How I have gone this long writing a blog about “shedding light on common misconception” without hitting this topic is really a good question. There are few topics I feel more strongly about or that evoke more emotion than this one does for me. Dogs are truly the humans best friend and without a doubt mine. My two boys are Rufus and Hank.
Hank is the soulful mature black lab mix and Rufus is that handsome, white fellow. These guys are my pride and joy. They are also my friends, companions, protectors (whether I want it or not), my medicine, and even my spirit guides. They are also often a pain in my ass. Regardless, I can’t imagine life without them and they will be by my side till the day they die, or the day I die. That is my promise and devotion, no exceptions. For richer or poorer in sickness and in health, they are family, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean they are human beings.
Rufus was having issues at the shelter primarily due to the shape of his head and a couple of fearful shelter employees. He had a warning tag on his cage and he was not eligible for adoption by adopters with kids or really anyone without proven experience handling an “aggressive dog”. In the couple of years I have known him, he has never once been aggressive with a human, he absolutely loves kids and he is all bark when it comes to dog aggression. He is extremely submissive overall and regularly attends a crowded doggie daycare where he peacefully mingles unleashed with about 25 other dogs. He has never once had an incident outside of that shelter. Once again, fear and ideology wrote its own behavioral evaluation of Rufus at the shelter.
Dogs and humans have lived together for hundreds of years and today more than ever canine’s are a part of an extremely large number of American households. Even if you do not have a dog yourself, chances are you know someone that does and chances are you do encounter them close to everyday.
Where I live in Denver, Colorado, there are over one million dogs living within our city limits. We have zero bears within our city limits except for a few in a display at the zoo. Strangely, if you walk up to the average person in Denver and ask them what they should do if they encounter a bear while camping, most will respond by saying, “that depends, is it a brown bear or a black bear?” and then they will go on to correctly describe what to do in either instance. However if you ask them what they should do if they encounter a Pitbull in an alley, a great majority have absolutely no clue what to do. They will respond jokingly in cliche by saying something stupid like “Pray!” or “run like hell!”
If you are looking for an explanation of why so many people get bitten by dogs in this country and specifically why so many people get bitten by certain types of dogs, the answer is fear and ignorance, not bad breeding or bad owners. This is also your answer to why, in the year 2012, cities like Denver, Colorado still have draconian, counterproductive, outdated, and flat out morally reprehensible breed bans that actually forbid certain types of dogs based on the way they look alone. Not based on bites, or statistics or even an individual dog’s behavior. No, breed bans are based on two things, our old friends ideology and fear. Or what I like to call them when used in situations like these – Racism. Breed bans and other ideologically and fear based laws are the cause of more misinformation, and ultimately dog-bites than any breed of dog or dead-beat owner. Remember Trayvon Martin in Florida? Well, the same thing is going on with Pitbulls in Denver and around the country. If the look of dog scares you, you can kill it. Or call the cops and they will kill it. That is the mentality that is created when breed bans are used to replace critical thinking.
In spite of just how many dogs we have in this country, the general population simply does not understand canine behavior or psychology in the least. For that matter, a good number don’t even know the simple basics about canine body language. The second troubling fact is that all too many of us do not want to understand canine behavior. Why? Well I believe once again, that people tend to prefer their own ideology over reality. Put more simply, I believe people live in their own world of belief with respect to dogs (and pretty much everything else). Dog are purchased and injected into a family for the purpose of filling a specific void or need. The void being filled is too often the void and need the family has, not the void and the need that the dog has. Unfortunately this is also the reason nearly 4 million shelter dogs are euthanized in the country EVERY SINGLE YEAR!
I can not call myself an expert on dog rescue and adoption, but I have spent just enough time volunteering at a local shelter that I can almost predict the outcome of an adoption before the proud new dog owners leave the building with their new pet. Everyone leaves the shelter happy with their new dog but not all are happy for the same reason and not all of the dogs remain in their new home for very long.
Some are happy because they now have company which will be great because they have been so lonely since their divorce. That dog will be coming back to the shelter.
Some could not wait to get their new dog home to show it the comfy bed they bought because of how pitiful the kennel bed was that she had been sleeping on for the last three months. That dog was going home to stay!
