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.