|Victoria and I before the conference|
Back in May 2012, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the National Dog Bite Awareness and Prevention Conference in Atlanta hosted by the Georgia State Bar Association. Topics included dog body language, how to handle aggressive dogs, dog bite statistics, laws governing dog bites, animal control procedures, fatal dog attack investigations, and other fascinating subjects. I learned a tremendous amount, and decided that day to bring the conference to Denver.
For the last several months, myself, along with my assistant Anne, and Victoria Stilwell, planned the Denver conference that was held on November 2, 2012. We were lucky to have five knowledgeable and educated speakers who donated their time to help spread the word about dog bite prevention.
First up was Victoria. For those of you who don’t know, she is the star of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog”. She works tirelessly to educate pet parents on positive reinforcement methods of training, and how using punitive methods can increase aggression and cause damage to dogs. The focus of her morning presentation was why dogs aggress, dog body language, how environment and handling can increase a dog’s aggressive response, and bite levels and intentions.
Dogs can be aggressive for many reasons- pain, predation, fear, anxiety, protection, etc. In order to understand and determine the reason for the aggressive response, dog behavior experts have to look at several factors and cross off possible causes one by one. She recommended starting with a full medical work-up including blood work. Studies have shown that dogs suffering from hypothyroidism tend to be more aggressive and low levels of serotonin can also lead a dog to be more aggressive. The dog’s diet is a crucial element as well, meaning nothing can be ruled out and everything should be considered.
Stilwell also talked about the myth that dogs “just snap” without warning. Dogs offer many signs that they are uncomfortable, but many people are simply not aware of those signs. The audience was shown different clips from Stilwell’s TV show, It’s Me or the Dog, illustrating the signals that dogs send humans (and other dogs).
Dogs' calming signals may include:
§ Lip licking
§ Tongue flicking
§ Blinking, averting eyes, or turning away
§ Yawning – depends on the context
§ ‘Shaking off’- similar to when they shake off water, but the dog isn’t wet
§ Ears pinned back
§ Sniffing the ground
§ Closed mouth to an open mouth
§ ‘Whale eye’- a dog keeps his head straight, but turns his eye toward you…you can see the whites of his eye. It means fear or uncomfortableness
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety begin to display those signs before the owner leaves – pacing, panting, whining, yawning, shaking off, etc. When the owner is gone and dog is barking, chewing, being destructive, the dog is no longer anxious, but rather the dog is in distress. Treating the separation anxiety means treating the reason for the pacing, panting and whining. Any successful behavior modification plan for any behavior must focus on treating the root cause of the behavior and not the behavior itself.
The morning’s most poignant speakers took the stage and bravely shared their story of love and loss of their 2-year-old son and 8-year-old dog. Joseph and Carrie Perk were as typical as they come – two happy parents raising their toddler son and infant daughter in a bustling household that also included two beloved Weimaraners, Lloyd and Chessy. Like many dog owners, the Perks took their dogs through obedience classes and thought that they were doing all of the right things, never giving much thought to stress signals or dog body language that could indicate trouble.
“It’s funny, I never really gave it thought how many times I’ve been bit by a dog,” Joey said. “I didn’t think about it until we were asked to come here and speak. But I think almost everyone here has been bit by a dog, right?”
Carrie and Joey never thought either dog would bite but sadly, the unthinkable happened. The Perk’s typical family was forever changed on Dec. 22, 2009 when Lloyd fatally bit Liam on what seemed like any other morning in the Perk house. Lloyd was a Weimeraner, and not of a breed that people often associated with aggression and this is one of the myths that each speaker at the conference wanted to dispel. Any dog, given the right set of circumstances in the right situation will do what it feels is necessary to get rid of a threat and the last resort when all other signals fail is to make a point with a bite.
|Carrie Perk and Lucy|
The Perks weren’t taught what to look out for and what can cause stress for the family dog. Obedience trainers didn’t explain the reasons dogs turn to the side, lick their lips, yawn, fold their ears back or pant. It was only after losing Liam that Carrie began researching what happened and why that she began to understand how much Liam affected Lloyd. Wanting to honor Liam’s memory and feeling the need to share what she learned and tell people what happened, the Perks founded the Liam J. Perk Foundation with the mission on educating dog owners and children on how to stay safe.
