It’s the policy everywhere to put to death dogs who bite. It doesn’t matter why. You can beat your dog, torture him, tie him up, starve him, let kids tease him without mercy from puppy-hood through the remainder of his life. No dog is ever – no matter how severe the provocation – allowed to fight back. Usually, the dog can’t even run away. For reasons I don’t understand, the courts don’t find anything wrong with this picture.
When my granddaughter was 5 or so, it was Thanksgiving dinner and she was on the floor playing with our beloved (adored, maybe even worshiped) Norwich Terrier champion (yes she was, really). Divot was retired from the show ring, but she was Garry’s champion of the heart. The two of them had a serious thing going. He was her devoted love slave. I’m glad he never had to choose between us because I know I’d have lost the toss.
As the gathering concentrated on passing the turkey and cranberry sauce, a shriek loud enough to breathe life into the dead bird arose from under the table. Divot had bitten Kaity. No blood. Some red indentations. And Divot had not bothered to run away or hide. She was still sitting next to Kaity, calmly and quietly. Whatever had happened, the drama was all coming from Kaity’s side.
“She BIT me,” wailed my granddaughter.
“And what,” asked her father, “did YOU do?”
We are very doggy around here. We all knew Divot (aka Her Majesty). And we knew Kaity (aka Drama Queen). Divot wouldn’t bite for no reason and if she intended harm, even at her advanced age, she would have done more damage than that.
It turned out Kaity had been teasing Divot, offering her pieces of turkey, then pulling them away. She’d been playing the game for a while. How long? Five-year olds are not good about time and Divot wasn’t saying. Whatever time had passed, it proved long enough to convince Divot this pup (Kaity) needed to learn some manners. So she bit Kaity. She didn’t savage her, tear her to pieces. It would have been hard for an 11-pound terrier to wreak life-threatening havoc on any human. The bite was a statement, not an attack. Divot just wanted to make a point. She couldn’t give Kaity a time out or have long talk. So — she used her jaws.
The outcome for Kaity was a rebuke for teasing Divot — rather redundant since Divot had made her point. Kaity never teased Divot again, though she was caught teasing other dogs. Now, at 16, she’d be humiliated to admit teasing a dog, but kids tease animals. Even good kids who love animals. They tease each other too and occasionally bite although I’ve never heard anyone suggest we kill a kid for biting another kid. Nor do we murder cats for scratching.
How come we kill dogs so swiftly and mercilessly? If we had foolishly taken Kaitlin to the emergency room, the incident would have been reported. They’d have taken Divot from us and killed her and done it without a second thought. Rules are rules after all. A dog bites, a dog dies. The legal definition for “vicious dog” is:
1 – The dog bit? Yes?
2 – The dog is vicious.
3 – Kill the dog.
A bit simplistic? You think? It’s a legal relic. It comes from back when the term “mad dog” terrified everyone. Mad dogs bite; kill them.
In our modern society, “vicious dogs” are usually frightened dogs. Abused and mistreated dogs. Dogs that have been trained to attack because someone finds it funny — or is trying to protect a stash of illegal whatever. A few dogs are genuinely bad seeds, but it’s rare. Some dogs get nervous around children or noise or just too many people. These dogs should live in homes that don’t have children, a lot of noise or many people. Duh.
The long incarceration and brief trial of Phineas, the yellow Labrador Retriever
In the news right now is the story of Phineas, a yellow Labrador retriever. He has been locked up in his home town of Salem, Missouri for a year. Last June, he bit a 7-year-old girl. The bite wasn’t severe but it drew blood. The mayor ruled the dog was vicious and ordered him put down. Exactly how the incident unfolded has yet to be clearly determined. Probably because Phineas has been strangely silent in his own defense and as far as I can tell, most of the people around him are none too bright.
Phineas is (was?) owned by Patrick and Amber Sanders. They got two pups from a friend in 2010. The kids named them after cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb. Ferb went to live with an uncle. Phineas stayed . He was kept on a long lead in the fenced-in backyard and played with the kids. A family dog.