Some were happy because they would not have to hear their son say, “I want a dog, I want a dog!” ever again. That dog was coming back, and with about twenty new “issues”.
Some are happy because they will never again have to watch that two year old dog with the “danger sign” spin in circles like a top in a cage, day after day, month after month. That dogs is snoring at the foot of my bed right now.
Without a doubt, the largest problem that we face in animal rescue and rehabilitation and adoption is HUMAN FEAR. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard or read something along the line of “be careful, you really never know how a dog is going to react”, or “even if you know a dog, they can turn on you for no reason.” BULL-SHIT!!! The reality is exactly the contrary. Dogs wear their emotions on their sleeves far more obviously than humans. At least to me. Tension, nervousness, anger, fear, anxiety, boredom, aggression, sadness, and excitement are all easily discernible by anyone with even basic understanding of canine expression and behavior.
I highly recommend that anyone that owns a dog or even anyone that lives around them pick up a book or research dog body language. Even if you hate dogs it might be worth your while to check into this. Like it or not dogs are everywhere in our society. I personally hate traffic lights, but like dogs, they are everywhere and it certainly doesn’t do me any good to refuse to learn about them or to stay ignorant about how to read their signals.
There are definitely a lot of things that people have misconceptions about. One example is a wagging tail. Yes, a wagging tail can mean that a dog is really happy to see you. It can also mean a dog is about ready to chomp you. It all depends on how the tail is wagging and some other factors. So if you are reading this and your brain is saying “that sounds like way too confusing”, then I have a suggestion. Get a cat.
For me it is really not like that at all. How do I know when my wife is angry with me? Do I observe her eyebrow movements, lip arrangement, and posture? Sure I do, but I can also feel her energy like a lightning bolt. Trust me, you can feel a dog’s energy the same way if you are open to the wavelength. Not that dogs don’t send mixed signals, they do, but so do wives. With some time, patients and experience, you can learn to decode them…and dogs too!
One of our Denver area local news anchor ladies got her face bitten off by a big dog primarily because she was completely oblivious to his actually animated behavior. The dog got rescued on tape from a frozen lake and then a few hours after his near-death experience, they brought him into the news studio and decided to make some money off him. The clueless news anchor got on her knees and started baby-talking and getting right in this big boy’s frightened face. He started panting and acting very stressed. She kept up and then decided to lean in to give this adorable dog a kiss. He chomped her causing her to have hundreds of stitches and reconstructive surgery to her lips, chin, and her local news caliber nose. After she healed, she then decided to go on a national television news campaign to share the pictures of her bite wounds and to try to give herself more attention by getting the word out about how “even dogs that seem nice and wag their tail can turn and bite at any time for no reason so you never should trust them or lean in too close to them”. I don’t believe I have ever been more irritated with a television news person in my entire life. That is actually saying a lot. The fact is that I, along with probably about a thousand other people watching live that day were repeatedly saying, “she is going to get bit, she is going to get bit!” Surprise, surprise, she got bit. Another case of an unpredictable dog biting someone for no reason. Only if you are a vapid television news person I guess. The dog’s owner was actually fined, and the dog was sent into a mandatory quarantine at the municipal shelter; but since he never bit anyone before, and because he showed no signs of aggression in 10 days of isolation, and because he was not banned, they decided to let him off the hook for his “vicious” behavior. The news anchor seemed to want credit for not demanding that he be put down. What a hero! I don’t watch her or that station anymore. Rule number one: Adult dogs are not human babies.
Ok, so lets say you simply do not have the time or desire to research dog behavior and body language. Well, you are actually in luck too. If you follow a few common sense steps and realize a few basic realities your chances of getting bitten by any breed of dog are actually very small.
Rule number two: A dog is not going to attack something or someone that does not consider itself inferior to the dog. I know that this one is going to rub some people the wrong way and probably ruffle a few feathers, but I don’t really care. Think about this one for a minute. Now I am not suggesting you go right up to the next big dog you see and fearlessly get in its face. However, that is not because I believe my rule will break down, it is because I believe there is a good chance that your superiority complex will break down. That News anchor would also have been fine if she still ignored the dog’s body language but obeyed this rule. Baby talk is not a great way to show superiority, or to avoid facial reconstructive surgery when dealing with a stressed out and cornered Mastiff.
