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Sarah Hodgson Headshot

You Had Me at GRRR

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(Tischman Photography)

Last month I began a series on "10 Ways To Avoid A Dog Bite," which I've developed into a lecture for lay people and professionals alike. The title of my lecture is "Reality Bites," and it's my hope that I can help to reduce the number of dogs who resort to biting in order to make themselves heard.

You may be thinking, "What does that mean?" Resort to biting? It sounds like the dog is making a conscious choice. Dogs communicating and the humans refusing to listen? What's that? A Saturday Night Live skit? Are you saying that people are to blame when dogs bite?

Well, yeah. Most of the time. I'll go on record with that. Most of the time, it's only after people refuse to yield, that a dog may resort to biting in order to protect itself. I refer to that moment as a dog's "biting point." Each dog has a different capacity for human folly and a unique way of communicating their escalating stress. It's the people who need more education -- not the dog.

Perhaps you're of the belief that dogs who bite people are bad and should be euthanized. While you're not alone, I'm here to argue the dog's case.

"Resort to biting" does imply that a dog is making a decision in the moment. Which they are, although they can't articulate their intension with words. Before most dogs bite, they've attempted several other means of communicating their fear or frustration. Here are the top three warning cues that often proceed a bite:

The Daily Growl. While some utterances invite interaction, such as a puppy's yip or a happy bark or howl, a dog who growls should be given his space. Period. While a growl conveys different thoughts (e.g. you're crowding my space, what's that thing in your hand, the way you're staring at me is freaking me out) there's a message behind every GRRR. Whatever the interpretation is, if a dog is growling at you, stand down.

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(S. Merikal)

A Posture is Worth 1000 Words. A happy dog shows it. He wags his tail slow and easy, not too high and not too low. He parts his lips, breathing in, breathing out. His body is relaxed and open for interaction. Ever see a dog cower, curved as though they'd like to drop into the floor or stare at you like you'd make a tasty snack? That's not a happy dog. That's a dog you should avoid.

Beware of the Moon Eye. Envision a lovely crescent moon -- a real one, so pretty in the sky. Now imagine the same shape in a dog's eye, and back off. Pronto. Known in professional circles as the "moon eye," it is generally accompanied with a rigid posture and hard stare, and followed by -- you guessed it, a bite.

Bite statistics, topping 4.7 million in the USA, suggest that most dogs' signals were either ignored or misread. If you want to avoid being bitten or being responsible for a biting dog, read up. It's not as random as it might seem.

Which brings me to rules four and five in my top ten tips for avoiding a dog bite in 2014.

Rule 4: Identify a dog's personal space.
Imagine a stranger -- for example, me -- approaching you very quickly. Whether I'm excited or angry you really can't tell because I'm coming towards you too quickly. Though I stop short inches from your head, you prepare for a direct hit, and you either brace or step aside.

Now imagine the same sequence, but in this skit, you're a dog. Woof. And as a dog you have a harder time predicting my intentions. Perhaps you'll feel like a happy-go-lucky retriever and jump up to kiss me. Perhaps a cautious mini- dachshund, so tiny and afraid of a direct hit. Or just maybe you're an under-socialized mix breed, and your plan is to bite first, ask questions later.

Either way, I'm a little self-absorbed to assume that any stranger -- dog or person -- would leap at the chance to meet me. I mean really.

Treat a dog like you would any other stranger. Approach calmly least you appear threatening. Stand at an arms length and don't stare. The calm-approach-don't-stare rule is critical. I know you're feeling the love, but dogs view these two things-staring and face-to-face greetings as confrontational. If you violate these rules, you're more likely to lose a potential fur-friend, than gain one.

If the dog's there extend a hand, palm up. It's personal space, canine style.

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(Teach Yourself Visual Dog Training, S. Hodgson, Wiley, 2006)

Rule 5: Let the dog approach you.
Some dogs are going to love you, others won't. Don't take this personally. Start with the open palm.

If a dog wants to know you, he'll make the next move. And if he doesn't? Don't take it personally.

This is actually a wonderful metaphor for life. I keep telling my tween as this truth relates to friendship, future dating and relationships in general.

If you hold out your palm and the dog comes forward, sniffs you and angles in closer, you've got a green light. You have a new friend. If a dog bounds up effusively, brace yourself for a set of paws and a French kiss, canine style. Some people love this, others don't.

If the dog mindfully avoids making eye contact, eyeballs you without blinking, or steps back, move on.

Don't take this personally. There are other fish in the sea, or as I like to say, there are many other dogs at the dog park.

People, all people, need to slow it down where dogs are concerned. Give a dog the same respect you'd offer anyone else, use a shred of good judgment before putting yourself in a dog's path and you won't get bitten. Guaranteed.

Stay tuned for part four, and add your voice to the conversation below!

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