The Sanders’ had no particular trouble with Phineas. Police had no reports of problems. On June 22, the dog bit a friend of one of the Sanders children as they played in the yard. She went to the hospital for treatment. Police were called. They issued a report that indicates the girl’s mom didn’t want to press charges. She just wanted to be sure the dog was healthy. The town’s animal control and nuisance officer took Phineas for a 10-day hold in quarantine. No rabies. Patrick Sanders was cited by police for his failing to keep Phineas’ rabies shots up to date. He paid an $86 fine.
A couple of weeks later, the town’s mayor held a brief hearing to determine Phineas’ fate. He looked at photos, read the report. By now, the report had expanded to include two previously unreported dog bites by Phineas, one involving the same 7-year-old girl and an incident involving the same girl’s older sister. No one had mentioned either incident to the police until after the June 22 bite.
Objection! The defense never heard about these incidents during discovery!
It goes to motive, your honor.
Mayor Brown sentenced the dog to death.
The fight to save Phineas became a local and then a national cause célèbre. Maybe, with all the publicity, the pooch will win a pass. Maybe not. Most of the time, the dog loses no matter how much effort is put into saving him or her.
Would I keep Phineas if I had children and knew the dog snapped or bit sometimes? No. I would have re-homed Phineas to a child free environment or one with older children who knew how to behave with dogs. I would also never keep my dog tied. That’s asking for trouble. Big dogs who nip shouldn’t be with children, certainly not unsupervised. Any dog bite from a 100 pound retriever could be serious. There’s a lot of power in those jaws. Obviously Phineas’ owners were clueless about proper care and training for a large breed pup. But hey, this is America. We sell guns to people who are even more irresponsible. Why not let them have big dogs too? You mean it’s not in the Bill of Rights? Of course, dogs have no rights, so if anything goes wrong, we just kill them.
Any dog will bite if tormented enough. Some will bite when startled or frightened. Abused dogs sometimes try to fight back against their tormentors. We kill them too. The dog is always wrong.
Intentional bites by otherwise good canine citizen are usually gentle, a reproof. Puppies nip all the time when they play. They nip each other, their owners and their moms. She bites them back to remind them to keep their teeth to themselves. It’s the obligation of puppy owners to teach their pets to not bite, even in fun. Many owners don’t seem to get the connection between letting them bite when they are little and the dog thinking biting is okay when they grow up.
Small dogs bite more often big breeds, but people don’t report being savaged by a Chihuahua. Little dogs are less patient and protective of children than big dogs. Maybe they are aware of their own vulnerability. Over all, a family dog will opt to protect the kids. It’s DNA, their job. Hard-wired into the system. When something else happens, there’s a reason. Personally, I’m inclined to presume the dog is innocent until proven very guilty.
Summer Memories: Divot at River Bend
And now, for my final anecdote
I was raised with Doberman Pinschers, wonderful smart dogs who get a bad rap in popular media. One day, my mother was yelling at my sister. The dog — never trained as a guard dog — was sometimes over-protective of we kids. She was very protective of the family as a whole, but where me and my siblings were concerned, she was hyper-vigilant. At that particular moment, her judgment was tested. From her doggish point of view, my mother was threatening my sister. Poor Rusty had to make a choice and she nipped my mother.
Considering how powerful a Dobie’s bite can be, it wasn’t much of a bite. I do far worse things to my hands cutting veggies in the kitchen. No one punished Rusty, though she slunk around looking guilty for days. But we understood: she had felt she needed to protect the younger, weaker child from the big strong mommy. She was just a dog and her ability to figure out the situation was limited.
Should we have had our dog put down? Of course not. It was our fault. My mother learned a lesson: don’t yell at the kids in front of the dog. It upsets the dog. Rusty was miserable at having hurt one of her charges.
People will continue to buy dogs and mistreat them, sometimes with malice or cruelty, often through ignorance and stupidity. People will buy the wrong breeds, will fail to provide ample training, socialization, exercise, or even a reasonable degree of supervision. Dogs will continue to pay with their lives for their owners’ ignorance and errors and the bad things done to them.
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