Sunday, June 16, 2024

When a dog attacks someone, blame the owner not the dog

I’m a big fan of dogs. They’re like disgusting angels. They are honest about everything, because it’s impossible for them not to be, and they are never subtle, at least not with any more skill than a toddler has in pouring milk over cereal.

A dog is not sneaky; its intentions are always clear. Their fears, their insecurities, their excitement — they truly wear their hearts on their paws.

Though I’ve always loved dogs, I haven’t always been knowledgeable about their proper training and socialization. Like a new and passionate romance, dogs and (most) humans are naturally enthusiastic and curious about each other. But like a long marriage, it takes a lot more than just love to make the relationship work.

We’ve evolved together side by side, so having to put in the work to make our partnership function seems counterintuitive and many people give up before they’ve made any kind of breakthrough with their animals, assuming that their canines are simply dumb or defective, or cannot be trained.

The power difference between our two species leaves a lot of room for dogs to be abused and neglected, and they often are. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and while we’re clearly hanging on to the power, it only takes a few dropping the ball on responsibility to lead to trouble. The results of that can be tragedy: not just for them, but occasionally for us humans.

I’ve been saddened by the reports I’ve read of late of dog attacks here in Mexico. A child being attacked by any animal is tragic, but it’s especially painful when it could have easily been prevented. What especially shocks me, though, is that the owners of the dogs were surprised that it happened, and for this, I have zero patience.

I do not blame the dogs. I blame the owners. Like us, dogs are social creatures. They might have individual personalities, but socialization and training account for most of their behavior, and ultimately the humans that keep them are responsible for what they do.

Certain breeds are known for specific temperaments, but contrary to popular belief, there are not dog breeds that are simply more violent. The difference in reported attacks is determined more by physical traits: ultimately, an aggressive pit bull can cause a lot more damage than an aggressive chihuahua.

As their owners, we are responsible for not allowing or encouraging those aggressive behaviors by recognizing their emotional cues, especially when around humans and animals. We’re also responsible for remembering that they’re animals, and for never fully trusting them.

I myself have two dogs. They are lovely, and they are important members of the family. But when we have guests, they go upstairs, especially if we have children over who might start tugging on tails or trying to ride them like horses.

Yes, parents should teach their children how to behave around animals but in the end, pet owners can only be responsible for their animal, not for everyone in the world that might want to bother it.

My older dog was adopted as an adult from a shelter, and has always been gentle and friendly. I would take her on runs around the lakes when she was younger, as did many other dog owners. Often, these owners would not have their dogs on leashes, and they would run up to She-ra barking and sniffing.

She’d get her “nervous mohawk” (the hair along her spine stands up when she’s anxious or mad) and I’d start yelling at the owner that my dog bites, and to get theirs away from her. She hasn’t actually bitten another dog — that I know of — but I wasn’t about to take a chance that this would be the first time, because if she did, as the bigger dog, she’d be blamed.

Mexico’s laws regarding the treatment of domestic animals varies by state, but the basics that one might expect are applicable in most places: keep your dog restrained when out in public, pick up after it on the street, keep it healthy and keep its shots updated. These rules exist not just for the benefit of the dogs, but of people that live with and around them; it is a public health issue, not a mere social nicety.

There are many organizations around Mexico that make a valiant effort to rescue dogs and help them find good homes, and sadly, saying most of them are overwhelmed in an understatement. Even so, they do the hard work of caring for as many animals as they can, and oh-so-importantly, sterilizing them. I’ve heard many times that these organizations’ ultimate goal is going out of business.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard pet shop owners say with a straight face that females are at risk of getting cancer if they don’t have at least one litter of babies, and I’ve met many men who seem to equate the testicles of their pets to their own manhood, refusing to neuter them. In addition to this there are those with purebreds who mate their dogs and sell the puppies, feeding people’s desires for “brand name” pets.

Creating a commodity of what are truly the best friends of our species only serves to allow people to see them as disposable, or worse, potential money-makers in illegal fights or puppy mills.

Everyone loves a super cute puppy. But most people will tire of a hyper adult dog that won’t leave you alone because its needs for socialization and training aren’t being met. Humans and dogs alike are pack animals.

Training a dog takes patience and persistence, something often in short supply in our modern, distracted world: our best intentions fade into the background with other goals from our higher selves, and many dogs get abandoned on rooftops or tied up outside, their only interaction coming from a refill of their water and food bowls.

And this is how tragedy strikes: any social creature forced into isolation cannot be mentally stable, period. If a dog’s needs aren’t met, it will certainly pay the price with a miserable life, but someone else might unwittingly pay that price as well.

If you see a dog living in these dangerous conditions, call local authorities to report it: you might be saving more than just one life.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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