Rule number three and probably the most important rule of all: Be calm, confident and present minded. Let me be clear, this is not advice on how to avoid getting bitten by a dog, this is how to be in every situation with a dog. My dogs are pretty easy going when it comes to me. Not much makes them mad at me. They love me and just about anything I do or say makes them wag their tails and dance in place or jump up and down. They even like me when I am disciplining them; as long as I am calm and present minded when I do it. Irritated Jeremy that talks and mumbles to himself about yesterday’s or tomorrow’s work problems; they hate that guy! Hank can’t even be in the same room with that guy and sometimes, the sound of the dog door slapping Hank in the butt as he heads out back is my only notice of the dark place my mind had gone. I think this is the most important rule because it works equally well with dogs as it does every situation ever encountered in the history of the human race!
Dogs are our expectation mirror. Rule number four. Have high expectations of good behavior when dealing with a canine. Again, I am not saying that you should be stupid. I am more saying that if you see a strange stray dog that “looks like a Pitbull” you will be far better off if you expect that that Pitbull looking dog is like 99.9% of other Pitbull dogs, and all dogs. Put simply, a dog’s very, very, strong, natural tendency is to want to be friends with a calm, confident and present minded human being. As long as you are what they are looking for, they will behave as you expect. It is that simple and it is not that simple at the same time. Not that you should approach strange dogs without caution or ignore obvious signs, just don’t assume the worse or assume that the extremely small percentage of dogs that are highlighted on the evening news represent the reality of the one in front of you. Either way, they will fulfill your expectation so keep your expectation as high as the reality of the situation allows.
Pit Bulls are not allowed in the city of Denver or in nearby cities such as Commerce City, Colorado. Recently a “banned” pitbull chocolate lab mix was spotted roaming a neighborhood in Commerce City. The dog’s name was Chloe and here is her picture. Four officers surrounded this dog and cornered it into the garage of the home she had been illegally staying temporarily, while her owners were on vacation. As the frightened dog retreated into a corner, instead of closing the garage door, she was instead electrocuted with a taser designed for a 200 lb human. When tased she darted and was caught by another officer with a catch pole. Yet another officer then proceeded to unload 5 rounds from his gun, 4 into the lassoed dog and one into a nearby parked vehicle. Neighbors stood in disbelief with cameras rolling. It is permissible to shoot and kill a vicious dog in Commerce City and Denver, Colorado and all you need in order to determine if the dog is vicious is to figure out if it looks like it might be a banned dog such as Pitbull. The police and city are defending this officer saying he had no choice dealing with this vicious dog. Here is the video footage if you care to subject yourself to it.
Chloe has no history of aggression and her last moments of life were spent in fright and agony. In case anyone wants to help here is a link to the “Justice for Chloe” Facebook Site. My mix breed Rufus looks an awful like Chloe and the looks we get by some people when we walk around town sure are strange. It is interesting and telling at the same time. People cross the street when we are coming and still others seem to question why he is even in the city, or alive. I feel their reaction and judgement and so does Rufus. He isn’t Pitbull, but these bans still have an impact on us almost every single day. I shutter to think about what might happen if he gets loose and someone gets scarred.
The beautiful guy in the picture below is also probably now dead. He was roaming our neighborhood a few years ago and I came across him semi-attacking another larger dog on a leash with a lady outside of a nearby coffee shop. The lady was “protecting” herself and her dog by beating him with a purse. Then a guy came out of the coffee shop to help by kicking him and screaming at him. Their intervention was obviously just pissing him off more so I sprinted across the street and grabbed the dog by the collar and physically drug him away from the scene and to safety. Their dog was fine. Like most of these “bully breeds” the interaction was more show than actual bite and no blood was even shed. He never even came close to biting me and he settled down almost instantly, while I did a little deep breathing as I held on to his tagless, tattered, collar . I barely even heard the half dozen coffee shops patrons that were still shouting and cursing but now at me and about my vicious Pitbull and how I better get my dog out of the city or they would call the cops and he would be put down. I mumbled that “he was not my dog” as I lead him down the street towards my house. I don’t think they heard me and I didn’t care. They were the least of my concerns. I had a new friend and he needed my help. We didn’t have Rufus yet, but I couldn’t wait to bring him home to meet Hank! Like me, Hank loves tough dogs and also like me, he is not exactly afraid of them. I carefully, and correctly introduced the boys, and I as I knew they would, they became instant friends. He turned out to be a great dog. At least for me and Hank.
