One of the first things my clients want to know when their dog has bitten is whether it will happen again. It’s one of those impossible questions because there’s no answer that will put an end to people’s worries and there’s definitely no accurate answer.
A risk assessment definitely helps. I designed one I use with my clients to help them understand what is serious and what’s not. It’s easy for me to say that I don’t think their dog will bite again when as far as they’re concerned, Tricky Woo the Shih Tzu is now an unknown entity. But it is never easy for me to say, when there haven’t been any bite incidents, that I think if nothing changes for the dog, then the dog will find it increasingly difficult not to resort to using their teeth. Why is it that those of us whose dogs have bitten are frightened it will happen again, and those of us whose dog might be a huge risk are convinced it won’t happen in the first place?
A lot of it comes down to human psychology.
As you may have read about in Dog: Thinking Fast and Slow, humans have many cognitive biases. One of these is a negativity bias. We think that things are unlikely to improve and we don’t expect a positive outcome. That way of thinking can make it very difficult for us to put dog bites behind us and move on. Most of my clients go through a period where they completely lose trust in the dog and don’t know if they can go on living with an animal that they’re concerned is a ticking time bomb. I feel a little like this living with Lidy. New situations are always concerning and I’m probably much more cautious than I need to be. So many times, her behaviour has said that she’s well and truly moved on from her darkest days. She’s moved on. Maybe. I haven’t.
That’s the first stage I think we go through when we care for a dog who has bitten. Will they do it again? How can I trust them again? We lose all faith in them and in ourselves. We become overly cautious, even sometimes opting to rehome or euthanise our dog simply because we can’t trust them again after a bite, despite the fact we trusted them before. I don’t think there are many of my clients who don’t worry incessantly. And where the bite has been directed at someone in the family, it somehow becomes so much worse. Not least if we’re living together all day long. I never, ever feel judgemental if a client says they can’t live any longer with their companion, even if the risk assessment suggests a positive outcome. We live a life of blind trust before the bite, and then a land of constant worry after.
So why do we live in this land of blind trust before the bite? Even perhaps following one or two incidents?
The joy of human thinking also means we have a default optimism bias. I know. An optimism bias and a negativity bias. What fun! Who dreamed up these brains of ours?!
In reality, both have an evolutionary function. A negativity bias keeps us in place. It keeps us safe. It makes us risk averse. I’ve just spent three weeks on the move, in new locations, in new homes. Every walk goes back to being a walk into the unknown. Strangers are dangerous and change is bad. In experiments where mice were moved from one habitat to another, those who’d been there five days before predators were introduced were much more likely to survive than those who’d just been transplanted. In the real world, change can kill you.
And an optimism bias stops us dwelling so much on past experiences that we can’t move forward and we become crippled by anxiety. In fact, when we lose our optimism, it can cause us all sorts of problems.
I find some people to be very blasé about the risks posed by their dog. This is not really their fault. That delightful optimism bias carries us through, sometimes even past plausible deniability that our dog has a problem. I know many people whose dogs are repeat offenders, but because the bite hasn’t been bad enough yet, they continue with blind optimism. I’m there hearing stories about people who take incredible risks with their dog. It’s not that the dog is dangerous. They aren’t. It’s just that people take incredible risks with their dog simply because nothing bad has happened yet. On our way up north, I stopped off for a leg stretch with my dogs. We’re on lead. Lidy is muzzled. It’s quiet. I don’t, for one minute, expect there to be off-lead dogs at a motorway services when there’s 130kph traffic thundering past only 10m away. Guess what? We turn a corner and a guy is there with an unsupervised off-lead aggressive dog (he really was…) who charged at us all. No recall. No apology. Things ended okay – his dog took one look at Heston and changed his mind. But not only could there have been a horrible fight, his dog could easily have ended up getting squashed by traffic. I guess the jetski and the unsupervised toddler that the guy had with him said a bit about his view on life – and I guess the two leads and the muzzle and the deliberate choice of a very quiet services says a lot about mine. I expect perfect storms. He doesn’t.
I’ll tell you something else too. Instead of sighing with relief and realising what a lucky escape he had, he’ll do the same thing again in the future.
I don’t blame people for this, either. Even if I’m explaining until I’m blue in the face that their dog is a risk. This is not just for dogs who bite, but even dogs who jump up on people or who have poor recall. Nothing Bad Yet is a dangerous state. I’ve lived in it, with dogs I’ve taken risks with myself, even over simple things like not securing them properly in the car or letting them off lead when I shouldn’t.
We put the dog in situations they can’t cope with, and boom, you’re then dealing with a negativity bias and wondering how you’ll ever recover. Once bitten, twice shy. Literally.
Take the dog that was in before Lidy and me on one of our vet visits. I say ‘visit’ and I run it like a military operation. At this visit, there was a a teenage labrador in for routine vaccinations. There were lots of stress signals I could see but were ignored by the guardian. As soon as the vet walked in, the dog started lunging, barking, snapping. That dog was a big dog and the guardian had him on an extendable lead. Luckily, the vet was risk averse. That’s the optimism bias at work in the guardian, though. It doesn’t cross our tiny minds that our dogs might actually, one day, inevitably, bite someone if we keep doing what we’re doing. Lidy got to be the best dog in the vet surgery simply because I’d planned to keep people safe from her.
