He's just scared...but he would NEVER bite...

“He’s Just scared, but he would never bite.”

I overheard a woman say this at a recent dog-themed event at a local children’s museum. The dog was a young, male boxer who was terrified about everything happening around him. I had met him a few minutes earlier. He backed away from all who approached him. His whole rump was tucked under his hind legs, his ears were back and his head was as low as he could manage. His eyes were wide open and his mouth tightly closed. I turned away from him, crouched, dropped a few treats and he would not eat them. He WAS scared, and his new mom told me that she had recently rescued him. He was obviously malnourished, and I commented about how he was frightened with all the activity. She agreed as she looked over the various materials on my table. “You’re a dog trainer?” she asked. She went on to tell me about her other dog who was a “terror,” pulling on leash and stealing food from her children. I spoke with her for a few moments and gave her a sheet of tips for common challenging behaviors with my contact information on the top. She moved on...

A few minutes later I noticed her about two booths away from me. She was now holding two leashes and was tangled up with her dogs. I went over and helped her untangle the leashes and held the leash of the other dog, an adolescent male lab-mix, until her husband came over and took hold of him. I had him sitting for treats and got the boxer interested a little in what was going on. He sniffed and wiggled his tail-stump a little, but still would not take the treats. As her husband walked to the next booth with the lab, I watched the boxer clinging to his owner’s side like there was a magnet beneath his skin and she was a refrigerator.

I noticed a toddler quickly walking toward this terrified boxer, and watched the boxer try to hide behind his mom. She pulled him out from behind her as the toddler reached for his face. I cringed and just as I was about to step in, the toddler’s father came up behind her and asked if it was okay that she was petting the dog. The boxer’s owner said, “He’s just scared, but he would never bite.” At that moment the toddler, a girl of about two years old, brought her other arm up to give this puppy a kiss on the face. I instinctively plunged my arm between them and moved the girl away. I apologized to both the girl’s dad and the dog’s mom. I could not allow that interaction to continue. I moved the boxer and his owner to a quiet corner and repeated to her that her dog was scared. She agreed. I went on to explain that he was trying to hide, and she was telling him that he couldn’t hide by pulling him back out from behind her. She agreed. I asked her if she realized that there are only two ways out of fear: flight or fight. Her face went pale and her jaw dropped. I continued, her dog was clearly trying to flee, and she was telling him that it wasn’t going to work. That leaves him with one option to escape his fear...

She quietly said, “fight?”

Just because your dog has never bitten, does not mean he would never bite. In fact, biting is a very normal behavior, and ANY dog, in fact EVERY dog WILL bite given the perfect set of circumstances. I wish I had a dollar for every time a new client told me their dog had never bitten anyone before. They never do, until they do.

If you know your dog is afraid, you need to find ways to distract him; give him something else to do, something else to think about. Have him sit and look at you, teach him to hide behind you on cue, move him further away or just go home. Do not try to make him get used to it and NEVER force him to allow someone new to pet him. Teach your dog to “touch” your hand on cue, and then tell people to hold their hand for him to “touch” as a greeting. And also tell people to not reach for him, allow him to initiate petting, if he chooses.

Parents, teach your children to never, ever pet a dog unless the dog “asks” to be pet by approaching and offering himself for petting. Do not accept any owner’s word that their dog will never bite. Never reach toward a dog who is trying to hide. And never, ever try to hug or kiss a dog, not even one that you know.

Be safe.