The Million Dollar Question
Morgan: Alright, Mike, welcome back. I’ve got a great question for you today that really gets to the heart of what we talk about on this podcast. Here it is: “My dog bit my toddler – what should I do?”
Mike: That is a very difficult question. I’ll say a couple of things about it. One is that, to some degree, it depends on circumstances, right?
If this is a completely future-preventable circumstance, and we can make sure it never happens again, then it doesn’t have to be that big a thing.
Obviously, we’d want to take a look at what triggered it. Why did it happen? From a management standpoint, what can we do to prevent that happening again? And from a training standpoint, we’d want to implement some kind of training which would prevent what happened.
So, that’s one thing. However, it’s very difficult. Often, this is the point where you have to rehome a dog, because the reality of most people’s lives is that they can’t control the whole situation.
They haven’t controlled it, if the dog has now bitten the kid. And the mom now knows that the dog’s got this potential. So now you’ve got other people, kids, coming over: how are you going to deal with that?
Well, you have to put the dog away. And you also now know that your dog has the potential to bite your kid – that’s going to change the whole way that you relate to him, right?
The Worst-Case Scenario?
Mike: It’s just tough. I had a very painful situation like that earlier this year with a client of mine, a long-time client – I’ve trained multiple dogs with her. She has four kids. She’s divorced, and her kids are little – they’re between four and 9, something like that.
And one of the kids walked over to the dog – and it’s a beautiful German shepherd, this is a nice dog – but the mom is just too chaotically busy to really put that much [inaudible 00:02:43] on the whole situation.
So one of the kids walked over while the dog was eating, and the dog just snapped and bit her in the face. Not horrible, just a little cut, so it’s nothing terrible or life-threatening – the dog’s certainly not vicious.
You know, it’s a chaotic scene over there, and it’s protecting its stuff. And if some other dog had encroached on him that way, and he’d have snapped at the other dog, it wouldn’t have even been a scratch, because dogs have fur.
But that same little bite on a kid’s face – which is always right at that same level as the dog’s head – means he now has a little cut. Again, nothing dramatic: he didn’t need to go to the hospital, but he had a little puncture wound and was bleeding.
So again, it’s like: “What can I do? What can I do?” And I told her everything I just said to you.
I said: “You might consider whether this is a healthy situation.” And then, three weeks later, it happened again.
Morgan: Oh no!
Morgan: Really? Same thing, same kid?
Mike: I think it was the same kid – or a different kid, I’m not sure. But it was the same type of situation, near the food.
The thing is, you have one kid – so imagine four, between 4 and 9, running around.
Morgan: [Laughter] I can’t.
Mike: They’ve just got home from school, and Mom’s just trying to manage all this stuff. Plus, she owns a restaurant – she’s busy.
And I just told her: “I just don’t think there’s any way that you can predictably and reliably guarantee that this kind of confrontation isn’t going to happen again.” Whether that’s by rearranging the feeding arrangements, or whatever it is.
And then her ex-husband found out about the whole thing, and I got into a very bad position. Now lawyers are involved, and they’re asking me for my professional opinion about what to do with this dog.
And she’s a good friend of mine, so I wanted to protect her – but I couldn’t really say that somehow it’s going to be fine. Not when there are lawyers and liability and all kinds of stuff involved. And there’s already two bites.
So she got very angry with me, because I had to basically say, on the record and to everybody, that I think the dog would be better off rehomed.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with that dog – he was a fantastic 10-month-old German shepherd, not a mean bone in his body. But he just got triggered in the wrong way – it wasn’t his fault.
But once a dog bites a toddler, it’s really tough to come back from that. And as I explained to her as well, if it’s on the record that this happened, you could have problems with Child Protective Services, especially because it’s an ugly divorce, and people are trying to get at each other – and I explained that to her.
An Even Worse-Case Scenario
I had a client, years ago, whose French bulldog didn’t actually attack her kid – it attacked another dog out front.
But the person out front made a stink and called Child Protective Services, and said there was a vicious dog in the house – and they took her kid away. Even though the dog never even bit the kid, it had just attacked the dog out front.
Morgan: Wait, wait. They took the kid away – really??
Mike: Yes, they took the kid away. It took her two years fighting court battles to get her kid back, after the kid was put in foster care.
Morgan: You’re kidding! Holy God!
Mike: So the thing is, what I was saying to her is: “Look, you don’t want these bureaucrats in your life.” The other case eventually gave the city of San Francisco a big black eye, for being so overly intrusive and inappropriate. But whatever – that doesn’t matter to the mom.
Morgan: So, eventually, they got bad press?
Mike: Yes, it became a big thing in the news, about the government overreaching into somebody’s life over something they should have never been in court for anyway. So she was vindicated in the end – but who cares? She lost two years with her kid.
