Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Introducing Yourself: Observe First, Ask Questions Later

While there has recently been a lot in the news about reading dogs’ body language cues, many of us in the dog training industry have been trying to educate the public for years. It has been my life’s passion to help people understand dog language better and prevent dog bites. Whether I’m lecturing to a big audience or teaching a small group class, I am always interpreting body language for pet parents to help them understand how to interpret it themselves. It’s unfortunate that the awful event at 9News brought this subject into the spotlight, but it is a blessing as more people will hopefully pay attention to how they interact with dogs, including their own.

There are three different things to remember when you are going to interact with a dog, and although there are several other factors that could potentially go in to a human/dog interaction, I believe these are the most important:

1) The dog’s body language and cues

2) Your body language and cues

3) The environment and potential stressors around the dog

First and foremost, does the dog appear scared or anxious? Is her mouth closed tightly? Is her tail between her legs, can you see the whites of her eyes, is she standing behind her parent, or trying to get away? Is she avoiding eye contact, whining, barking, or growling? These are all signs of stress and you need to approach with caution. Or better yet, keep your distance and don't approach at all.

(This dog is facing sideways, ears are down, eyes are made smaller as an appeasement behavior, and his lips are pursed with nervous anticipation of what the person with the camera is going to do next)

Secondly, how will the dog perceive you as you are approaching? Do you have a big computer bag in your hand, a broom, or an open umbrella? Are you approaching from directly in front of the dog, or from the side? Are you using an excited, loud voice or a soft, friendly one? Just because you are excited to meet the ginormous Irish Wolfhound on the street doesn’t mean he will be excited to meet you.

And lastly, what is going on around you? Are there construction trucks going by, or sirens from a fire truck going off? Did the dog just get in to a scuffle at the dog park and you are greeting in the parking lot? Are you in the vet’s office where a dog just got his ears cleaned out? Keep in mind that you may have no idea what has just happened to the dog, so always read body language first, then ASK before introducing yourself, if you choose to do so.

(This puppy has a furrowed brow, pursed lips, and her ears are down and forward... She is unsure, worried, and scared)

Behavior is always context specific, and dogs will react, in part, according to environmental stimuli. If the stimuli is perceived as good (liver treats, person kneeling, another friendly dog, etc) the dog may be less anxious and will be open to a friendly greeting. If the stimuli is scary (loud noises, bright lights, tall boisterous person, etc), the dog will be more adrenalized and won’t be as emotionally/mentally equipped to engage in a greeting.

This is why I always ask people to set dogs up to succeed. It is so important for the emotional health, well-being, and safety of all involved. Never approach a dog without reading their cues, and always ask the dog’s pet parent before greeting.
Kari Bastyr, MS, VSPDT
Denver, Co
© Copyright 2012 Wag & Train All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Perfect Storm Follow-Up

In the aftermath of what happened last week, I wanted to write a bit of a follow-up to A Perfect Storm. Had I known the blog would be Twittered, shared, posted by Whole Dog Journal and Victoria Stilwell, I would have spent a little more time on it. As it was written, it was only my early morning reaction with a complete lack of sleep and not enough coffee.  But, I think (I hope) I got my point across that we must learn from this incident, and I think people will. 

I have been playing phone/email tag with Victoria this weekend as she is in NYC reporting from Westminster.  I asked her to join forces with me to figure out a way to make good come of this, and help the people of Colorado understand their dogs better.  She is on board, so stay tuned for what we come up with.  I am extremely lucky to have her support!

Late last night,  I learned that Kyle’s injury is much more severe than was reported. She lost half her upper lip, had a 4-hour surgery, has 70 stitches, and has to have her mouth sewn shut to graft the skin of her lips and get the blood circulating again. Learning this made me gasp, and I shuttered at the thought of Kyle going through all this pain. I really feel for her. Her recovery will be long and painful, but I’m sure her smile will radiate as much as it did before,

Max is still in quarantine, and not much has been reported about him. 9News interviewed the head of Animal Control, and he said Max will likely be released back to his owner once his 10-day quarantine is over. The quarantine is standard procedure for any serious dog bite, as they need to make sure Max doesn’t have rabies. As I said in my previous post, I highly doubt Max will be euthanized, and I know a lot of people are concerned about that. However, given the severity and level of his bite, I imagine the judge will order strict rules for him, and Max’s life will never be the same.

