Held to a Higher Standard, part II

We humans recognize that there are constructive, or at least “legal” and acceptable ways for us to vent our aggression.  Instead of gunning the motor and ramming the car that cuts me off in traffic, I turn the air “blue” inside my car with some choice bad words.  Rather than pulling out a gun and shooting the guy who lets his Mastiff poop on my lawn (and doesn’t clean it up) I can shoot  a picture and with this evidence report him to the appropriate  authorities.  Though I might want to punch out the rude sales clerk, I can be rude in turn, or ask to speak to her manager.  We are social animals, meaning we live with others of our kind, and that means we will inevitably disagree and anger each other, sometimes to the point of violence.  All of the examples above are aggression, but we’ve ritualized physical violence into lawsuits, complaints and swearing.

Dogs have evolved a similar set of ritualized behaviors.  They’re social animals, too  — and they carry dangerous weapons (large teeth and powerful jaws) around with them all the time!   If dogs hadn’t found other ways to express and avoid violence, they’d have killed and injured each other to the point where their species wouldn’t have survived!  Dogs actually start learning this ritualization before they can see or walk.  If the puppies bite too hard on mama-dog’s nipples, she gets up and takes “dinner” with her.  Puppy teeth, those super-sharp little spikes, come in about the time puppies start wrestling with their siblings.  It has been theorized that evolution “selected” those sharp teeth (not really needed for nursing) because dogs need to learn bite inhibition.  Needle-like teeth penetrate their sibling’s fur, so they can feel a bite that is too roughly delivered! And just like mama-dog did, a sibling who feels pain will pull away from her brother and not want to play.  So dogs learn to “pull their punches” long before they develop the jaw strength and grow the adult teeth to do real damage.

There’s a whole set of ritualized warnings before the inhibited bite! We don’t give dogs enough credit! They actually very rarely make contact. They prefer to freeze with a closed mouth, wrinkle a lip, show some teeth, growl, glare sideways, give a warning snap in the general direction of what’s annoying them. People often say, “He tried to bite, but I pulled away in time.” Unlikely!  A dog’s reflexes are so much faster than ours that when they want to bite — they do. A ninja couldn’t react fast enough to avoid a snap if the dog was in earnest!  A snap that doesn’t “land” is a warn-off that even we humans should be able to notice, understand and respect.

Most dogs will bite if pushed far enough.  Fearful dogs are more likely to bite than “dominant” dogs who are sure of themselves.  However, even when a dog actually bites a human, it’s most often a warning bite where the dog inhibits the bite force. Rather than crushing bone, the snap causes a few punctures. If that bite fell on another dog’s neck it probably wouldn’t even reach the skin through the hair.  Unfortunately, we humans don’t have that protection.

I am NOT making light of a dog biting a human.  It is profoundly shocking and upsetting when one does.  Some dear friends own a lovely “all-American” dog that I’ve known from her puppyhood 9 years ago.  She was under a year old when this incident occurred and I was not as well-versed in a dog’s body language then as I am now.  Helping to clean up the kitchen at their house, I noticed Funky licking the dishes already in the dishwasher.  I yelled at her, she continued to lick.  She may have given warning signals – I think I remember a growl — but I was too ignorant of Doglish then to pay attention. Thoughtlessly, I tried to push her jaws away from a resource she regarded as hers, and she bit me.  It brought me to tears!  Upon inspection, she hadn’t even broken the skin, but the action was so unexpected and seemed so violent to me that I cried!

Believe me, if Funky had wanted to do damage, she could and would have!  She clearly inhibited her bite – meaning it as a warning, not punishment!  I consider that this incident was my fault for expecting her, a puppy, to understand what was forbidden in a human household.  I was a visitor in her house and trying to tell her what to do – which we humans rightly consider to be our right, but at times fail to TEACH the dog!  I ignored any warning signals, and she still didn’t want to really harm me.  To my knowledge, Funky has never bitten anyone else.  She is incredibly gentle with small children and babies, noticeably making allowances for their grabbing, poking and pulling behavior.  How sad if my friends had over-reacted and sent Funky to a shelter or had her euthanized for that one snap.  Unfortunately, many people might have — and many lawmakers want to require them to do so!

I believe dog owners should be required to learn more about their body language and how to deal with and not provoke a dog into biting.  I pray that parents teach their children to recognize the warning signals a dog gives and respect those signals instead of punishing the dog for giving them! It is my fervent hope that we do not automatically assume that all dogs, in all circumstances, with all people will be calm, happy and friendly.   My point in this and yesterday’s posting is that HUMANS are the animals with the bigger brain, so shouldn’t we be gracious enough to extend to dogs the same forgiveness according to “circumstances” that we claim for ourselves?  I certainly would place a bit more of the onus for managing and dealing with those differing circumstances on the animal with the bigger brain!

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