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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Dog bites tv anchor, news at...

Just a quick post about the potential consequences of this sad story: The 85 lb. dog rescued from an icy lake on Tuesday is featured on television (morning news show) with his rescuer, and then bites the tv anchor who moved closer to his face. Animal experts have explained that the dog's body language was clearly signalling his discomfort, yet the anchor persisted in trying to hug or cuddle him.

Why did the dog need to be rescued? This story describes how the dog's owner allowed the dog to be off leash, and when the dog spotted a coyote, his chase instinct kicked in. He wound up falling into frigid water until firefighters came to rescue him 20 minutes later.

The anchor required extensive surgery, the dog must be quarantined for 10 days for signs of illness or rabies (he was not innoculated), and the dog's owner received multiple citations: for allowing his dog off-leash, for allowing the bite, and for failing to have his dog properly vaccinated.

There is so much wrong about this tale. On one side, we have an irresponsible owner whose poor judgment nearly caused his dog to die of drowning or hypothermia, who risked his dog's health & the health of anyone who comes into contact with the dog with the failure to vaccinate, and who allowed his dog to be featured on a "feel good" television segment the day after the dog experienced such a traumatic experience. On the other side, we have a television anchor so focused on getting the "feel good" moment on camera with the dog, despite her own lack of knowledge of dog behavior and communication, to the point where she was hospitalized and needed major reconstructive surgery. Caught in the middle of two humans with poor judgment is the dog, who now must be quarantined & subsequently treated as a dog with a vicious biting history.

The consequences will likely be felt by responsible dog owners everywhere who grapple with the difficulties in finding suitable on-leash and safe off-leash outlets for our canine companions.

Posted by Shawn Markus Crincoli on February 9, 2012 at 06:24 PM | Permalink


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We discussed this story in my class yesterday, as we discuss current legal stories in the news at the beginning of each class, and, in the first semester, my class wrote memos on dog owners' liability for a dog bite. Denver and the surrounding area is serious dog country and it is not at all uncommon for dog owners to have dogs off leash. In my opinion the biggest problem here is the news media for staging this event which probably seriously scared the dog and, as someone else mentioned, the anchor's insistence on achieving a feel-good moment on camera. FYI, in the interest of legal analysis, and based on my students' research last semester, they opined that the owner would not be liable for the injuries as the anchor provoked the dog. This is a good story for teaching.

Posted by: Debbie Borman | Feb 14, 2012 1:28:07 PM


I am not trying to absolve the owner of blame. I think the guy is an idiot, and if we could prevent him from ever owning a dog again, I'd be thrilled. I just think it's a mistake to suggest that the anchor has no fault at all either (in a world of comparative negligence, maybe I'd say 85% owner/15% anchor?).

I saw the video too, and I saw it very differently than you did. The dog's lips back, open mouth panting and flat ear back position while she is petting him are signs of dog anxiety & stress, not happiness or even just being too hot. The leaning can be interpreted as either backing away or leaning into scratches - it seems ambiguous. [FWIW, the dog also gave a very brief warning 'snarl' before the bite too - lips peeled back to bear teeth with snarling noise - though I imagine that may have come too close to the bite for it to be usefully interpreted by the anchor in time to realize the dog was about to bite.]

I don't know how they decide what makes someone an "animal expert," and while I'm pretty good at interpreting dog body language, I've never billed myself as any sort of expert either. I've read a lot of literature about dog behavior, I have dogs, I've worked with or observed other dogs. I regularly voluteer with one of my dogs doing pet therapy, which has given me even greater appreciation for how dogs can help people, yet rely on their owner to make good judgment calls about positive vs. negative dog-human interactions. From my experience, most people - even people who own dogs - do not understand dog communication, or how the same signals look in different breeds.

On the video, you can see that the anchor was not really paying attention to the dog's body language while touching him. Her focus was on the story and interview, and the dog was more of a prop. Add to that the fact that she was probably incapable of interpreting his anxiety anyway, and she seemed unaware of face-to-face contact being a sign of threat in dog communication.

I don't fault her for not knowing dogs. And I'm sorry that she was hurt. No one wants to see that happen, and I hope she recovers quickly. I do fault her for the questionable judgment of touching and getting so close to a strange dog as if he were a stuffed toy, to the point where she was multi-tasking and the dog was not receiving all of her focus. She is not a toddler who doesn't know better. She is a grown woman who placed the interest of a good tv story ahead of her own safety, with tragic consequences.

I imagine that as a father of a toddler and someone who knows dogs, you are teaching your children not to run up to strange dogs, just as you teach them not to run in the middle of the street. And you teach them "rules" that they can more easily follow (e.g., "You must always hold my hand when we walk down the block.") Still, just as people who drive down the streets of residential areas, especially places where children are (parks, schools, etc.) have to be alert for the fact that toddlers aren't old enough to know better (no matter how many times you tell them) & sometimes let go of hand-holding to run off, so too responsible dog owners know that they have to keep their unleashed dogs away from places where toddlers are likely to run up to them & prevent small children from running over to the dog's face while it's leashed.

