(Better late than never? This post was supposed to publish a week ago but never posted, so I am posting now.)
If you read my last post, about Murphy, you know that I was very moved by him and my husband and I adopted him myself since he was not a dog we could adopt out safely. Murphy was a former foster that was adopted out around three and a half years ago. In that time, he was truly loved, the way that we hope all our fosters will be loved for the rest of their lives. He was a huge part of his family. He was returned to me after he bit one of his family members. In the situation in which it occurred, we consider it a provoked bite, but the fact remains that he hurt a girl very badly. In my last post, I was so optimistic. He seemed to be doing great. Then, later that night, things went south fast. He attacked one of my dogs and he made it clear that he wanted to finish the job. I sought behavior consultation from a professional, got prescription meds, and had already had him on calming supplements. After a week or two of keeping him away from my other dogs, things were getting worse and it was clear he’d never be trustworthy with the other dogs. With the support of our veterinary staff, our behavior consultant and with Murphy’s adoptive family, we made the hardest decision, the one that was our only choice.
I’m writing this because it is Dog Bite Prevention Week. There are blogs all over the net from dog trainers, vets, rescuers, and other professionals attempting to provide education as to what kind of body language indicates the potential for a bite, how to approach a dog, how kids should approach dogs, and more. I’m not here to write one of those. I’m here just to tell you that Murphy’s bite could likely have been prevented. Training wasn’t the issue, but rather his overall demeanor. Somewhere along the way, if someone (ourselves, the trainers that worked with him prior to adoption, his family) had picked up on signs that Murphy was an incredibly high strung dog that needed help, maybe one of us could have helped him. If someone had recognized Murphy was anxious and needed confidence, maybe he would have been more relaxed and comfortable in his own skin. His family noticed he was a “nervous” dog but accepted him for who he was and worked around his issues (this is an act of true love, it really is, but not the best thing for the dog.) They didn’t do anything wrong, but was there something they could have done differently? Did we miss something when he was with our rescue- I believe we did. It wasn’t until he came back that I saw that he was always tense, his muscles so tight and bunched that he felt more like a rock than an animal, and watched as he consistently signaled his discomfort even in very low-key situations. Even when we were out on a walk, he was near-frantic in his sniffing and searching, stopping with a paw up to carefully survey the surroundings… there were so many signs that this dog needed help. Help that came too late.
I don’t know if things would have changed with Murphy had there been any work to specifically address his insecurity and high-strung manner, but I do believe that it would only have helped Murphy lead a better life in the long run, if not saved his life altogether. There are a lot of things that can be done to help a dog become more comfortable in its own skin like training and walking; using only supportive, positive interactions; and activities that allow the dog to do something he’s naturally good at like scent work and tracking, herding (for some dogs) or even agility. Above all else is understanding your dog, the things that make him or her uncomfortable, and how to approach him in a non-threatening, reassuring manner. Please don’t assume you should just “live with” your dog’s fears or other “issues.” While your acceptance of him is commendable, it’s your obligation to help him feel safe and free from stress and anxiety. Address the health of his mental state and you are directly addressing the potential to bite, which not only protects people and animals your dog comes in contact with but could potentially save HIS life.