I know my anger towards Mr. Robinson really came through in the blog. Those who know me, know I don’t mince words or beat around the bush, especially when a dog's welfare is at stake. While some may think I rushed to judgment, I know that the anger is because of my experience and knowledge of how dog bites happen, and that they are highly preventable. Humans put dogs in situations that set them up to fail, and that is what happened to Max from the start. I have worked with thousands of dog owners who don’t know any better and consistently have much higher expectations for their dog than their dog can attain.   I struggle with this daily in my private practice, and am constantly explaining to people how their actions allowed the dog to bite...  yet many of them blame the dog.

My frustration is out of sadness for the dogs who have to suffer from humans’ mistakes. Mistakes that can be prevented if dog owners make better choices regarding their dogs and stop anthropomorphizing. Dogs will be dogs, and it is up to us to protect and advocate for them.

For the foreseeable future, my blogs will begin focusing on different dog body language characteristics and how to interpret them. You can also start watching your dogs when they are in your living room… What do their faces tell you? What are their bodies doing that could let you know what is going on in their mind?
  • When you go to pet her over the head, does she shy away and yawn?
  • When you hug your dog, does he lick his lips?
  • When you go to put the leash on, does she slink over to you like she’s in trouble and lift her paw?
  • When he has a bone, and you walk by, does he turn his eyes but not his head?
Stay tuned for explanations of these behaviors, and more.   To begin, Click Here for Turid Rugaas' descriptions of several calming signals.  Familiarize yourself and practice interpreting them with your dogs whenever you can. 

Kari Bastyr, MS, VSPDT
Denver, Co.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Perfect Storm

By now, you have probably seen the footage of the dog rescued from the reservoir on Tuesday. It was a very happy ending for an unfortunate circumstance caused by the dog’s owner. Max, a Dogo Argentino (Argentine Mastiff), was probably out for an afternoon walk and Michael Robinson, Max’s owner let him off leash *hoping* he would stay close. Clearly, Max had not been taught a 100% solid recall, so Max didn’t listen to Michael calling him when he spotted a coyote. Max chased the coyote on to the ice and they both fell through. After several minutes, the coyote drowned, but firefighters arrived just in time to inch their way out on to the ice to save Max. Max was very happy to see the firefighter (you can see from the video) as he swam directly toward his rescuer in a desperate attempt to get out of the freezing water. The firefighter risked his life to save Max, and it cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, I’m sure. This entire scenario, and the death of a coyote, could have been entirely prevented had Max’s owner kept him on the leash, and not *hoped* he would listen. In my opinion, this was an extremely stupid and narcissistic decision on Michael’s part. Max should never have been off leash, especially since he wasn’t up to date on his vaccinations. On a side note, a dog actually did drown on Wednesday (the day after Max’s rescue) because another foolish owner let their dog off leash without a 100% solidly trained recall, with distractions. Aren’t we supposed to keep our dogs from harm and be their advocate and voice? When I saw the footage I was so angry. And, later I found out, instead of taking Max directly to the vet, Michael brought Max home and invited camera crews inside to film him. How does this make sense?

