It's natural to be afraid when a dog you don't know runs toward you, especially if he's of a breed that makes the headlines for attacks like the one that killed a woman last month in San Francisco.
Chances are, though, that any one of us is much more likely to be bitten by a dog we know -- our own family pet, or an animal belonging to a friend or relative. Many of these attacks could have been prevented if someone had paid attention to the warning signs indicating that a dog is a threat to safety.
Is your dog potentially dangerous? Answer these questions and be brutally honest with yourself.
-- Has your dog ever "stared you down"? A friend of mine told me recently about a young dog who tried to bully a dog trainer off a couch with a hard, fixed stare. She recognized it for the threat it was, and so should you.
-- Does your dog adopt a dominant posture with people or other dogs? A dog who's trying to be boss will be up on his toes, with his legs stiff, ears forward and hackles raised. His tail will be held up or out, and may even be wagging a little. Don't confuse the latter for friendliness. There's big difference between the wide, relaxed wag of a friendly dog and the stiff, tight one of an aggressive animal.
-- Do you avoid doing certain things around your dog because they elicit growling or a show of teeth? I've known people who live their lives in fear of their dog, avoiding the animal when he's eating, sleeping, playing with a toy ... the list can be endless.
-- Do you consider your dog safe, except around a particular group of people, such as children? When he growls at the veterinarian, do you tell yourself the behavior is reasonable because the animal thinks the doctor is "mean"?
-- Has your dog ever bitten anyone? Whatever the reason, no matter the excuse, a dog who has bitten once is more likely to bite again than is a dog who has never bitten at all.
A "yes" to any of these questions means you do have a problem, and you need to find help. You can find information in books or on the Internet on how to address aggressive behavior, but some of what you'll find is flat-out too dangerous for the average pet lover to follow. If you attempt to so much as make eye contact with a dog who has been allowed to believe that he's the boss, you risk getting bitten.
Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist with experience in aggressive dogs, or contact the behaviorists at your closest school or college of veterinary medicine. You'll almost certainly be told to have your dog neutered if that hasn't been done already. Most dogs involved in attacks are young, unneutered males. It is important to follow this and any other expert advice if you're to have a chance at reforming your canine delinquent.
You may find, though, that even after you've tried your best, you'll still have a dog who still cannot be trusted. For an animal who is and will continue to be a danger to others, euthanasia is the only option.
Yes, it's a tough call. But if your dog is a biter, he'll probably end up euthanized eventually -- sometimes after going from home to home to home. The difference is that if you do not take responsibility yourself, someone will get hurt first. Going by statistics, the victim will likely be a child.
While there are those who revel in having vicious dogs, most of the people who end up with them are horrified at what their pets have become. If you are among these people, you must take responsibility and get the help you need before someone gets hurt.
PETS ON THE WEB
One of the great things about watching the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is that this event shows off breeds most of us don't see very often. That's because Westminster's prestige is such that the best of every breed, no matter how rare, shows up to compete for the best-in-show award. At this year's show, a big piece of the attention went to the winner of the sporting group, a flat-coated retriever by the name of Ch. Zeus The Major God JH. No other flat-coat has ever managed such a big win, and already breeders report increased interest in the dogs. (I've been interested in the breed for years and share my life with two flat-coats.)
As with any breed, it pays to do your homework before you decide a breed is right for you. Flat-coated retrievers are good-natured and bright but extremely energetic -- these dogs live for the opportunity to work, preferably as a hunting companion. They are a bad match for anyone who cannot give the dogs' minds and bodies the workouts they crave, preferably on a daily basis. Another downside: The breed is often short-lived and highly prone to cancer. You can find out almost everything you need to know on the Web site of the Flat-Coated Retriever Society of America (www.fcrsainc.org).
Peach-faced lovebirds are beautiful, active and playful. When hand-raised and socialized with humans, these little guys love to be handled, carried around in your shirt pocket or on your collar (under your hair). They're very affectionate, not overly loud and capable of picking up a few phrases.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to keep two lovebirds. In fact, a single lovebird will likely be a more affectionate pet than a pair of them, who'll primarily have eyes for each other.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have a question about house-training a puppy using a crate. You said a 2-month-old can "hold it" for two hours. What about at night? I've never seen this addressed before. We are going to get a golden retriever puppy this year and plan to crate-train. Do we get up every so many hours during the night? -- L.Y., via e-mail
A: Puppies are like babies. Some sleep through the night pretty soon after they come home, while others are considerably more fidgety. The younger the puppy, the more likely it is that you'll have to get up at least once during the night to take your little darling outside. Your puppy's crate should be right next to your bed, helping with bonding and making it easier for you to hear your puppy rustling when he needs to go out.
Make sure you're helping your pup to make it through the night by conducting the nighttime ritual properly. Offer your pup his last water no later than an hour before bedtime, and take him out for one last squat just before you settle him into the crate for the night. If you're letting your pup tank up before bed, he won't make it until morning.
In the daytime, the rule of thumb I mentioned in an earlier column still holds true. Puppies can "hold it" in a crate for about as long as their age in months: two hours for 2-month-olds, three hours for 2-month-olds, and so on. About five or six hours is the most any dog should be crated, no matter the age.
Q: Why do cats chose one person in a household rather than another? -- B.H., via e-mail
A: Animals have their preferences, too, and whom they like best often has a lot to do with who feeds them.
Dogs have always seemed more mercenary to me. The person in a household who is most often responsible for filling up the dishes or snapping on the leash for the daily walk usually earns favorite human status in the eyes of the family dog.
In a more general sense, I've known dogs who show a decided preference for men or for women. My dog Heather is like this. She is drawn to men, especially those who are tall with deep voices. As an apparently terminally single woman, I rarely have tall men with deep voices in my home (more's the pity for both of us, I suppose).
Cats, on the other hand, seem to use selection criteria that are not so blatantly obvious and seemingly contrary to their best interest at times. One of the most common questions I get is why, in a room full of people, will a cat invariably make a beeline for the one person in the room who does not like or is allergic to cats?
There is an explanation, and it's not plain contrariness on the part of cats. One thing most cats don't like is eye contact from strangers -- they find it intimidating. When a friendly cat wanders into a room, he'll notice that all the people who like cats are looking at him. So he heads for the one who he thinks is being polite -- the person who isn't looking at him. The cat doesn't realize that the person isn't looking because he doesn't want the cat near him. It's just a little bit of cross-species miscommunication.
That's one theory, anyway. Or maybe putting cat fur on the slacks of a cat hater really is the ultimate in feline fun.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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