“Earth is not a platform for human life. It’s a living being. We’re not on it but part of it. Its health is our health.”
– Thomas Moore
“Earth is not a platform for human life. It’s a living being. We’re not on it but part of it. Its health is our health.”
– Thomas Moore
Last week, I covered the scenario leading up to a devastating incident in which my younger dog, Trout, attacked my older dog, Layla, and the two dogs fought. While the fight was ended quickly with the fast actions of myself and my boyfriend, the injuries that the two dogs sustained took a bit longer to heal. This week, I want to talk about the story the injuries told me.
Where a dog bites another dog is very meaningful. Different bite locations tell us about the dog’s intentions during the fight – one reason why I always ask where one dog bit another when I’m working dog aggression cases. The severity of the bites is also very meaningful and gives a good idea of how safe the dog is to work with. Past history is a great indicator of future behavior, which means that knowing where and how hard Layla and Trout have bitten other dogs can tell us a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future.
After the fight, both dogs had injuries. Trout’s injuries initially appeared worse. She had a gash over her eye that was bleeding profusely and was eventually closed with two sutures, as well as punctures on her cheek and ear that were also bleeding but which didn’t require any medical care other than thorough cleaning. Since she’s a white dog, the blood from her wounds was starkly visible and very shocking. She fussed at her injuries, trying to paw at the gash above her eyebrow, so her paws quickly became red with blood too. She also had blood around her mouth from Layla.
Injuries to the face and ears such as those Trout received are the most typical injuries sustained in dog fights, and they can certainly be alarming at first. Ears and tongues especially tend to bleed alarmingly, and the wounds on ears often have trouble clotting as the dog shakes his or her head, reopening the wound and causing further damage (not to mention the crime-scene-like atmosphere that the splatter of blood such head shaking creates).
That said, injuries to the face tend to be the least concerning to professional dog behavior consultants. They’re the most common, as the skin there is thin and easily torn, and are also indicative that the dog(s) were not fighting with serious intent to harm but rather disagreeing. It’s the difference between a bar-room scuffle and a knife fight in an alley – there may be a broken nose or cracked knuckles in the bar room brawl, but no one’s actively trying to kill their combatant. Dogs who bite at other dogs’ faces or ears are angry, but not usually serious about causing damage.
Next up in the hierarchy of seriousness are bites to the sides of the neck, shoulders, or hips. These bites are a sign that the dog is taking the fight to the next level, but still is not yet intent on causing serious harm. Even more concerning are dogs who bite at the base of the skull, over the jugular, or on the other dog’s legs. These dogs are trying to disable or kill their opponent. The very most serious of dogs, who typically go for the underside of their opponent in an attempt to disembowel them, are intent not on disabling but on causing death, and dogs who injure in this way should never again be allowed in the presence of other dogs without extremely careful management such as the use of leashes and basket muzzles.
Layla’s injuries initially didn’t look too serious. She was missing tufts of fur and had extensive bruising over her chest and breastbone, and a deep gash on her right hind leg just above her knee. However, these bite wounds concerned me much more than Trout’s very visible and bloody battle scars. The wound in Layla’s back leg required the placement of a drain, and the entire wound took eight sutures to close. Layla was not able to bear much weight on that leg for close to 24 hours, and even today after the external wound has healed she still experiences some weakness and trembling in that leg after exertion, for which we’ve made an appointment with a veterinary rehabilitation specialist.
So, what do the pattern of Layla’s injuries tell us? Trout began by biting me on the elbow as I attempted to block her attack, bruising but not puncturing the inner part of my arm. This sort of bite is considered a Level 2 bite out of 6 using Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, which starts with Level 1 bites (snapping without making contact) and ends at Level 6 bites (where the dog kills the victim or consumes flesh). Generally, euthanasia is recommended as the safest option for dogs who cause Level 4 or higher bites, which refers to dogs who bite deeply enough to puncture more than half the length of their canine tooth, and who may grab the victim and shake or tear flesh as they slash.
After launching herself over me, Trout then began biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone, again bruising (and removing tufts of fur), but not puncturing. During this time, she had decent bite inhibition, a term that refers to how strongly a dog bites down. Bite inhibition is one of the most accurate predictors of rehabilitation in dogs. A dog who snaps without making contact or who bites without puncturing skin is much less likely to cause serious damage in the future, while a dog who has hurt another dog badly enough to require medical attention is much more likely to cause that level of damage in the future.
The fact that Trout was biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone tells us that she was much more serious about “winning” the fight than was Layla, who was biting at Trout’s face in an attempt to back her off. However, initially Layla had worse bite inhibition, actually breaking skin on Trout rather than just bruising. This is something I know about Layla, and one of the main reasons I am so careful when introducing her to new dogs. While she’s never seriously hurt another dog, she’s punctured the skin on a face or ear on a handful of occasions.
The intensity of the fight likely escalated after Layla physically hurt Trout. Trout suddenly became even more serious, biting Layla’s back leg badly enough to badly injure her. This wound was deep and wide, as Trout grabbed onto Layla’s leg with all the force she had and then shook her head from side to side. Layla also had bruising and extensive swelling on the back side of this same leg, and I suspect that had we not intervened Trout would have continued to try to seriously injure or kill her housemate. Note that I don’t think that Trout initially meant for the fight to go so far. The earlier bites where she only bruised rather than puncturing tell a story of a dog who started something she wasn’t able to handle, then likely got scared and began to fight more intensely. Of course, guessing this is anthropomorphic and it’s entirely possible that there were other motivations driving Trout’s actions. However, since we can’t ask her and she can’t tell us, I can make a good guess about what happened based on the evidence at hand.
