Four weeks ago the unthinkable happened. Our Chihuahua of nine years standing, Wilbur, was summarily dispatched by his best mate of a lifetime, our six year old Cardigan Corgi, Percy.
Wilbur was dead, no doubt. But thanks to instantaneous intervention (I was one metre away and witnessed the deed) he came back to us. And thanks to the seamless unfurling of emergency care that followed, he stayed (see related post: Wilbur’s demise and resurrection).
Do dogs bite?
As a breeder I am frequently asked if a given breed of dog bites. I have always found this an unusual question and I can best liken it to someone enquiring of a car dealer ‘You sell Fords; do they crash?’
And so it is that when I am asked this question in regard to dogs, I answer, ‘ Any dog can bite, any car can crash and any horse can kick. It is up to humans to manage the risk.’
Managing the risk
To manage risk you firstly need to identify what that risk is, as best any of us can.
Risk level depends on the interaction of two things: the chances of an event happening combined with the ramifications of the event.
For example, it might well be that the chances of the family pet of a zillion years biting someone are relatively low. But combine that with the ramifications of a dog bite to a baby or child and the risk factor skyrockets.
In other cases it could be that the chances of biting are more likely. Examples here include a new dog of a dominant breed entering the territory of your dog, or two dogs disputing over a food or a bone, or a new member is added to the family and jealousy arises.
Risk is also magnified by the breed you select to some extent, plus the dog’s background. With regard to breed, I am purely referring to dogs that have been selected for their aggressive temperaments. In regard to background, I am referring to dogs who might have been abused and/or trained to be aggressive intentionally or not.
Children and dogs – there is no safe breed
The second most common question I am asked is, ‘Are Dachshunds good with children?‘ This is another loaded question, for to me it says that the asker does not appreciate their responsibility and role in managing the risk that accompanies any-dog around any-child.
The fact is that young children do not understand dogs. They do not understand that poking a dog in the eye with a stick will hurt the dog, nor that accidentally falling 0n top of an old sleeping dog will frighten the dog and likely cause them pain as well.
Dogs are animals. If they are pained or frightened they might bite, if only in a reflex action. This will have no malice necessarily; they will have no intent either. They are simply instinctively reacting.
So the bottom line is that if your children are too young to understand that the dog needs to be treated with respect and care, then the children are too young to be left unsupervised with the family pet.
Why so cynical?
Interestingly, I had never been bitten by a dog until a few weeks ago and I have just turned 50. This is pretty amazing considering I am surrounded by so very many dogs and have never been without a dog since I was about four years old.
(The recent bite incident was a fear bite from a strange dog who was very distressed and in unfamiliar surrounds.)
Despite having had a relatively unscathed history in the dog-bite stakes, I have always understood and respected dogs for who they are. They are wonderful creatures whose qualities outstrip humans on so many many fronts, but they do possess the capacity to inflict a bite. I apply the same caution to my horses, and moreso to the stallion and the foals: horses can kick (and bite!) and hormones and youth magnify the chances of this.
As a 20 year old I worked at a pet shop over the Uni holidays one year and was amazed even then (as a young person) at the mothers who would wheel a stroller straight up to the face of a relinquished dog for sale in the shop and implore their infant to ‘Say hi to the nice doggy’, or similar.
In summary, NO dog – whatever the breeding – is safe to be left unsupervised with young children.
One of the trickiest things in managing risk is being able to second guess just what the risk is.
My first experience of how subtle or cryptic this can be was 20 years ago when I was breastfeeding my firstborn child.
We had all been commenting on how my much adored dog of 10 years standing (and bonded to me like glue) was coping so well with the arrival of the baby. We had expected her, naturally, to feel put out that I now had another in my life.
Despite the seemingly smooth entrance of baby into the family fold, I never for a moment considered leaving the baby and dog in the same room. Not even separated by height. I guess it was my instincts at work, born of my respect for the limitations of any dog.
It was about 8 weeks into baby being home when I detected a behaviour in my dog that sent alarm bells ringing. Thank God I had been circumspect about the relationship between my devoted loyal dog and baby. What I had failed to observe until that moment was that my dog was displaying clear signs of jealousy. How could I have missed this? Yet, then again, the signs were so subtle.
The jealousy behaviour I had missed was this: whenever baby would attach to feed, my dog sitting at the end of the same couch would rotate herself so she could not see us.
I was not mistaken. This behaviour I would observe repeated over and over again. I was shocked that what I had not observed for nearly two months had in all probability been happening the whole time. I had not detected the depth of her upset at being usurped; pushed to number two in the pecking order.
If those experiences have not taught me first hand the risks of dogs (some quite subtle), then events of the last few weeks surely have.
As this article started out, our dog Wilbur – all 2.5kg of him – was attacked by his best mate Percy (see related article, Wilbur’s demise and resurrection). The dynamics of the pair were they were best buddies, with Wilbur being very much the dominant dog and always bossing Percy about.
The trigger for this attack was so obscure that I doubt anyone could have foreseen it; I certainly didn’t.
Briefly, I had fed 37kg Percy and four other dogs (including Wilbur) half a fried egg each. About 20 mins later, and just one metre from my side, Wilbur and Percy were side by side. Wilbur gave his characteristic grumpy Chihuahua grizzle and then – as a bolt from the blue – gentle giant Percy (king of the weaned puppies) snatched him by the neck and gave one mighty silent whip of Wilbur’s little body as to break his neck. As a dog despatches a rabbit.
No fight ensured. No savaging, posturing or growling. No blood. Just silent sleath as this normally most gentle of dogs set about removing what was for him – at that moment in time – an irritation to be dealt with.
Post the event I analyse what happened as follows. Percy is a food focussed dog. At 37kg, he only is fed a little bit more than a 6kg dachshund yet still is overweight. This is quite sad for a dog who so loves food. I believe the fried egg I gave them served to set Percy’s food hankering soaring. Twenty minutes post egg, his blood fat levels and protein levels would have been raised, driving him to want more food. All this was invisible to me, as I sat working at my computer.
The scary bit is he despatched Wilbur over no food at all. There was no bone in dispute, nor one crumb of dried food even. I can only think Percy believed Wilbur had found some food. As simple, cryptic and scary as that: he snapped and attacked Wilbur to the death for apparently no reason at all (yet loads of reason in his food crazed mind).
Could I have foreseen this? Never. Not for this gentle dog. And not for no apparent reason.
Of course I am now 100% wiser concerning this risk factor. Percy will no longer be king of the weaned pups and i will never give him a rich food source out of the blue.
But most of all it has taught me that just as this event happened, so too there must exist a myriad of other scenarios just as impossioble to detect at the time.
And it makes me more than ever implore people: no young child is safe unsupervised around any dog.