Do biting dogs deserve a second chance?
By Leslie Garrett
I opened the front door to a rubber arm. Not just a rubber arm, of course. It was held by an animal behaviorist who’d come to our door in search of the “aggressive dog” for which she had been called. But it was the arm that came through the door first. Polar the “aggressive dog” looked curiously at it, then peeked around the door to see who was holding this odd thing.
It wasn’t the reaction anticipated by the animal behaviorist I’d called the week earlier in a panic because Polar had bitten a farmer, a woman who delivers our produce and meat every week. The farmer was someone he liked. Someone he’d never shown the slightest aggression toward. Then again, he’d never shown aggression toward anyone. I’d managed to convince my husband, a “one-bite-and-you’re-out” kinda guy, to give Polar a stay of execution. The behaviorist was here to determine if Polar deserved this second chance.
Each year, roughly 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Only one in five bites require medical attention but to anyone who’s ever been bitten, the severity isn’t necessarily the issue. I’ve known huge men to be terrified of dogs based on a minor incident that occurred decades earlier. And despite the old “man bites dog” joke, dog bites are news. Now more than ever, in this era of breed profiling and bans.
So it was with a whole lot of worry and second-guessing that we sought Polar’s second chance.
Why dogs bite
Polar, a Great (or at that moment, a not-so-great) Pyrenees, isn’t the stereotypical biting dog. That dubious honor is reserved for Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. Though, as two powerful breeds frequently trained to be aggressive, we get ourselves into a chicken/egg situation. As our behaviorist noted sternly, “ANY dog can bite under certain circumstances.”
And therein lies the rub: What are the circumstances under which a dog will bite? And is it ever possible to predict whether a dog will bite?
Our circumstances seemed benign on the surface: Polar had met our farmer any number of times without incident. She frequently brought him—and our other dogs—bones.
And yet…Pyrenees are noted guard dogs and, with our other dog recently deceased, it’s possible he was stepping into the role of protector, a position he had formerly yielded to his older canine sister. He had recently turned two, moving from puppyish exuberance to adult-like responsibility.
Polar’s history as a rescue also factored in: He’d been seized in deplorable condition from a goat barn by a sheriff. Our bite victim had, just that morning, helped a neighboring farmer with a pregnant goat. She smelled like goat. Could that have triggered something?
Our perpetrator wasn’t talking. And that, of course, is the dilemma. We cobble together bits and pieces in the hopes that we can find a motive. If we know what happened, our reasoning goes, we can prevent it from happening again.
It is, of course, an imperfect science.
Polar seemed mildly curious about this rubber arm and more curious about the woman who held it. She entered, poised to meet the “aggressive dog” she’d heard about. Polar, genuinely delighted to meet her, wagged his tail.
Before the day Polar bit our farmer I would have told you, in all sincerity, that Polar didn’t bite. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” I would have said. While I still don’t believe he has a “mean bone,” I no longer believe him incapable of hurting a person. How could I? The greatest predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So why is he still in my home? A home with three children, two other dogs, two cats, a rabbit, and a guinea pig?
Dog behaviorist’s assessment
That was exactly the question I got from the behaviorist I called. “It’s like having a loaded gun in your house,” she said simply. “You have children. I have no idea why you even want me to visit.”
I felt somewhat crazy. Like people who blame the accuser instead of the accused. However, I explained to her that this was completely out of character for Polar and that I certainly understood the gravity of the situation. But, I pleaded, please just meet him. The behaviorist stayed more than two hours, doing everything she could to provoke Polar. She pushed him. She gave him a bone then took it back. Throughout it all, Polar responded as if this was a rather curious but nonetheless pleasant game.
In the end, she shrugged her shoulders and, though we talked about possible motivations, admitted we’ll likely never know what set Polar off. She felt comfortable, she said, if we undertook some further training measures, giving Polar a second chance. The experience has altered the way I view dogs. No longer are they toddlers in dog suits—sweet, funny and, even angry, basically harmless.
Polar is a dog, with thousands of years of dog history in his DNA. He will respond like a dog and thinking otherwise can get both of us into trouble. My role is to understand that, mitigate it in any way possible through training and hope that I can wave that rubber arm good-bye for good.
What do you think: do biting dogs deserve a second chance? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.