The Blame Game: Who's at fault when dog bites Denver news anchor?

When a dog bit Denver morning news anchor Kyle Dyer in the face last week, it set the dog blogosphere and social media on fire. A high profile incident like this provides wonderful opportunities to help the general public better understand our dogs, how to be safe around them, and show them appropriate respect. The best example that I've seen of such education came from Dog Trainer Michael Baugh in a Houston TV segment that I highly recommend.  In most discussions other than Baugh's, however, I've noticed a disturbing trend. Almost every discussion (in fact almost every single comment) that I've read has focused on who to blame for this tragic incident. The dog trainers and animal welfare advocates who make up most of my Facebook feed have mostly blamed Dyer herself. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that someone must be blamed. We can't blame the dog, these well-intentioned observers argue, so we must blame someone else. 

I'm with them about not blaming the dog. To me the idea of placing blame on a dog is preposterous. It conveys an idea that dogs can understand and be held responsible for conforming to human ideas of morality. Dogs don't work that way. When we take them into our lives and demand that they behave in all sorts of unnatural ways, we bear the moral responsibility to understand how they experience the world, to teach them how to function in our society, and to protect them from situations they cannot handle. That didn't happen for the dog that bit Dyer. 

As Baugh details in his TV segment, the dog communicated in the best way that he knew how that he wasn't happy with Dyer's attention. The signals were pretty clear to most professionals. The poor pup had been through a lot in a very short time, and then he was dragged into a TV studio, put in front of cameras and bright lights, where his owner restrained him so tightly that he must have felt completely trapped as a complete stranger followed up rubbing all over his face by sticking her face right up to his. That's a pretty terrible experience for a dog. It's not shocking that he responded with a bite. Kudos to everyone working to make sure that people understand all of this. 

I wish that more of the training and animal welfare community showed as much compassion for Dyer as they have for the dog. People hug, kiss, and get in dogs' faces all the time. They don't know any better. Fortunately, most dogs are so fantastically tolerant of unintentional clueless human rudeness that such behavior almost never elicits aggression of any sort, let alone a bite. I think that only a very tiny percentage of casual dog owners would have recognized this dog's warning signals. I'm disappointed by the venom aimed at Dyer because she – like almost everyone else in our society – lacked the knowledge necessary to recognize the danger she was in. I agree that everyone should have that knowledge, if for no other reason than to treat our canine companions with more respect. Blaming individual bite victims for this almost universal ignorance, however, just seems cruel. If we must assign blame for this kind of thing, perhaps we animal care professionals and enthusiasts should start by asking ourselves why we have failed to make what seems like common sense to us truly common. 

I'm also concerned by the apparent dismissal in most of these discussions of the possibility that this could be a dog with real problems. Most serious dog people quickly recognized his discomfort, but his signals were actually rather subtle and his reaction relatively extreme. When he abandoned the strategy of avoidance, it took less than 2 seconds for him to go from warning lip pucker to a very hard bite. That's unusual and troubling. Most dogs would have growled, snapped at the air, or lunged before biting, and even most biters would have inhibited the force of the bite much more than this dog. 

A dog prone to biting so hard with so little overt warning beforehand is a dangerous dog. This bite could be a complete anomaly for the dog who bit Dyer. The recent stress and the way that the combination of tight restraint and Dyer's proximity to the dog's face limited his freedom of action may account for an otherwise very safe dog behaving that way in this extreme circumstance. Then again, it very well may not. I absolutely agree that it would be unfair to euthanize or drastically limit the dog's life based just on this bite, but it's equally ridiculous to gloss over the bite because the dog was in a tough spot. We don't have enough information to know how dangerous this dog might be, but I definitely wouldn't have him loose at a party at my house without doing a very careful evaluation first. 

I'm thrilled that we've reached a point where we no longer label any dog that bites as “bad” and simply kill them. I worry, however, that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way for some of us. We don't do dogs or the people who love them any favors when we idealize them into sweet angelic beings who are only dangerous when bad people do stupid things to them. The oft-repeated saying “there are no bad dogs, only bad owners” is no more realistic or compassionate then the idea that every dog who bites is “bad” and must be “destroyed.” Both sides of this blame game fail to respect the actual nature of these magnificent, complex animals who share our lives or the hard realities facing us when a dog's behavior becomes unsafe.   

 

Jeff Silverman, CDBC

Training Tracks Canine Learning Station - Cincinnati and Oxford, OH

www.TrainingTracks.com