On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

National Dog Bite Prevention Week: A Case Study

2004 White House First Dog, Barney. By Karen Nutini.

Image via Wikipedia

In our last post for National Dog Bite Prevention Week, we’ll put all our new-found knowledge about animal body language, potential bite warning signs, and how to approach an unfamiliar dog to a practical application: analyzing video of a real dog bite, trying to determine why it happened and how it could have been avoided.

I’m sure you all remember back about three years ago when a very famous dog was involved in a very embarrassing incident. It was the morning of November 6, 2008, when President George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, Barney, was out for his morning walk on the White House lawn. While being filmed by American Urban Radio Networks’ April D. Ryan, Barney was approached by Reuters correspondent Jonathan Decker. When Decker reached down to pet Barney, the dog snapped, puncturing Decker’s index finger. Afterwards Ryan interviewed Decker, who showed his bandage finger and stated that the White House doctor had cleaned the wound and prescribed a short course of antibiotics to prevent infection.

The raw video of the incident, which is not at all graphic, can be seen here.

The video opens with a shot of Decker kneeling down close to Barney, who has his head turned in the opposite direction. As Ryan greets Barney in a friendly, high-pitched voice, the dog stands stock-still, his tail unmoving, his bushy Scottie eyebrows wiggling furiously as his eyes dart back and forth. The reporters try to coax Barney to turn towards them, which he does, but then freezes again and sets his ears almost flat back against his head. Suddenly, Decker leans in to put his hand on top of Barney’s head; the dog rears back and bites at the hand, settling back on the ground with his ears completely forward and his eyes looking piercingly at Decker. He then composes himself, averts his eyes again, and licks his lips.

If you paid attention to our last post, the warning signs shouldn’t be hard to read. By turning his head and avoiding eye contact, Barney is clearly saying, “I’m not in the mood to deal with you right now.” His tense muscles and flat ears say, “In fact, you’d better back away, because I’m very uncomfortable.” Suddenly, Decker’s hand comes in from nowhere; Barney has not been shown the hand and has not been allowed to sniff it. Since he has not granted Decker permission to pet him, Barney – who is leashed and therefore has no means of escape – perceives the hand as a threat and reacts instinctively by snapping. His aggressive body posture then tells the reporter, “You’d better not try that again!” Barney then realizes that the message has been received and goes back into “uncomfortable, but not outright aggressive” mode. He licks his lips as a sign of stress (and not because he thought Decker’s finger was delicious).

If Jonathan Decker had only implemented the W.A.I.T. approach, he could have avoided getting bitten. He needed to WAIT to see if the dog appeared friendly – Barney was avoidant and standoffish from the beginning. He should’ve ASKED the handler if it was alright to pet Barney – the handler could’ve told Decker if the dog was feeling ill or grumpy that morning. He definitely should’ve INVITED Barney to sniff him – a surprise attack from the air isn’t going to win you any points with an apprehensive dog. And he should’ve TOUCHED the dog gently on the back – not patted him on top of the head.

I hope this series of posts has informed you on why National Dog Bite Prevention Week is so important, and why we need to teach children – and adults! – how to approach dogs in a comfortable, nonthreatening way to avoid being bitten. Millions of unnecessary injuries – and the unnecessary euthanasia of thousands of allegedly “aggressive” dogs – could be avoided if humans would only learn to better understand and respect our canine companions.

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2 responses to “National Dog Bite Prevention Week: A Case Study

  1. Scanadensis May 20, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Watching that video, I could tell immediately that Barney was uncomfortable. It is important to learn the body language of dogs, and it’s not difficult to do. If I have to interact with a dog who seems as uncomfortable as Barney was in that situation (such as when I worked at a boarding kennel), and even when they DO seem comfortable, I always let them smell my hand before I attempt to touch them. Sometimes they relax, other times they decide they still don’t want to interact. Either way, they give a clear sign. These have been a great series of posts with important information!

    • Caroline Shapiro May 20, 2011 at 9:26 am

      Thank you! I think humans are sometimes just a bit too pushy about doings things on their own terms, even when dogs are doing their best to communicate in the only way they know how. It’s amazing that two species which have lived and interacted so closely for thousands of years can still have so many misunderstandings!

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