“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.