By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Local news reports, “A Mountain Ranch man was mauled to death by two pit bulls late Sunday afternoon.
The dogs belonged to a friend of the victim who was staying on his property. According to one newscast, the dogs were known to be territorial. They barked, growled and lunged at people from within their confined area. However the person interviewed stated that no one expected this. On the other hand, the opinion of some readers is that the outcome was obvious and the clear consequence is that pit bulls should be banned.
Whether you love pit bulls or wish they were all dead, the real message from this tragic incident should be, if your dog barks and lunges uncontrollably at people or other animals, you need some help with him.
As a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist, I deal with aggression and bite cases all the time. In fact, these make up about 80% of the cases that veterinarians practicing behavior see. One common thread exists between many of the cases—the owners failed to recognize the early signs that could develop to fatal aggression.
They ignored the problem until it was too late because they thought, “Barking is a normal territorial response,” or “He’d just run up to the visitor but I was sure he’d never bite,” or “He’s a perfect dog and so lovable the rest of the time,” or “We didn’t know it could end up like this!”
A second common thread is that the dog gets overly aroused and the owner can’t get their dog to focus on them and perform alternate, more appropriate behaviors.
What’s wrong with territorial barking?
It is true that dogs normally alert to and bark at changes in the environment such as people approaching their property. Some owners prefer this quality as it alerts them to possible danger. But if you, as the human, have no way of getting the dog to understand that his barking should have an on-off switch and most people approaching are no danger, you may be setting yourself up for a similar bite or mauling situation.
The problem is that each time the dog gets a chance to bark and the object of the barking goes away, the dog learns that barking works and he should do it more. At the same time the barking itself, like a rally chant, is self-reinforcing. Add to that a second overly aroused dog and a human barking “No! No!” and now you create an air that is like gunpowder, waiting to explode.
That’s because arousal or excitement and aggression are on a continuum.
Regardless of whether the dog was originally barking out of fear, wants to play and can’t, or just wants you off his property, when the excitement level gets too high, he may just go into pure reaction mode. That’s the mode where he runs up barking and not thinking. This is similar to the drunken football fans who riot after their team wins the superbowl, or the peaceful but passionate protestors who suddenly turn into a violent mob. It’s not something specific to pit bulls. It’s a behavior characteristic of animals in general. For dogs, the larger they are, and the more practice they get, the more dangerous they can be.
Take home message
So let this tragic case be a lesson to anyone whose dog barks or lunges out of control. You can tell yourself “ Oh, he’d never bite,” or “He’s just playing,” or “He’s good the rest of the time.” But if you can’t call him and get his undivided attention on you, it may take a bite or mauling before you realize you were wrong.
To see videos on what you can do to train your dog to focus on you instead of barking, lunging and behaving aggressively watch these videos: