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Five Dog Myths that Can Lead to Dog Bites

It’s the kind of headline that makes dog behaviorist Melissa Berryman’s blood boil: “Dog on Trial after Attacking Child.”

According to the report, a Pointer-Hound mix named Milo, a dog that had never caused any problems, was napping on the couch in his home in January when a 6-year-old neighbor arrived. The boy sat down on the couch and started petting the sleeping dog. The child was bitten in the face after being left alone with the dog. No one witnessed the incident.

“The dog was put on trial for an accident that’s preventable when people understand what our behavior means to dogs,” says Berryman, who has spent years studying dog bites and is the author of “People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers
Don’t Teach” (iUniverse, 2011). She also teaches classes on safety and liability protection for dog owners, provides community safety solutions and promotes the right way to behave around dogs through her Dog Owner Education and Community Safety Council.

Former animal control officer Melissa Berryman is a dog-bite consultant and the author of “People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers
Don’t Teach.” Courtesy of Melissa Berryman.

“Dog owners are set up for failure because our default is to blame the dog,” Berryman says. “Owners get fined or sued for repeated human mistakes. Dogs often pay with their lives for mistakes made by people,” says Berryman, who has a bachelor’s degree in animal science pre-veterinary medicine and a master’s degree in public administration.

That’s the case for Milo. At his February 27 hearing in Mansfield, Mass., selectmen voted to euthanize him. The owners had 10 days to appeal.

“Prevention has to be the priority,” says Berryman, who was a Massachusetts animal control officer from 1993 to 1999. “Sure, it’s cute to us when the baby hugs the dog. But dogs do not say ‘I love you’ with a hug. When one dog ‘hugs’ another, it’s an act of domination. It should be a given that people do not hug dogs. Yet the message for children to hug dogs is prevalent in our culture and the facial bites continue.”

How you approach a dog can mean the difference between a positive interaction and an injury. Reaching out so the dog can sniff you is not recommended. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

What are some other common misperceptions people have about dog and human behaviors – and how can you change your behavior to prevent catastrophes?

Berryman shares five:

Myth: When greeting a new dog, you should extend your hand for it to sniff.
Fact: Dogs don’t sniff each other’s paws when greeting, and like us prefer to be asked before being touched by a stranger. Instead, ask the owner and then also “ask” the dog by tapping your hand on your thigh, simulating a wagging tail, and act friendly. The dog will relax and nuzzle you, need to sniff more to get to know you, or will stay away.

Myth: Breed dictates temperament.
Fact: Dogs, first and foremost, are predatory canines that live in groups. What dictates temperament is their pack position, the role you, the human, play in the group and the rank of group members. Dogs have superior-inferior interrelationships, and command and defer accordingly. And just as siblings in a family have the same parents yet are very different, one cannot purchase behavior by buying a dog of a certain breed.

Myth: When a dog charges, there is nothing you can do.
Fact:When a dog charges you, it’s trying to decide if you are friend, foe or prey. Dogs’ eyesight is poor, so wearing a hat or sunglasses and pushing or carrying other objects can scare them. Act like a friend, and pretend you are not afraid. Stand facing the dog with relaxed body language, tap your thigh with your hand, and use a high-pitched voice for a friendly greeting like “good girl.” Fake it if you are afraid.

A “Beware of the Dog” sign does not reduce your liability should your dog bite someone. Any dog can be provoked to bite under the “right” circumstances. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

Myth: Posting a “Beware of Dog” sign will protect you from liability if your dog injures someone on your property.
Fact: Dogs can only read body language. These signs make people react to your dog in a fearful manner, which is more likely to cause a dog to consider visitors prey and bite them. Use “No Trespassing” and “Dog At Play” signs instead.

Myth: Only bad dogs owned by bad people bite.
Fact:Even responsible dog owners operate under the same false beliefs about human and canine behavior. They are also encouraged to take a passive role concerning their dogs. Any dog can bite, especially when it feels personally threatened, is exposed to prey behavior or thinks that someone lower in rank threatens its resources, such as food, toys, bedding and the attention of its owner.

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  • Mark Sachau: Duxinarow Labs March 23, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    Well said and a great reminder for people who consider themselves “dog people.” In your dog friendly home It’s important to instruct human guests (mature or not) how to interact with your pets. Kids playing in dog beds, holding food over their heads, interfering with feeding, and scaring dogs, inadvertently or not, can produce disastrous results. I’ve always found it best to introduce pets and guests in an open area before confining them together in a small room or car.

  • heather
    Heather rife dvm March 23, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Excellent article, many misconceptions put to rest….short but to the point!

  • Janet Hare March 23, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    Well written indeed! Thank you Penny, I’m sharing this with all my doggy and non-doggy friends.

  • Judy Higgins Kasper March 23, 2013 at 11:42 AM

    Very well said. Reminders to us all that dogs are not people in furry jackets. Thanks Penny for your insight.

  • Katie Tazza March 23, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    People think that bending down and getting at eye level is the way to approach a strange dog. When I am selling a new puppy to a family, I will often put my face right up to theirs, so They can understand how threatening this must be to a dog. When you have company, if the dog seems really uncomfortable, unless you are going to have a training session with the guests, put the dog in its crate.

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