The reality is that most dogs are not comfortable with toddlers, and even dogs who are known to be good with children - even toddlers - ALWAYS require supervision around them. Always.

I guess my point is: yes, this dog is a demonstrable threat. But I'm not convinced without more information that this dog is MORE of a threat than many other dogs would be (e.g., do we know if he was injured from the ordeal too?). More than 50% of American households have dogs, and it's a problem that society tends to categorize - and legislate - dogs as though they were either vicious, dangerous biters OR as cuddly, stuffed toys, when the truth is usually neither.

I worry that the consequence is that people will see the need to change leash laws or euthanize a specific dog, rather than increase education and awareness about safe dog-human interaction.

Posted by: Shawn Crincoli | Feb 10, 2012 12:16:55 PM

A good lesson on judgment. Something like this should be taught in high schools.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 10, 2012 11:35:22 AM

The fact that this dog bit the face of a woman who was merely scratching his chin showed 1) why there are leash laws; 2) why the owner is irresponsible; and 3) why the dog is a danger and should be euthanized. I grew up with Dobermans, so I know big digs, and I watched the video of the incident -- perhaps the "animal experts" (what does that even mean?) cited in the original post saw an animal that had body language expressing discomfort, but I did not see it. The dog was relaxed, its tongue lolling, leaning into the scratches behind its ears, and then when the anchor put her face up next to the dogs, the dog struck. In fact, you can tell the anchor started patting the dog gently, then was more affectionate as the dog showed no signs of discomfort. Shawn seems to imply the anchor is at fault -- hell no. it is the owner who is at fault. If anyone should have realized the dog was potentially becoming stressed, it was the owner. He was probably having too much of a good time getting in his 15 minutes of fame. And the fact that this dog did not give a warning snap -- let alone a growl or bark -- and instead gave a bite that requires major reconstructive surgery leaves one conclusion: the dog needs to be put down. I have a toddler, and I have many friends with toddlers. If they saw this dog running loose, they would probably come up close and get in its face -- it is what small kids do with dogs. And this dog would strike -- given the power in those jaws, its bite could kill a small child. Is that hard lines on the dog? Yes. But I am sorry -- the dog is a demonstrable threat.

Posted by: DHMCarver | Feb 10, 2012 11:20:35 AM

It's good that such sad events are publicized. Until society grows up and bans ownership of pets just as it banned slavery just a short time ago, we will have to hold pet owners' feet to the fire and make them pay for all the injuries and zoonoses that they introduce into the human population.

Cats, being far less useful as dogs, are the greater problem, for which TNR is no solution. I actively trap cats and charge the owners $50 for their return, but in trapping the last cat, I had to deal with 9 possume, 6 raccoons and 2 skunks that had beat the cats to the bait.

Posted by: Jimbino | Feb 10, 2012 10:49:16 AM

The part that bothers me about unleashing the dog has nothing to do with the leash laws or citation. In fact, that's my worry - that stories like this are exactly why dogs are banned in more places & that to the extent they are allowed anywhere, it *must* be on-leash.

The reality is that by restricting where dogs can be at all as well as off-leash so much, we've created a culture where even responsible dog owners regularly break the law. And as a result, some people may wind up making choices that are less safe than if they had alternatives (though it's not clear this story involves someone who didn't have better places to bring his dog).

In terms of whether this owner was irresponsible to unleash, my vote is still yes, even beyond "why bring your dog in the wild if it's not vaccinated" part. Very few dogs have the impulse control to override the prey drive and to avoid chasing wildlife (squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, foxes, etc.), and it takes a tremendous about of training to get a dog to be reliable in being "called off" that chase. The hazard (frozen lake) was just too close. One of my dogs has a great recall, a strong prey drive, and is a strong swimmer, and I wouldn't want to find out just how good that recall is (or her swimming skills are) under those circumstances either.

Posted by: Shawn Crincoli | Feb 10, 2012 9:13:56 AM

Fair enough. It just seems to me that there's not enough information to say that unleashing the dog was really irresponsible. Of course, that's not to say the owner wasn't irresponsible for the other things (vaccines, TV show...)

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Feb 9, 2012 10:35:52 PM

I don't know about the entire terrain of the location, but it was in Lakewood, Colorado (part of Denver metro), and coyotes are fairly common in that region.

From my perspective, combining the likelihood of encountering a coyote or another critter with the proximity to the semi-frozen lake made it unsafe to unleash the dog, if the dog did not have a recall that was strong enough to overcome its prey drive.

Posted by: Shawn Crincoli | Feb 9, 2012 8:22:49 PM

Was it an inherently unsafe area to let a dog off leash?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Feb 9, 2012 8:13:47 PM

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