Conventional approaches to dog bite prevention focus on what a dog is “saying” through behavior but a soon to be published study in Journal of Veterinary Behavior by researchers Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins shifts the focus to what people are thinking instead, especially when those thoughts are “it will never happen to me.”
In the research, conducted in England, eight women were interviewed about their experiences with being bitten by dogs. The study discusses concerns with the growing number of dog bites (which may be actually difficult to determine as they are often not reported if medical attention is not warranted) along with the effectiveness of bite prevention. Avoiding bites centers on paying careful and close attention to canine body language and responding to signals that a bite is forthcoming. These signals are often categorized in animal behavior as “distance increasing behaviors.” Because fighting is costly from a biological perspective (injuries prevent hunting, foraging, mating and more), ritualized threat displays from hissing to growling to snapping or roaring, etc. usually end with one of the animals deferring to the other and moving away. In Westgarth and Watkins’ study impediments to an appropriate response of deference to warning signals of a forthcoming bite are listed as: 1) not interacting with the dog prior to the bite (or being in the wrong place at the wrong time as in running past a dog that bites at people who run), 2) the location and context of the event (a play bite or a bite to a burglar in the home cannot be equated to biting without provocation in public) and 3) whether or not the individual believes in the seriousness of the warning along with their capability and facility in stopping the bite from happening.
While there is much to discuss about dog bites and the how’s and what’s and why’s and where’s of the factors surrounding them, Westgarth and Watkins highlight a factor we often neglect in the discussion; that we can skip over most of what is relevant to the dogs when it is not relevant to us.
The researchers found that all study participants knew about dog bog behavior and believed this understanding and past exposure should have enabled them to respond more appropriately and evade the bite. But they didn’t respond appropriately. This lack of an appropriate response stems mostly from an overarching belief of “it would not happen to me.” And it may also be that this belief also goes along with another belief, one that says that because one knows about dogs one is exempted from listening to them at times. The limitations of these beliefs are noted eloquently by Westgarth and Watkins: “When the danger of a dog bite occurring is considered low, behaviour change is unlikely to occur. Even if participants have been bitten before they still held the belief that ‘it would not happen to me.” This makes it difficult to know how to target interventions. If there is no perceived need, there is no need to participate in education, or to act upon any new knowledge, because the person does not believe a bite will happen to them, or could happen again. They will have little regard or follow-thorough for interventions that educate about how to take preventative action. Therefore, their behaviour will not change.”
People I work with often talk about their belief that their love, affection and knowledge of dogs is, they believe, apparent to all dogs, not just the dogs which with they have relationships. Additionally, we often also place a burden of “trust” on our own dogs not to indulge natural (and necessary) defensive canine behavior by virtue of our relationship to them. In the study in question as one of the participant’s notes: “…I knew he’d go for me but you kind of expect that when you’ve got that trust bond with your dogs that maybe they wouldn’t, even if you do something to upset them, so that’s probably why it upset me because I was maybe expecting him not to be like that even though I knew that he would kind of thing so. It’s silly really…”
Silly and when you think of it, unfair. Thinking and wanting dogs not to have personal space that needs respecting because we would like to interact with them however we want and not on their terms is both silly and unfair. So is ignoring the warning signs of stress and discomfort because we do not believe they should apply to us. Our love and knowledge for and about dogs do not make an exception of our need to listen and respond appropriately to what a dog is clearly telling us.
Having been bitten for similar reasons, I carry a small scar on one hand. It is a constant reminder that when working with animals one needs to always know that they have much to say and much attention needs to be paid to it and if I am someone who is fortunate enough to understand what is being said than I am obligated by the love and understanding I have for animals to listen them.
-Westgarth, C., Watkins, F. (2015). A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites. Journal of Veterinary Behavior