“Dogs do not say ‘I love you’ with a hug,” says dog behaviorist Melissa Berryman, who has spent years studying dog bites and is the author of “People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers Don’t Teach.”
Humans often make the mistake of treating dogs like people — and we’re not talking about that totally unnecessary raincoat you insist on putting on your dachshund. Our behavior is perceived differently by dogs than it is by other humans. Something we might consider a loving gesture to another person might actually be aggressive to a dog. Berryman believes this confusion is a frequent cause of dog bites and “attacks.”
“Dog owners are set up for failure because our default is to blame the dog. Owners get fined or sued for repeated human mistakes. Dogs often pay with their lives for mistakes made by people,” Berryman says.
A Massachusetts animal control officer from 1993 to 1999, Berryman is a national dog bite consultant who founded the Dog Owner Education and Community Safety Council and works with communities, rescue groups, dog owners and bite victims. She also designed and teaches a safety and liability class for dog owners. In an effort to promote awareness of the common misperceptions that can lead to tragedy, Berryman shares five myths:
Fact: Dogs don’t sniff each other’s paws when greeting each other and like us prefer to be asked before being touched by a stranger. Instead, ask the owner and then also ask the dog by tapping your hand on your thigh simulating a wagging tail and acting friendly. The dog will relax and nuzzle you, need to sniff more to get to know you or will stay away.
Fact: Dogs, first and foremost, are predatory canines that live in groups. Breeds are generalizations that enable breeders to better market the product they sell. What dictates temperament is their pack position, the role you, the human, play in the group and the rank of group members. Dogs have superior/inferior interrelationships and command and defer accordingly. And just as siblings in a family have the same parents yet are very different, one cannot purchase behavior by buying a dog of a certain breed.
Fact: When a dog charges you, it’s trying to decide if you are friend, foe or prey. Their eyesight is poor, so hats, sunglasses and other objects you may push or carry can scare them. Act like a friend and pretend you are not afraid. Stand facing the dog with relaxed body language, tap your thigh with your hand and use a high-pitched voice for a friendly greeting like “good girl.” Fake it if you are afraid.
Fact: Dogs can only read body language. These signs make people react to your dog in a fearful manner, which is more likely to cause a dog to consider visitors prey and bite them. Use “No Trespassing” and “Dog At Play” signs instead.
Fact: Even responsible dog owners operate under the same false beliefs about human and canine behavior. They are also encouraged to take a passive role concerning their dog. Any dog can bite especially when it feels personally threatened, is exposed to prey behavior or thinks that someone lower in rank threatens its resources, such as food, toys, bedding and the attention of its owner.