I walked in and Lidy’s muzzled, on two leads. I’ve checked her harness, but also have a lead clipped on her collar. I’ve checked the clasp on the muzzle and secured it. I have paté. I’ve booked us in at a very special time (just after the vets open – so we don’t get trapped on a day when there are five or six overnight emergencies being brought in, and before things get too busy with queues). I went in first, leaving Lidy secured in the car. I scope the surgery. I check for problems. I let the assistant know I’m there. She tells me to go straight on through into the vet consulting room so I don’t have to hang around trying to be polite to people with cats when my dog is having a meltdown. That’s the negativity bias at work. Plan for the worst. In the end, she did a tiny growl and went back to eating paté.
So what is the biggest problem for our dogs after they’ve bitten?
It happens with those perfect storms, when we think we’re safe.
The problem about the brain making quick decisions is that it quickly reverts to the optimism bias even if you live in a carefully risk assessed world, especially if nothing’s happened for a while.
I always tell my clients: ‘Watch out for the day when you think your dog is better… it’s inevitably followed by the dog reminding you that they are not’.
That’s not just some silly fatalistic view. It’s not a case that the dog knows we’ve let our guard down. It’s just a case that we have let our guard down and usually that means we’re not as careful with risks.
What happens when we think our dog is better is that we drop our negativity bias and re-find the optimism bias once more. We become risk takers. We put our dogs in situations they can’t cope with and – boom – they remind us that we took one too many risks. It’s usually the day after we start feeling relaxed.
It also happens when we’re stressed and when we’ve five hundred things on our mind. This is me too. I do sometimes think Lidy is ‘better’ and then she reminds me she’s not. But most of the mistakes come when I’m stressed.
Our rational brain is the one that makes all the plans and security arrangements. Baby gates? Check. Hook and eye lock on the door? Check. Sliding lock? Check. Secure buckles on harness? Check. Secure clip on lead? Check. Muzzle to hand? Check.
And then, when we’re stressed, we forget all of that.
Take me three weeks ago. Unexpected change in house moving date. Got a few bits and pieces to move out. What do I do? I let Lidy ‘supervise’ moving tables and she can’t cope. All I needed to have done was put her behind the sodding baby gate for two minutes. That’s all. Two minutes.
We ditch our rational mind’s probability and possibility risk assessments and safety measures when we’re stressed and even doing something that I’ve done a hundred times then becomes something I forgot to do.
At the end of the day, she coped much better than she could have done and I’m here reminding myself that under stress, the best laid plans of dog trainers and guardians go astray. That is the biggest risk post-bite. That we’ll think they’re over it or that we make hasty choices when we’re stressed.
What I would say to my clients is this: know your dog. Do the risk assessments. Keep them safe, if you have even the slightest doubt. If you don’t have doubts, then you’re probably stressed or walking into another bite situation. Watch the flashpoints where there’s excitement and little control. Watch the hotspots where dogs come in contact with people or dogs they’ve targeted before. Be risk averse and have double, triple or even quadruple safety protocols in place. Then make those protocols so automatic that you could do them in your sleep.
They say insanity is doing the same thing you always did and expecting different results. Well, in that case, there’s a distinct loss of rationality – if not sanity – when we’re under pressure and I promise you that you too will fall foul of taking your eye off that proverbial ball. In your moments of rationality, put every safety measure into place and practice routinely and predictably. I secure Lidy in the car on every single journey – as I should, mind – as I know the one time I’m stressed, I’ll forget. I want it to be so automatic that I do it on autopilot. Our brain’s autopilot system is pretty efficient as long as you’ve practised something long enough. I didn’t forget how to drive my car during that unexpected move, although I did have to very consciously remind myself to stick to the speed limits, which I never have to do under normal circumstances. Autopilot is good for dogs and their guardians. Safety checks and security measures are the perfect things to have on autopilot.
So when guardians ask me if their dog will bite again, whether it was just a perfect storm, I say I don’t know. I don’t. I do know that dogs with a bite history will repeat that behaviour when we stop paying as much attention to safety as we were, and that we’ll revert to our own stress behaviour patterns when we’re under fire, just as they will. We spend our lives thinking ‘only’ in a perfect storm – and yet perfect storms happen so much more frequently than we’d expect.
If we can take anything from this, it’s the need to always stick to your safety and management routines, and never let your guard down because you think your dog will cope. Why did I let my crazy malinois supervise furniture removals? Just because in the heat of the moment, it seemed like she would be okay and she’d cope.
I got lucky.
And relying on luck means one day our luck will run out.
Make sure you rely on good management habits for the days when perfect storms hit, and stick to those procedures even if you think it’ll be okay.
That way, I’m sure we’d have fewer ‘repeat offenders’ and fewer guardians who regret the day they took the eye off the management.