Fast forward to Wednesday morning. I sat down to check my email and have a cup of coffee with 9News on, my morning ritual. I hear that an upcoming segment will have the dog who was rescued from the reservoir LIVE in studio to reunite him with his rescuer. The first thing I thought was “What? This dog has just been rescued from almost dying 12 hours ago, and now he’s going to be in the studio instead of sleeping in?” I had a bad feeling from that moment. I knew Max had to be recovering from trauma, and was probably very tired and stressed from swimming to save his life for an hour, and it probably wouldn’t go well. I never expected what I saw next.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have watched Kyle Dyer since I moved to Denver in 2001. I have met her in studio, we have talked about dogs when I have been there for interviews, and she even interviewed me once for a story. It is extremely evident how much she loves animals. She does stories from the Zoo, and she is has been a passionate advocate for them. She would never put a dog in jeopardy.  I really like her, and she is always happy and upbeat.  She just lights up when you talk to her.  The last time I was in studio, she was sitting behind the news desk and asked me for my card for her own dog during commerical.  I can't remember what the issue was, but it was very clear that she loved him and probably would have talked my ear off about him if she didnt have to go back on air.  She is lovely!

But, she is just like my clients who call me for help. People love their animals and don’t know that dog body language is very important. So many kids and people are bitten by people who just don’t understand because they love dogs SO much they can’t help but treat them like little kids in fuzzy coats. People hug and kiss dogs all the time. This is how bites happen.

During the interview, Max was very stressed from the start. He was blinking, licking his lips, turning his head…I think he even yawned. It was clear from the get-go that he just wanted to be at home sleeping on his pillow. I also saw Michael, Max’s owner, do a couple of leash tugs to try and get his attention. Guess what happens when a stressed dog gets his leash jerked? Adrenaline and fear. So, Max was already stressed, tired, and giving off every warning sign his body could possibly engage in, and add leash jerks on top of it and he was like a bomb ready to go off. It reminds me of a great blog called ‘Dog Bites are like Tetris’. Aggression, behavior, and bites do not happen out of the blue. They are context- specific and only happen when the context is right. Things build and build and then BOOM. All the while, the dog is trying to tell us “I’m not a threat” “I’m scared and I don’t want you to come any closer” “I’m about to bite you!” This is why people say “My dog is so good 99% percent of the time- He loves everybody! But he bit my uncle, the vet, and the mailman”. Honest to god, I hear this every day. People just don’t understand that dogs don’t want to bite, but they don’t have a choice because we constantly set them up to fail. And then, when they are aggressive we correct them for it, only to increase the likelihood of the dog being aggressive again. Makes absolutely NO sense.

But I digress.

What I saw next on the TV was both terrifying and heartbreaking to watch at the same time. As Kyle got down on her knees, Max started to show his teeth, probably out of fear. He was already adrenalized and all the warning signs he was giving (lip licks, blinking, head turns, whale eye, etc) weren’t working so he growled. Unfortunately, Kyle didn’t hear or see that Max was about to bite. I yelled at the TV screen “Kyle back off!”, not that she could hear me. Then he lunged and bit her lip. This bite was completely predictable and preventable and no one stopped it. It was a Perfect Storm of events that came to a head with disastrous results. It was entirely the humans’ fault (mostly Max’s owner, as he did not advocate for Max one iota to begin with, and certainly not by bringing him on TV 16 hours after being rescued from drowning), not Max’s.

This occurs every day, multiple times a day in homes across the world. I get calls for help daily from parents whose dog bit their child because the child was chasing down the dog and trying to hug her. Or, the person who got bit because they were trying to be ‘dominant’ and Alpha Roll the dog, sending the dog into a defensive outrage trying to protect himself. It is ALL preventable if people would just stop, look, and listen to what their dogs are saying. But people are know-it-alls and continue to set their dog’s up to fail.

And that is why I am writing about this. This entire ordeal must be used as an educational opportunity going forward. People MUST learn that dogs are trying to warn us when they are feeling uncomfortable, but in our hurried ways, with our benevolent attitudes, and narcissist feelings, we don’t even pay attention.