As you can see, knowing the level of commitment and seriousness that different bite locations and varying bite inhibition levels convey provides a great deal of information on the involved dogs’ intentions. They also tell us a lot about safety, providing insights into the future behavior and possible liability repercussions of working with any given animal. Any dog who has done damage to another in the past is likely to repeat that performance given the wrong set of circumstances, and it’s important to go into any behavior modification program with your eyes wide open to the future possibilities of working with your dog. As sad as it can be, I absolutely believe that euthanasia is an appropriate choice in certain dog-dog aggression cases if your dog’s past history indicates a serious danger to other dogs in the future. And of course, no dog who has injured another should ever be bred, as there’s often a strong genetic component to dog aggression.
However, that doesn’t mean that all dog aggression cases warrant euthanasia, and it’s also important to know that given sufficient management and training, dogs who have a history of causing harm can absolutely live out the remainder of their lives safely and happily. In fact, this is one of the most common behavioral cases I take on, as I love helping people have success with their dog aggressive or reactive dogs.
Next week, I’ll discuss what I did to keep Layla and Trout safe after their fight. In the future, I’ll also discuss what I did to help the two girls learn to live peacefully with one another again. I’m happy to report that, other than some lingering weakness in Layla’s hind leg, both girls’ injuries have completely healed, and they’re back to coexisting well. In the meantime, have you ever witnessed a dog fight? What did the injuries tell you about the dogs’ varying intents? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!
There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.
In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. On two separate occasions after full days of running around, our normally sweet and friendly dog Trout had snarked at different foster puppies over food. Both times she stopped quickly without making contact when we intervened, and was then confined to a room to rest. However, both times she also showed a concerning lack of the typical warning signs dogs give off before lunging or snapping, only freezing slightly for an instant before she went after the puppies.
We chalked Trout’s concerning behavior up to soreness and not feeling well. With a mystery illness resembling Addison’s disease, her body struggles to handle stress, including the good stress of exciting events. Her muscles have wasted with the disease progression, and her energy level fluctuates. She has episodes of GI distress where her reflux is so bad that she will attempt to eat anything she can get in her mouth – cloth, cotton batting from dog toys, and even foam from dog beds. She has full-body muscle spasms, twitching and groaning as she lies on the floor. Her cognitive abilities have suffered too, and while on some days she’s the sweet, happy dog we’ve always loved, other days she seems confused by even the most simple routines or cues. We keep her comfortable on a regimen of medications, and she continues to have more good days than bad.
On the day of the attack, Trout was not having a good day. She had run hard for close to an hour at the park the day before, a special treat that we typically wouldn’t let her indulge in. However, it was one of the first nice days of spring, and she’d been doing well for a few weeks. She was extra sore this day, and I could tell that she was having some cognitive issues as we did a short training session. I kept the exercises easy, and at the end of the one-minute session she was able to end on a happy, successful note. I then called our other dog, Layla, into the room where I was working – something I’ve been doing for three years, since I always work one dog and then the other.
Today, that was a problem for Trout. As Layla entered the room, Trout stiffened up and growled, guarding me and the treats. I grabbed for her, missing as she launched across my body and bit my elbow, then attacked Layla. If you’ve never seen your beloved pets fight, the sight is chilling. Layla instantly defended herself, and my boyfriend and I each grabbed a dog. We had to wait for the dogs to let go of one another, as both were holding on in ferocious terrier grips, and pulling them apart would have caused more damage. The fight was over within 20 seconds, although in the heat of the moment it felt like much longer longer.
Unfortunately, that twenty seconds was all it took for both dogs to sustain injuries. We packed them up in the car for a trip to the e-vet as I contemplated the seriousness of Trout’s attack and tried to hold back tears over the sight of Layla’s deep wound.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences with Trout and Layla. What did the location of their bites have to say about their intentions during the fight? How did we manage the two dogs to prevent future incidents? How did we re-integrate them into the same household? I’ll cover all of these questions as I discuss living safely with dogs who’ve hurt one another.
In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. However, love is blind, and while I likely would have picked up on the warning signs with a client’s dog, knowing and living with my own dogs skewed my perspective. There’s a reason that even professional dog trainers hire other professionals when our dogs have issues, and this story is a good reminder of that. I’m grateful that Matt and I were right there when our dogs went at it. This story could have been very different had we not been – one of the biggest reasons why I never leave the two dogs unattended together.
Have your dogs ever fought with their housemates? How did you handle the situation? Please share your stories in the comments below, and watch for the next installment in Trout and Layla’s story next week as I discuss what the location of the bite wounds told me about the two dogs’ intentions.
“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”
– Charles Darwin
The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.
The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.
There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.
Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.
The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?
If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.
And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.
Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.
Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.
The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?
“We can learn so much from our dogs but in order to do this, we need to give them the opportunity.”
– Dr. Gadbois