DEAR DR. FOX: My daughter lives on a farm and has a 12-year-old unaltered purebred Jack Russell terrier. The dog has had a third of her teeth removed because of health problems. She has never been formally trained. She is loving toward humans, but very aggressive with other dogs.
My daughter has a 1-year-old grandson, whom she cares for one day a week. She allows the child to crawl on the floor with the dog around. So far, things have been amicable between the child and the dog.
Recently, my daughter was in her yard talking with a worker. The child and dog were on the ground nearby. Unbeknownst to my daughter, the dog had found the carcass of an animal that was also close by. Out of nowhere, the dog attacked the child, biting him in the face. She backed away, and then attacked again. Luckily, the wounds were superficial since the dog does not have all her teeth.
What would cause this behavior? Is there any way to ensure that it will not happen again, or should the two be separated from now on? -- P.B., Alexandria, Virginia
DEAR P.B.: This is a distressing incident. Of the thousands of reported dog bites each year, this is probably the most common reason why people, children in particular, are bitten: The dog feels threatened by the close proximity or sudden approach of an unsupervised infant when the dog is eating, sleeping, has a favorite toy or, as with the dog in question, some other object that the dog covets. This is essentially defensive aggression, and certainly genetics play some role; terriers tend to be hyper-alert and quick to react, rather than easygoing and less possessive.
I would not blame the dog, since it is the nature of this dog to react in this way, and it was fortunate that the facial injuries were minimal. This could have been only partially due to the lack of teeth -- the dog may have given inhibited bites and warning snaps at the infant.
All dog owners should provide greater in-home vigilance and careful supervision of infants in particular, who may put themselves at risk in situations where they are unknowingly intimidating the family dog. They are also putting the dogs at risk: Reported dog bites generally require quarantine under rabies control regulations, and all too frequently lead to euthanasia. In many instances, I believe the dogs were surprised or alarmed, felt suddenly threatened and reacted instinctively -- an accident of biology or nature. In other instances, the dogs may have experienced prior trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I recall several years ago when St. Bernards (due to their popularity and unethical commercial breeders) were uncharacteristically aggressive toward family members, and one small child was seriously bitten. The dog was euthanized, and an autopsy was performed, revealing a pencil that had been stabbed deep into the poor dog's ear canal by the infant.
So it is just as important to protect the dog from impulsive toddlers in the home as it is to never leave an infant unsupervised around most animals.
DEAR DR. FOX: I gather that you do not have much faith in politics, as you have written about the politics of extinction. Where do you find hope as you write about making the world a better place "for all creatures great and small"? -- S.C., Bar Harbor, Maine
DEAR S.C.: Because of the nature of politics, can politicians ever fully be trusted? Perhaps a few are a little trustworthier than others. There really is little hope when both corporations and individual citizens choose ignorance, denial and indifference over responsibility and accountability to the ethical code of respect for the environment and all life. I embrace spiritual anarchy, not the anarchism of violence. It is a spirituality that calls on us to find the best ways to cause the least possible harm, if any, in satisfying our basic needs while embracing the golden rule of treating all living beings as we would have them treat us. For more discussion on this topic, see my book "The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation."
BOOK REVIEW: "Dawn of the Dog: The Genesis of a Natural Species" by Janice Koler-Matznick.
If you are curious about the origin of our closest animal companion, the dog (Canis familiaris), this scholarly book is the best resource on this subject.
As a member of the Canid Specialist Group with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there is no one better qualified and dedicated to address this question than biologist Koler-Matznick. From her analysis of scientific reports, this award-worthy and beautifully illustrated treatise supports the theory that the dog existed as a distinct, naturally evolved species separate from today's wolves long before any association with humans.
The book is enriched with color photos of aboriginal, indigenous "landraces" from around the world, many in danger of extinction. I have long embraced her theory of the origin of the dog and concur with her, from personal experience, that "except for some highly specialized types of work, they are actually the ideal dogs."
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.net.)