I got a call the other day from a woman whose "I love everybody" Irish Setter Fergus had bitten her 2-year-old daughter Olivia in the face. (Spoiler alert: everybody’s fine.)
Fergus and Olivia had been hanging out in the play room, so the caller didn’t know exactly how it all unfolded. But she describes Olivia as very much in love with the dog, prone to grabbing his face and squeezing out of sheer enthusiasm and affection.
Luckily, Fergus didn't hurt Olivia beyond a few scrapes, and her mom was now wisely keeping them separated unless she could closely supervise. After all, Olivia isn’t old enough yet to learn different ways of expressing her undying love for Fergus.
But I’m sure you’re thinking what this concerned mom also expressed: this could have gone down much, much worse.
As we talked, she reflected on how Fergus’ reactions to Olivia have changed since she’s become more mobile and independent. Signs of discomfort that hadn't been spotted because -- let's admit it -- none of us were ever taught dog body language. And what we read online is riddled with mythology about dominance, submission and pack leadership.
Fergus often puts his ears back and turns his head away when Olivia approaches him. If Olivia gets closer or reaches for him, he gets up to leave. If she pursues him, he will roll over, showing his belly and staring at Olivia with wide eyes.
And when Fergus can’t get away fast enough, he growls.
In dog language, growling means, “I don’t want to have to hurt you but I'm really uncomfortable and you need to go away right now.” Let's consider an equivalent threat scenario for us humans.
It’s the middle of the night and you hear the sound of a window breaking downstairs, followed by footsteps. Someone is down there. Your heart pounds and your hands start shaking. There’s no escape.
You go to the top of the stairs and holler in a trembling voice, “I have a gun! Leave now or I’ll shoot!” Whether or not you have a weapon or would even use it if you did, this is what pops out of your mouth. It’s your biggest and best threat, made in desperation.
On the ladder of aggression below, you'll notice a few warning signals that Fergus tried before biting. He turned his head away, put his ears back, laid down, stared, and finally growled. Luckily, most dogs won't bite before trying these kinds of strategies to make the scary thing go away.
If your dog broadcasts his discomfort with warning signals, lovingly thank him for pulling his punches and immediately help him get some distance from what’s scaring him. And in the long term, get in touch with a skilled force-free trainer who can help him learn to feel safe.
Like this concerned mom, we all want to prevent dog bites, for our kids’ and our dogs’ sakes. Get to know the subtle ways your dog shows his distress. Make a project out of it one night and sit down with your family to watch the fun kid-friendly instructional videos over at Stop the 77. You won’t regret it, and your dog will thank you.