, and only my constant attention, including massages and kitty physio, managed to get her back to some semblance of normal.

After all that time spent together, I couldn't let her go, so I adopted her right out of the kitten nursery at the shelter.

Only to find out that she also has a totally malfunctioning immune system and can expect a life full of snotty eyes and nose, diarrhea and bacterial lung infections if I don't constantly dose her with lysine.

But she still experiences pain from the injury, depending on how you hold her, how you handle her, how high she jumps from ... anything. And she has a huge chip on her shoulder about the medications I've forced down her unwilling throat during her short life.

But do I give her up? No. I promised I'd take care of her, and part of that is ministering to her emotional needs. Sometimes I just have to give her the meds whether she wants them or not, but I have to understand that she's scared and she doesn't want them and she has no way to communicate that to me other than mauling my arms or snapping at my face.

I'm bigger than her, and in that moment she perceives of herself as fighting for her life. Any animal, including humans, would do the same.

Lynda said...

I'm glad you brought this dog to the public's attention, Fred. As you're aware, I do know a little about the situation.

This dane came from a rescue in August, so the present owners did not have him long enough to even begin to know him. Why he wasn't surrendered back to the original rescue is beyond me.

On a side note, I'd like to point out that my danes are always muzzled during a procedure at the vet. Not because they have ever bitten or would ever bite, but strictly for "preventative" measures. I also never ever leave them alone at the vet and stay with them the whole time.

There are a lot of holes to this story, but the biggest gaping hole in my opinion is the fact that this poor dog is still sitting in TAS alone, waiting to be euthanized, not even having had a proper family to take care of him.

Anonymous said...

Rabies laws vary by state and country. Where i live, if an animal bites a human there are 2 options- hold the animal for a 10 day bite quarantine, or euthanize the animal and send it for rabies testing. So, sometimes allowing the owner to assist in the euthanasia is not always an option- some vets are unable/unwilling to send an animal to a diagnostics lab post-euthanasia, and some owners are unable/unwilling to foot the bill for that service.

In response to Anonymous above, i think your statement is misguided and slighty offensive to shelter workers (of which i am one).
You assume that we don't already know that every animal that comes into our care will be there under stress. You assume that we have complete control over what happens to an animal after it has bitten, and that state law has no influence (also, the difference between holding an aggressive animal for 10 days while staff have to continue to care for it every day, or euthanzing and sending a dangerous animal for a rabies test are significant. Not to mentione the cage space that animal is taking up that could be given to a non-aggressive animal). Finally, you are not thinking of what would happen to an organization that adopts out an animal that has bitten in the past. What happens if this animal bites again? The organization that placed that animal back into the community can be held liable. In our litigious society, sometimes we need to err on the side of the thousands of other animals we care for that DON'T bite.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, my comment was directed at Anonymous 2 up from Lynda

Anonymous said...

I'm not a vet and don't play one on the net, so take this for what it's worth, an uninformed thought - but the vet may not have wanted to muzzle a vomitting dog...

sad situation, regardless...

Fred said...

Anonymous above, I'm thinking it wouldn't be difficult to quickly take off a muzzle if one notices a dog about to vomit but, you might be right, so point taken.

If that were the case, though, or as in my case with Stella where she wouldn't have allowed anyone to put a muzzle on her, they might have considered leaving the dog alone.

Lynn said...

A while back I was flipping through TV stations and came upon a public television show about some boarding school in England where they care for very emotionally disturbed children. The school's policy, when a child got out of control, was to constrain them. The staff would hold the child tightly with no chance for escape. In almost 100% of the situations, the child would bite the staff member who was holding them. I was so disturbed watching these people constrain these children--the children's extreme frustration was evident, and it was clear to me that the ONLY expression these children had was to was all they had left. So I think we are not so different from our dogs. We have the power of speech and can yell and scream, but without that, and without our bodies to fight with, I think we, too, would bite. And who would blame us?

Marcie said...

I don't know what I would do if in the same situation. I adore Lexus and can't imagine her biting me and can't picture what my reaction would be if she did.

I do know what my dad did when Lobo bit my sister in the face. (I won't post it because it's not something anyone wants to read) in the end the dog was put down. In my opinion he did not deserve a second chance. Obviously the severity of the bite should be taken into account, the doctors stopped coutning her stitches at 250 who knows how many she actually received.

This is a sad story, I do know that a Vet would be required to have the dog held for observation for 10 days if it bite either way (It doesn't have to be at TAS)but I don't understand why they would just abandon the dog. I guess we'd have to be in their shoes to really get it.

Suzanne said...

Lynn, my brother-in-law was an emotionally disturbed child. His mother and brother had to learn how to perform a "take down" because it was the only way to calm him down when he was having a violent fit. He was a danger to himself and others when he was like that (and would bite whether restrained or not).

Restraint, properly used, is not necessarily bad.