Dog Bites Are Serious Territory
Mike: So I was explaining that to my current client: “If your dog’s bit your kid a couple of times, and the bite is bad enough that you have to go to the hospital, then the doctors have to file a police report.”
It’s the law. So, if that happens twice, then you’ve got Animal Control involved, and potentially Child Protection too – it’s just a big mess.
So, once your dog bites your toddler, I generally tell people – unless it’s a really easy-to-prevent situation the next time – you’re going to have to start thinking about rehoming the dog. Because you’re in very serious territory there.
The Uncrossable Line
Morgan: OK, a couple of things just in response there. So your first response to the question was: “Well, theoretically, immediately you try and put a preventative system in place.”
But basically, your deeper point is: everything that we ever talk about on this podcast is about not going across this line.
Morgan: And once this line gets crossed, it escalates the situation precipitously, but it also triggers a whole cascade of consequences that you have to deal with.
And probably of all our episodes so far – and using that example kind of illustrated what a worst-case scenario is – but in that worst-case scenario, it’s like: that’s the 800-pound gorilla that’s in the room all the time once that bite has happened.
All those things could happen to you – they couldn’t happen before. So, it’s a cautionary tale.
And when someone asks you that question, you have the knowledge, you know what’s happened, you’ve seen it, and you’ve seen the drama play out, now, multiple times.
And so you’re really bound to say: “Well, if you want my most conservative opinion (which isn’t even really that conservative), in all likelihood you have to rehome the dog, unless the dog really shows an immediate response to the system that you put in place.”
That’s the preventative system, where they can demonstrate, perhaps, being in the same situation and not presenting the same behavior.
So, is that right, number one? And then number two: what are you looking for? What is that system that you put in place, and how do you know if it’s successful?
You Can Work On It – But You Have To Really Work
Mike: Alright, so a) yes, you’re right. And b) I posted on my blog, a while back, a few videos – this was very early on. There was a case history where we had exactly that with a…
Morgan: A cocker spaniel.
Mike: A cocker spaniel, right.
So he bit the kid in the face over something – the kid was under the sofa playing with a toy, the dog jumped up there, something happened, and the kid got bit in the face.
Mom called me, I went over. I told her basically everything I just told you, and she said: “Well, I think we can solve this, I think we can work on this.”
And I went over, and I looked at the dog – and he was a pretty sweet dog, and I agreed with her.
So, then we put a program in place, which is sort of set out in that little video: systematic desensitizing, rank management, all of that stuff. And it worked.
And so it’s been two years now, and I think she had another kid, and everything’s fine. No more incidents.
I’m friends with their dog walker, who referred me over there, and I see Russ on the beach three or four times a year with her, and everything’s hunky dory, going great – nothing ever happened again.
The owner was diligent, she followed through, plus there was only one kid at the time. And it worked.
So I’m not saying it won’t work – I’m just saying, as you say, that you’ve stepped across a line, and you can’t unstep back from it.
Morgan: Yeah, that’s the thing.
Mike: And whatever happens, whatever decisions you make going forward, you cannot step back behind that line. You know: “My dog bit my kid.”
Morgan: That story is so good for conveying the absolute nature of that line. I think probably, more than any other episode we’ve had, that demarcation line is so clear.
You always speak to that line, but I think that story basically just puts it in context, and shows you what the potential consequences are.
Mike: The stakes are way up once that happens.
Morgan: Yeah. And that’s on multiple levels – they’re on multiple levels, right?
Obviously number one is injury to your child, and potential subsequent injury to your child.
But then, like you said, there’s all of these legal ramifications that swing into action if this happens again. And you have to think about if something’s going on with your spouse, or your neighbor, or other people’s children, there’s also the potential of them getting bitten, as you spoke about.
All of a sudden, it really is clear: it has manifold implications, instantly.
Mike: That’s right. So, if you’re in that situation, it’s a toughie – it’s a real tough one. And you have to put all the variables on the table and make an assessment.
And you know, what most people end up doing is: they’ll hire somebody like me, and they’ll make some effort to retrain the dog. But I’d say, in the majority of cases, they end up realizing they’re fighting a losing battle, and it’s too little, too late.
Because then it will just take one other near miss, and they’re going to go: “Woah.”
Unless, like I said, you get a case like that situation I just described, where the woman actually managed to turn the corner on it, and Russ has been fine.
But I’d say, on a percentage level, it’s 70/30. Maybe 80/20, even. 70/30 is probably fair – 70% of the dogs have to go, 30% don’t. You can come back from the edge.
Morgan: Wow. Alright, well I think that brings us to a clear resolution on this.