I had a little problem though. That coffee shop is right down the street and if animal control spots a Pitbull in Denver, they are pretty much dead and I am paying a fine. I called a couple of rescues and did some research online, hung a few signs and begged a few annoyed friends that live outside of the city. The Pitbull rescues all wanted to know if he was “good with other dogs”. I always answered that “he gets along with my dog Hank.” Although, none of them had room for him, they all urged me, “please do not turn him into the Denver authorities or be seen with him in the city.” I simply could not believe that this is where I live and to be honest, I feel the same way today. I feel like a Jewish sympathizer in Nazi Germany in WWII. The officials and a good number of people in my city truly believe that the solution is to round up and exterminate an entire breed of canine. I simply can not understand how I am the same species as someone that thinks and feels that way in their heart. They are Hitler to me. I am as embarrassed as I am sickened and saddened about my hometown. Rule number five: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
The best I could come up with for our stow away that we had come to call “Todd”, was to smuggle him out of Denver to the Boulder Animal Shelter. That was the only place that had space and that could legally take him. I was thoroughly quizzed by the intake workers at the shelter and they explained to me that their placement requirement were by far tougher for Pitbulls because of the legal ramifications. They also explained that if I turned him over, I could not be informed of his fate and that this was not a “no-kill” shelter. They explained the policy for how they would try to find his owner. I knew no one was looking for Todd though. I already put his mug on Craig’s List, Pet-Finder and numerous signs around town. I had checked for a microchip and called all of the shelters to see if there were missing reports. I had left pictures and descriptions as well although for Denver I decided to not send them a picture. They said that the shelter was crowded and that Pitbulls were very hard to adopt and that in order for him to be eligible for adoption, he would have to pass a very stringent dog aggression test. They asked me if he had any issues with other dogs when he was with me. I smiled and said “he gets along with my dog Hank!” as a lump grew in my throat. I didn’t mention the coffee shop, or the dogs Todd lunged and snapped at in the parking lot when the frightened dog owners got scared and nervous just looking at him. I left a donation of $200 dollars and I begged them to do anything they could to help him.
I took Todd in the front door of the Boulder Animal Shelter, but I am relatively certain he went out the back. I wish I had been brave enough to take responsibility for that dog myself. He was a good boy and he deserved better. I thought about how dog-aggressive Hank once was when we initially rescued him as a stray. I hope Todd got his chance but to honest the deck was not exactly stacked in his favor the way it was for my Black Lab mix Hank. I messed up that day and I regret it. I could and should have done more and writing this has brought that same lump back to my throat.
So I guess it should be obvious where I stand although I often feel like I am living in an alternate universe when it comes to my beliefs and understanding about certain issues like this one. I would love nothing more than to devote my entire life’s work to canine rescue, rehabilitation and public education. Maybe someday I will, but as of today, I still haven’t figured out how to make the numbers work out and I don’t think my wife is as thrilled about that “van down by the river housing proposal” that I suggested a blog or two back.
Regardless, make no mistake, the size and shape of a dog’s head does not make it bite, but human fear based ideology and expectation will, almost every time. Breed bans are wrong, plain and simple. They create a dangerous situation and the generated fear spreads across the small minded towns that embody them faster than a wild fire.
Please, if you are in any position to support or oppose a breed ban, or if you find yourself in a situation with an unknown dog that looks like a Pit Bull, don’t get frightened and don’t buy into the ideology of those that choose a life of fear! Just try to remember a few simple rules and use your own, calm, confident, and present mind to do a little critical thinking before reacting reflexively.
If you are looking for a new dog please consider adopting from a shelter, and when you are there please try to think about what you can do for that dog, not about what that dog can do for you. If you do, your life may change forever because of a that dog. Mine certainly has.