Through the foundation, the Perks created the Let’s Talk Dog! Awareness sign that can go up any place where that dogs and humans interact: playgrounds, dog parks, vet offices, schools, etc. to provide a quick, easy to understand guide to dog body language. www.liamjperkfoundation.org
Jim Crosby, a retired police lieutenant, provided a riveting look into his work investigating the worst of the worst: fatal dog bites and maulings. Crosby is the guy called in to provide an objective analysis of the scene and dog(s) involved (if the dogs have not yet been euthanized). His presentation included reviews of past cases and stories about the dogs and people involved in different incidents around the country.
Crosby’s detailed investigations involve surveying a scene, looking at police photographs (if the scene has been cleared), measuring depth of wounds, testing dog(s) for blood on coat and in mouth and talking with witnesses to get a sense of what was going on just before and during the attack. Based on a dog’s dentition, Crosby is able to determine which bites were inflicted by which dog in cases where two or more dogs are involved. Dentition also helps to rule out dogs because bite patterns will not match every dog because they are like fingerprints and no two dogs have the exact same pattern.
Before speaking on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), Crosby pointed out that statistics show time and time again that dog of mixed breeds make up the largest percentage of biters. Each speaker stressed that any breed of dog can bite and research has shown that BSL does little to protect communities from dog-bite incidents. Crosby also took time to dispel a couple of rampant myths.
“A Pit Bull does not have a locking jaw. No dog has a locking jaw. It wouldn’t be a very good predator if every time it closed its mouth, its jaw locked,” Crosby stated. “The Gila Monster is the only animal on the planet with a locking jaw and that is so it can inject poison into its prey.”
Crosby displayed a slide showing the measured bite force of different animals. Rottweilers topped the dog category with a measured bite force of 328 pounds per square inch (psi), followed by German Shepherd dogs with 238 psi and Pit Bulls came in at 235 psi.
One lasting fact that stuck with many in attendance was just how quickly a bite – or several bites – can occur. The audience learned that it takes the typical dog two-tenths of a second to bite and release. A healthy human’s response time is three-quarters of a second.
“By the time you realize that the dog is biting you and you can react, that dog could have bit and released up to five times,” Crosby said. He also showed graphic photos of deceased victims, severe bites, and crime scene investigation photos to illustrate all of his findings and investigations.
Our fourth speaker of the day was Claudine Wilkins, one of the leading forces behind the Georgia Dog Bite Conference in May conference. Wilkins is an animal law attorney in Atlanta and was instrumental in helping Georgia legislators draft and pass the state’s Responsible Dog Owner Act.
In the Act, owners of dogs that have bite histories are held liable and must follow a very specific set of laws in order to keep the dog(s). Dogs with bite histories are placed into two categories: dangerous dogs and vicious dogs. Depending on what category a dog falls in to, the owner must keep the dog from engaging with any other animal or human if the dog is off the owner’s property and some owners must carry $50,000 of insurance. No person can own more than one vicious dog, and no one with felony convictions can own a vicious dog. The Act is step in the right direction, Wilkins said, in helping to boost public safety and retool old, outdated dangerous dog laws.
The full day of speakers was a huge success and we all took home at least a little bit of information to continue education and spread the word about dog bite awareness and prevention. It is up to all of us to learn about dog body language, be responsible for our own dogs, prevent dog bites from happening, and educate ourselves about dangerous dog laws and breed specific legislation. The next conference, sponsored by Wag & Train, will hopefully be in the next two years, and we hope to hold it at CSU in Fort Collins.