Given that everyone with access to the internet can post their opinions or poorly researched articles, it’s tough to determine true and false information about dog behavior. Too often, folks rely on shared knowledge from family and friends, who base conclusions (that you’re relying on to keep your family safe) on one dog they’ve known, a story they heard from a co-worker, or a tragic tale they read online.
Our canine companions and two-legged loved ones pay if we’re not comparing facts or looking to scientific sources to prevent scary situations.
Read on for two myths that are commonly shared to prevent dog bites and well-founded ways to keep your family safe.
Myth Buster #1: There are no dangerous breeds.
I could tell you that I live with a dog who looks like a breed often labeled as “dangerous” and that he’s the sweetest, smushiest being I’ve ever met. I could also tell you that while two dogs who broke out of their backyard attacked us that Gavin laid there, helpless, rather than attacking back. And I could also share that my dog has volunteered with 100s of school children and hospice patients, all of whom loved him for his gentle, affectionate nature—all true.
However, I’m telling you there is no dangerous breed because I formally studied animal behavior, alongside world-renowned experts, when I obtained my master’s degree. I’ve worked with more than 3,500 dogs since 2001. And I’ve met dogs of every breed that wiggled and jiggled and I’ve also met dogs in the same breed family who scared me so badly that it took days for my nerves to recover from fear.
When we label a dog dangerous because of his breed, purely based on head, ear, or body shape—nice dogs die every minute because people overlook them in shelters. Sure, there are aggressive dogs in shelters, but often dogs are barking as you pass them because they desperately need attention and mental stimulation, that shelter volunteers can’t always provide. And these homeless dogs are locked up in a loud, strange place, with only a cold concrete floor to sleep. Once those dogs have a safe, warm home and appropriate exercise, many of them relax and become amazing family dogs.
Labeling a dog dangerous doesn’t prevent bites. Monitoring a new dog’s behavior, slowly introducing your dog to family and friends, and praising and rewarding him for making good choices, maintaining relaxed body language, and not cowering or tensing in real-life scenarios will prevent dog bites. However, not giving a dog space who’s exhibiting warning signs or allowing a toddler to corner a trembling or growling dog will put you and your family in danger, no matter what breed, color, shape, or size.
Which leads me a horrible side effect when we label some breeds as dangerous. By default, a dog who’s not that breed is automatically considered safe. What then happens is Breed A isn’t left alone with your child, because you read somewhere that dogs who look like him are conditioned to hurt people. However you deduce that it’s ok to keep Breed B in the same room with your toddler while he’s chewing on a bone because Breed B isn’t on some dangerous breed list—Breed B is fluffy, Breed B is the same breed of dog you had growing up, and he never bit anyone.
Every dog is different. Assuming a dog is safe because his physical characteristics are similar to your childhood dog puts the people you love in potentially dangerous situations.
It takes an entire year to know an adult dog, to really understand what makes him happy, scared, defensive, or none of the above, so practice common sense. Reward your dog when you walk towards him and his bone and praise your dog for any relaxed body language, even if a child is two blocks away.
Myth Buster #2: It’s not always how you raise dogs.
Yes, puppies have development periods and the more positive experiences a puppy has as he’s maturing have long-term effects on his behavior. A puppy who’s had a traumatic or scary experience around children at five months of age is more likely to develop fear-based behaviors towards children than a puppy who’s been introduced to one child at a time, at a pace that keeps him carefree.
However, dogs are intelligent, emotional, and social creatures. I’ve met countless rescue dogs that softly lean into the first person that offers a loving lap, even after being neglected and abused for years. And, I’ve seen homeless dogs with horrible scars indicating they’ve been attacked by other dogs yet, they play bow and wiggle for new dogs they meet in controlled, thoughtful introductions.
Again, the key is to use common sense. You don’t bring home a dog with an unknown history or a terribly sad past and just let him loose with your resident dogs, hoping for the best. You let them sniff each other through a fence (at a distance and butt first). You walk them together. You traipse around in large circles, on a leash (how dogs not seeking conflict approach each other) without physical contact in a neutral area—always watching body language before getting one inch closer to each other. For some dogs, the acclimation process may take weeks and months before you’re ready to let them off leash (no toys, food, or other valuable resources), but it’s worth the time to keep your precious pup safe and not send a dog who’s already experienced trauma and abandonment back to the shelter.
Every dog is different. Give your rescue dog time to take in the smells and sights of his new home before any face to face introduction, people or dog.
It may seem easy to consider a dog unsafe based on his looks or to assume puppies can’t develop behavioral issues (another myth for another day). However, once you see low-level stress signs and give your dog more time and space to acclimate to his world, you can’t unsee these subtle behaviors that will keep everyone safe.