Before I go on, let me say something about the actual bite. If you saw the footage, you will see that Kyle is directly in Max’s face, loving on him and trying to kiss him. Her face is right where his teeth are. Yes, he lunged and bit her, but it was a warning bite. If he had meant to maul her, he would have. He was trying to warn her because every other warning sign he was giving was ignored, so the next step is a snap. It’s the natural progression in dog language, and people don’t see the behaviors. From what I understand, the bite was on Kyle’s lip and she had to have reconstructive surgery. In my professional opinion, it was probably a Level 3 or 4 bite. That is a severe bite, and means he has zero bite inhibition. Not good, but it was a warning bite, not an ‘I’m going to kill you bite”. He didn’t hang on. He didn’t try and rip her face off. At the same time, you have to understand that Max was stressed, tired, traumatized, under lights, around strangers, watching motorized cameras rolling around like robots (they even freak ME out when I am in the studio), and his owner was popping on his leash for whatever reason (clearly a way that he has used in the past to try and ‘train’ Max). Max was stressed beyond belief.

Going forward, I would like everyone to take a step back and think about all the things your dog is trying to tell you. Do away with everything you ‘think’ you know about dogs, everything you have learned from your dogs growing up, and everything you try to do to ‘make’ your dogs listen. Watch and learn because your dog is trying to tell you things every single second. So many people think they know how to train dogs. I assure you, they don’t. Even so-called trainers think they know how to train dogs, yet give hard leash tugs, scruff shakes, and throw things at the dog to startle. When is it going to stop?
Like I said, this was a perfect storm of events that culminated in an awful outcome. Kyle is in the hospital, Max is in quarantine, and people are playing the blame game. Yes, Kyle shouldn’t have been in Max’s face, but why was Max there in the first place? Why was Max off leash at the reservoir, and why didn’t Michael have a reliable recall before he let him off leash? That in itself makes me furious, especially because someone else did it the next day and the dog actually died. Why are people so stupid?

Believe me, I am no saint. I swear like a sailor and I have road rage to rival anyone, but I know you shouldn’t stick a knife in the toaster, that you should treat your neighbor like you want to be treated, that you shouldn’t let your dog off leash near ice and you don’t use leash tugs or force to ‘be dominant’ Duh! (refer to The Myth of Dominance) I know that dogs are emotional beings, and while they deserve our love and kindness, they also deserve our effort to get to know how they communicate with us.

I really hope Kyle is okay, both physically and emotionally. Getting severely bitten is traumatizing, to say the least. I doubt it will decrease her love of animals, and I imagine she will still be a passionate advocate for them, maybe more so. I even imagine she will take this opportunity and educate people on the dangers of stressing a dog out or getting in his space. I hope 9News changes it’s policies regarding animals in the studio. I hope Michael Robinson realizes that his decision to let Max off leash was not in his best interest,  and really tries to do right by him when he gets out of quarantine. And I hope nothing bad happens to Max. According to the Colorado Dog Bite Law, Mr. Robinson is criminally liable for the bite itself, and he was ticketed for having his dog off-leash and no proof of vaccinations or license. He will have to go to court, and a judge will decide Max’s fate. Based on my experience with dog bite cases, it is highly unlikely that Max will be euthanized, and I would be very surprised if that happened. But Michael will be fined a lot of money, have to pay restitution (unless 9News pays for it), will need to get behavioral help for Max, and probably more insurance for him.

I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that this entire incident from start to finish will open everyone’s eyes about what dogs are trying to tell us. I also hope that people will stop thinking that we are better than dogs and they need to be ‘trained’ with leash jerks, neck jabs, shock collars, etc. And I really hope that Max will find peace after his 10 days in jail. This will forever change him, but it doesn’t have to be in vain.

Oh, and please, EVERYONE give your dogs an extra treat and 'I Love You' tonight.  We are very lucky to have such wonderful creatures in our lives and you should never take that for granted. 

Kari Bastyr, MS, VSPDT

© Copyright Wag & Train Animal Behavior Specialists, LLC  2012.  All Rights Reserved

Note:  It was originally reported that Max wasnt current on his vaccinations. According to a recent statement by the Robinson's, that is not true.   
Also, my goal is not to offend, but to educate based on what happened.  My apologies to those who do not appreciate my bluntness.