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Owner Attacked by Dog and Loses Arms: Was it Provoked or Out of the Blue?

11/18/2013 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Owner attacked

Bloody attack.
A 65-year old Connecticut woman loses her entire left arm and part of her right arm after being mauled by their two-year old family dog, Tuxedo. When police arrived on Monday Nov 8 around 11:30 AM, they found Anna Murray under her car where she had hidden to fend off the dog. Deeming the dog to be an immediate threat, they shot and killed Tuxedo. The dog's brain is being tested for rabies at the state laboratory.

The dog belonged to her 26 year-old twin sons Matthew and Ian , who live with Anna. While the dog had never been reported as showing aggression to people, Animal Control had responded twice during the summer to reports by neighbors that the dog had gotten loose. Furthermore, according to CT Post reports, police had also gone to Murray's home several times to arrest her 26-year-old son, Ian. State court records show that he was found guilty of a 2005 robbery and conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery.

In cases like this, readers most likely fall at two ends of the spectrum. One side says there must have been signs and provocation of some sort and this dog could have been saved. The other side says attacks like this are out of the blue and these dogs that resemble pit bull-type breeds should be put to sleep, they are unsafe.

So who's correct? Well, like all topics of importance, there is truth on both sides.

Was the attack provoked or out of the blue?

Oddly enough, the answer is "yes" for both of these questions as well as "no." While most dog attacks are not intentionally provoked, in some cases the dogs are intentionally trained. And in the case where a tough-breed of dog is owned by a violent criminal that cause is higher on the list.

A far more frequent cause of aggression, though, is that humans generally have inadvertently triggered the behavior or accidentally reinforced behaviors that can eventually lead to aggression. For instance, the most common cause of aggression to unfamiliar people is fear, and especially fear brought on when people approach and overwhelm a dog in an accidentally threatening way. They fail to recognize signs that the dog is fearful and they stare at, lean towards and reach out to the dog, often with friendly intentions. To the fearful dog, it looks like human is homing in on them with an intent to harm. For months the dog may cope with this type of greeting by backing away or freezing but it can just be a matter of time before they realize that the response of barking, lunging and even biting works better for keeping people away. For the humans, who do not know how to recognize the signs of fear and anxiety, the defensive attack does truly appear out of the blue.

But even non-fearful animals can become aggressive if certain types of behaviors are reinforced. What behaviors would these be? The ones that encourage impulsivity, over-arousal and encourage the dog to just react out of excitement rather than exercising self-control. For instance, puppies love to grab and chew any object they can get in their mouth. If you accidentally reward grabbing or chewing of your clothing or arms or jumping all over you in excitement, then you can be creating a serious problem for yourself down the road. By reward, I mean if you wave your arms around and squeal in surprise or pain, you sound and look like a human squeaky toy and you end up training the dog to grab you more. Even if you shout at the puppy in reprimand, often this causes these dogs to become more excited and to grab, jump and pull harder.

Similarly, if you play tug and your dog barks and paces and jumps on you to get the toy and then won't reliably let go on cue, you could be setting yourself up for trouble down the road. And the play doesn't even have to involve biting and grabbing to be a problem. For instance, if when you go to play fetch and the tennis ball is your dog's cue to sprint eratically, bark forcefully, jump in and out, and sometimes nip you out of excitement and your dog has learned that this impulsive, reactive behavior repeatedly gets him what he wants. That's because arousal and aggression are on a continuum--meaning, when animals become increasingly excited they can get to a point where they react aggressively without thinking. This occurs in people too. Like when kids start playing too roughly and then suddenly in the excitement one hurts the other and a fight breaks out. Or like when a group of football fans experience the elation when their team wins the Superbowl and suddenly they go from mild mannered to violent participants of a riot.

Now go back to the situation of the dog and imagine that not only does he practice this overly aroused behavior during play sessions, but what if he also practices it every time he greets his owners or if he's kept in the yard and practices barking, lunging, and chasing whenever someone walks by his property. His behavior may just look like fun but if he gets to the stage where he actually bites or attacks a person or dog, then retrospectively those behaviors were inadvertently training him to be aggressive.

What Can Pet Owners Do to Ensure That Their Dog Doesn't Attack "Out of the Blue"

Now that you know that these attacks aren't really "out of the blue" what can owners do to help prevent tragedies? First, they can learn to recognize signs of fear and anxiety (See Poster of Body Language of Fear in Dogs) and keep their dog out of situations where they feel the need to defend themselves. Second they can enlist the help of a trained professional such as a veterinary behaviorist (www.avsabonline.org or www.dacvb.org) or certified applied animal behaviorist (http://animalbehaviorsociety.org/) who can put them on a program that teaches the dog to associate unfamiliar dogs and people with positive experiences and alleviates their fear (See How to Deal with Dogs who Bite).

Third, owners need to put their dogs on a program that trains impulse control and provides owners with the skills to provide clear direction and guidance. For instance, in one version of the Learn to Earn program, dogs learn to automatically say please by sitting for everything instead of taking whatever they want impulsively. That means automatically sit first for all food rewards (generally their daily allotment of food doled out piece by piece during training sessions), petting, to have their toy tossed, to get their leash on, to go on walks, and more. Unruly behavior causes the rewards to go away and only the calm, focused, polite behavior earns what they want.

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How does this look when we apply it to the situations described above? Well, now instead of having a puppy who grows into an adult dog that nips, grabs and jumps at your arms in order to solicit play, that puppy sits politely while wagging his tail in order to get you to pet him or give him an appropriate chew toy. He learned that every time he started to mouth your hands you would pull your arms back within half a second and stand completely stationary and still until he sat again. That adult dog who goes into a frenzy when you take a tennis ball out now sits focused and calm until the toy is tossed. And the terriers who go bonkers whenever you get home can now sit calmly to earn your attention instead of getting so excited that they get into a tussle.

These are the strategies that will help your dogs live a crime free life and that teach dogs to think calmly instead of reacting mindlessly and sometimes aggressively. If all pet owners took these strategies to heart, then the incidences of dog attacks, especially those bad enough to hit the news, would dwindle and then disappear.