Thanks for Growling

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So I have a simple rule I live by: thank all dogs who growl! It takes every ounce of my will-power not to get upset at my own dogs when they growl about something. Some kind of natural or parenting instinct that overtakes my inner being…. “NO, AHH, DON’T BE LIKE THAT, I DON’T UNDERSTAND, HE IS NEVER LIKE THAT”, and on and on. Every day in consultation I hear these words and most days when walking the dogs or at the dog park.  Whether the growl is directed toward me or it’s some other dog growling at my dog, it all means the same thing, and we should THANK THEM.

“I am not happy about this situation. In fact, I am likely scared out of my wits. Please, Please, Please, stay away or go away. Why don’t people ask me if they can say HI? Oh right, I can’t say NO in this furry body of mine, but boy am I trying” .

Dogs are naturally able to read our body language and be conditioned to understand some of our words, but we are atrocious at understanding what they have to say. They are busy giving us every cue they can: ears down, licking lips, backing up, lowering their body stance, yawning, frowning, etc, etc. And what do we do? Approach them with hands out! And oh, isn’t he cute I just want to hug him.  Even when there is a barking dog baring all its teeth, I will hear people tell me “don’t worry; I have a way with dogs!”

So now that I have that out of my system, here is what I want to reach out to you, the public, about. This is Dog Bite Prevention Week. I am deeply saddened by the tragedies we hear about every day globally, in our nation, our provinces and our communities. Some statistics demonstrate that upwards of 2% of the population is bitten by a dog every year in North America and one sixth of these bites require medical attention. Most of these bites occur to children 15 years old and under and are actually from either the person’s own dog or a familiar dog such as the neighbour’s. When we look at this at a global level, we think of diseases such as rabies, which kills over 55 000 people every year, almost all of which come from dog bites. Millions of dollars are spent annually to treat dog bites and prevent rabies. Aside from the psychiatric wounds that lay deep in these children for the rest of their lives.  

I know I sound as though I am blaming ‘us humans’ for all dog bites. This is not my intention. In the veterinary behaviour assessments that I do, I see cases where the dogs were so ill behaviourally that they acted in an abnormal way. Some of these dogs do not give normal defensive cues before they bite and/or the aggressive act may be more intense than it ‘should be’ for that context. An example would be: a dog bites you when you try and take away a bone in its mouth (normal!) and instead of simply growling or biting once, it grabs on to your arm and won’t let go.  This dog reacted with greater intensity than was likely needed in this situation. Some of these dogs have aggression we refer to as offensive type aggression or in some rare cases ‘rage-type’ episodes. These cases are, however, the exception to the rule. In the majority of aggression assessments, I am evaluating dogs that are fearful and react emotionally. These are normal dogs. I spend most of the consultations discussing how we can manage and prevent these situations and teaching the caregivers how to work with their dog to reduce his or her fears and conditioning a happy response. Not always an easy thing!

As a dog lover and surrounded by dog lovers, I often hear blameful words about irresponsible dog owners being THE problem. And there is some truth to this. But we should also remember that mistakes happen. We are, after all, simply human. The parents of children who have been traumatized, and some scarred for life by dog bites, may have something different to say. So my message is simple: do your best and be part of the solution. Teach your children, go to schools, be part of the education of our next generation. There are incredible programs out there such as the Be a Tree Program (doggonesafe.com) or Dr Sophia Yin’s PSA (drsophiayin.com) or the Blue Dog Cd’s (thebluedog.org).

And my last words of the day: muzzles ROCK!!!!!!! For dogs that need them, why should we be so hesitant to put them on? I’m thinking we should all start getting some bling-style muzzles and make it a fashion statement, simply so people will start using them and stop being worried about what their neighbours will say!

Written by Dr Enid Stiles, DVM MSc, Sherwood Park Animal Hospital

2 comments

  1. I have dog that started growling at some other dogs several months ago. He has never bit a person or a dog, but I am embarassed when he growls at another dog that is trying to greet him. I don’t know when he is going to growl – I am not picking up the same signals that perhaps my dog is. I think he was scared after another dog played with him too aggressively and bit his neck. Hopefully with positive experiences over time he will learn to trust other dogs again.

  2. I appreciate both your sensitivity to and your advocacy for our canine friends. The only times when I ever came close to being bitten by a frightened dog, there was no growl to warn me ~ fortunately, I could read the warning look in the dog’s eyes loud and clear. I just have to ask about your photo subject: what became of this dog’s lower incisors?

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