Dog Bite Prevention Week
May 15 - 21st
Do Those Snappy Little Dogs Count?
written by Veronica of ScrappyRat
Anyone with a mouth can bite. It’s certainly not a behavior dogs invented, and in most cases dogs do their best to not bite. In most bites or near-bites I have witnessed, the problem wasn’t a vicious animal who bit without warning, though that’s how it is often interpreted by the human at the business end of the bite. The problem is that, being human and such verbal creatures, we tend to miss dogs’ efforts to communicate with us. The warnings get lost in translation, so to speak.
A dog who is frightened is far more likely to bite than an aggressive one. One good example is the “snappy little dog” people are always complaining about. It’s so easy for us to forget that we are enormous, clumsy creatures to a 20 pound animal. From their point of view, the Sears Tower has just walked up to reach out a girder toward them. It can be scary, even in the best of situations.
If you watch carefully, you will likely notice the dog using “calming signals” (facial expressions dogs use to tell each other, “Okay, settle down now. I don’t want to cause any trouble, so let’s all just calm down.”) The dog will usually yawn, avert his eyes, lick his lips, or all three. In an ideal situation, the human gets it, slows their approach and behaves gently to show they aren’t a threat by crouching low and petting the dog gently under the chin to appear smaller and less looming.
The dogs understand these gestures clearly, so they tend to assume we do too. So imagine that you’re talking to your friend and not really paying full attention to the calming signals, or you just don’t know how to read the message he’s giving so you bend over, leaning over him, and start petting him on the head. Now we look even bigger and more frightening—picture the Sears Tower leaning over you and reaching over your head so you can’t see what that extended girder is lowering toward.
He has to up the ante to get you to pay attention. He may try to back away, or even offer a low growl, which can be very hard to hear for creatures like humans who have a very small range of wavelengths we can hear. Again, the dog is likely assuming that he’s being quite clear, even if you haven’t caught on yet. If you’re paying close attention, you could probably feel the vibrations or hear the growl (which in little dogs can sound deceptively like an odd buzz). The next step is the bite, resulting in a dog who can’t figure out why you were so aggressive and scary, and a human who thinks the bite came out of nowhere.
While we’re on the subject of “snappy little dogs”, there’s another reason they tend to be, well, snappy. We humans tend to act insane around them. We do all sorts of things we’d never dream of doing to a larger dog. When was the last time you saw someone squeal and grab a Rottweiler around the middle, hoisting his feet off the ground? How often do you see people grab a malamute and push their face nose-to-nose with them despite having just met? When was the last time you went to a friend’s house and scooped up their chocolate lab with his legs dangling mid-air below? How about a parent only half-watching (at best) as their children run toward, shout at, corner and mob a Staffordshire bull? People do these things to little dogs, usually with nothing but the best of intentions, then call the dog mean or vicious when they get bitten. We tend to forget these dogs are dogs and not toys or babies.
Which leads to the other thing humans do that makes small dogs into snappy ones -- and this is probably the most common way we fail small dogs—we fail to train and socialize them. We are terribly lazy when it comes to little dogs. We just pick them up rather than teaching them to walk on a leash. We think it’s cute when they hide from new things or loud noises. We carry them and baby them and ignore the fact that these animals are as intelligent as any other dog.
Little dogs need mental stimulation. They need to be able to interact and explore new places, meet new dogs. It’s not healthy or humane to ignore their need to be dogs and do the things dogs do, but too often nothing is done until the problem is severe and the dog is being put down in a shelter because he bit a toddler on the nose because he ‘d never been exposed to children before. A larger dog probably would have encountered children regularly in training class or on walks through the neighborhood. We cloister little dogs in ways we’d find ridiculous if the dog was larger.
I know a lot of people think it’s silly to train a small dog or to take them on walks when they have plenty of room to run inside the house, but if we’re going to shake the “snappy little dog” stereotype, we need to “bite-proof” our little dogs the same way we do our large dogs. In turn, we also need others to be more considerate of what our behavior looks like from the dogs’ point of view.
With a little consideration from humans, dog bites will happen a lot less often !