On being bit

“Oh, he’s just a teddy bear,” says the client as the big huge Rottweiler lifts his head and looks at me.

What I say and do next will color their impression of me for the rest of our relationship.

Am I scared of big dogs? Not unless they give me a reason to be.

Do I exercise reasonable caution with them? I sure do, just like I do with all animals.

I approach a big dog, the kind who sometimes have a reputation for being aggressive, the same way I do all pets. Respectfully. I am confident but not domineering. That approach doesn’t work for me. I like for our relationship to be mutually agreeable, which it usually is. I don’t automatically muzzle a dog just because of their breed.

So if the dog really is a teddy bear, we have a great interaction and life is good. One of my best patients was a big sweet Rottie who sustained a nasty burn injury and needed regular bandage changes for a month. As you all know, burns are excruciating. This sweet pup was so good throughout the whole ordeal.

On the other hand, if you tell me your dog is a teddy bear while he or she is growling and/or baring their teeth, they get a muzzle or they leave. My safety and that of my staff is paramount.

“She’s just scared,” said the owner of a 160 pound Dane as I was trying to do an examination. “Don’t show any fear.”

I put out my hand. The dog snapped at it, then lunged at my stomach.

“See?” said the owner, accusingly. “You were scared.”

“With good reason,” I responded, reaching for the muzzle. “I can’t even come within a foot of your dog without her lunging at me.”

Then the owner told me all about the dog’s history, about how she was abused, and she was scared. I believe her. Fear is one of the leading causes of aggression in dogs.

“If a scared dog bites me,” I told her, “it hurts just as much as a bite from a dominant dog. Or a food aggressive dog.”

Almost 10 years into this and I have never sustained a big bite. That is part luck, and part common sense. Our job is to read a dog’s body language cues, not their breed history, and act accordingly. In turn, I ask owners to respect that when I say “Your pet needs a muzzle,” it doesn’t mean “You are horrible and your dog is horrible.” It simply means, “I would like to not get bit today.”

For the most part, they do. This owner chose to leave, but when she came back to see my boss to get a vaccine the dog needed half a bottle of tranquilizers.

And a muzzle.

Filed: Blogathon, Blogathon 2010
  • Hi Dr V! I had a FlatCoat that was a terror at the vets. In his later years he was eaten alive with arthritis of the spine, so I figured it hurt him. The farm vet had always given him his vacinations, so he was probably frightened by the smells, etc. Plus they put him up on that slippery table. It got so they would open the door wide enough to throw the muzzle in to me, then call through the closed door to be sure I’d gotten it secured before entering.
    My two Chessies have been loves at the vet, but the vets aren’t putting them on the slippery table, but getting down to them on the floor.
    I think the FlatCoat would have needed a muzzle anyway, but being on the floor would have improved the situation.
    Hawk aka BrownDog’s Momma

  • Our vet and his techs say it’s usually the small dogs that bite them the most, rather than the so-called “scary breeds”.

  • Diana Reed

    Working a a vet clinic I see all kinds of dogs…and all kinds of owners. Like you I can “read” a dog pretty well and know when to use precautions. But I think that you should also know how to read an owner. Most of the time when I see a “biter” fearful or otherwise I see an owner who feeds the dogs negative behavior through his or her own body language. Owners do not hold your dogs closer and coddle them when they are acting badly. You only give them the idea that something is wrong or to be feared. RELAX and give your dog a reason to feel relaxed as well. I see dog after dog come in behaving badly and the owners do “nothing” to correct the bad behavior. That is as good as telling them they are “good dogs”. Keep in control of your dog with calm assertive leadership. Correct them when they misbehave with a light tug at the leash or a firm “no”. Then relax…

  • Steph B

    Muzzles are such an important tool – I wish people didn’t think that putting a muzzle on automatically brands him/her as a “bad dog.” A fearful dog or a dog who is in intense pain can lash out – why wouldn’t you wan’t to protect yourself? In the US, dogs with a bite history tend to have an artifically short lifespan as well, sadly. Heck, if my neighbor’s dog (who had a history of attacking other dogs) had been wearing a muzzle on his walks, MY dog would still be alive, and so would hers. 1 muzzle would have saved 2 lives, so yes… I am all for them!

  • When I had dogs, I used to ask the vet straight off if he/she (our primary vet was male) wanted to muzzle them. I’d say, “They’ve never bitten anyone before, or even threatened, but you’re welcome to muzzle them–I totally understand and I’m fine with it.” Typically the vet would muzzle Kiah (90 lb lab/malamute cross) but not Zeus (55lb border collie/McNabb cross.) It was fine with me–I’m more concerned about the vet’s safety than my dog’s self-esteem or temporary discomfort. Besides, the dog’s about to have a thermometer shoved in a quite uncomfortable place and I’m worried about a MUZZLE? 🙂