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Tooth and Consequences

Dog owners frequently ignore signs of danger

March 28, 2004|Matthew Margolis | Matthew Margolis is host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" and coauthor of 18 books about dog behavior and training, including "GRRR! The Complete Guide to Understanding & Preventing Aggressive Behavior in Dogs." E-mail: unclematty@

Ruby Sharum, the 91-year-old Orange County woman who lost both of her arms after she was attacked last month by her great-grandson's pit bull, had this to say to a reporter about the dog: He was "the perfect pet.... We never thought that he'd wind up doing anything like that." Her neighbors reported that they had felt threatened by the dog. But the love some people have for their pets is dangerously blind.

I'm a dog trainer and I recently got a call from a woman who was more curious than hysterical. Her 9-year-old golden retriever had just bitten her baby in the face in a move that was obviously aggressive. The mother wanted to know why the dog had done that. But this wasn't the first time. This family had been living with a problem canine for years and had seen it growl and even bite previously. The warning signs couldn't have been clearer.

Now the family is part of a frightening group of statistics. Children under the age of 12 are attacked by dogs more than any other age group, and more often than not it's by the family dog.

It became obvious after a few minutes on the phone that the golden retriever would bite again and that this family had more of a problem than a biting dog. I told the mother that the dog could not be trusted around the baby and should never be around children. Her response floored me: She said she could not get rid of the dog -- because it was her first baby.

What is going on here? Have we humanized dogs so much that we've forgotten they are canines? Have we come to believe that a dog's motivations and ability to learn are just like a child's?

It's true that you can easily teach a child not to hit someone. But telling a dog not to bite doesn't mean the dog will obey. Canines have drives that are different from human drives and more basic. But a lot of people seem willing to put their children in harm's way because they are so devoted to their dogs. I call that child endangerment.

Don't get me wrong. I love dogs. They are my life, my work and my passion. My wife and I live with three of them. Our home is safe for us and visitors, including children, because we are realistic about what our dogs can and cannot do.

Twenty years ago, only about 10% of my calls were from dog owners seeking help with aggressive dogs. Today, at least 60% of callers have dogs with some form of aggressive behavior, and a great number of them have children in the home. I speak with 100 or more dog-owning families a week and have been doing this for 30-some years. You do the math. That's a lot of children in harm's way.

So, why the big leap in the number of aggressive-dog calls? Yes, the dog population continues to increase, but I have my own theories. Two are at the top of my list.

First, it goes back to the humanization of dogs. If you think of them as children, not canines, you fail to learn their language, behaviors and needs. If you don't understand dog behavior, how can you recognize dog aggression? And if you are not able to deal with it, then you will be more likely to ignore it, deny it and ultimately regret it.

A second problem is with well-intentioned people misguidedly trying to provide solutions. There are large numbers of rescue groups, shelters and caring individuals whose mantra is "Save the Dog," and for that we are grateful. But a great number of these people are volunteers without the tools or training to recognize the many forms of aggression. And many owners won't reveal the dog's aggressive behavior because they just want the dog to find another home, regardless.

As I was writing this article, I took a call from a woman who brought a mixed-breed dog home from a shelter the previous week. All she wanted was a dog for her family. It never occurred to her that the dog might be aggressive. The dog bit her son viciously on the hand. The woman had not considered aggression in selecting a dog, and shelter staff members had not revealed the problem to her. They probably were not even aware of it.

There are other problems -- bad breeding and breeding dogs for fighting. These dogs often wind up in the general population.

There are what I call "yard dogs" that are confined to a backyard without socialization or training. They become super-territorial and spend their days barking at neighbors and passersby. When they get out, they bite.

Lack of training is a big problem. Training puppies early on can help prevent aggressive behavior or modify it before problems become habits.

But instead, dog owners don't take responsibility, and parents don't equate the signs of dog aggression with child endangerment. Often they don't even consider the possibilities, or they simply can't believe that their dogs would hurt their own children, but they do. It's that humanization thing again.

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