When I started this blog, it was my full intent to focus on the beauty that is found in the bond that can develop between humans and animals, especially between people and their dogs and horses. Though that will continue to be my focus in future blogs, due to recent events I feel the need to shift focus to look at what happens when that bond is broken.
A recent tragedy here in Bozeman, Montana served as a reminder that we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone and all creatures get along. One only has to look at nature or the nightly news to witness the brutality within the life cycle of predator and prey. Utopia doesn’t exist. Yet in our comfortable suburban worlds, some are lulled into the illusion that it might. What a shock when reality calls.
On June 24th, a local resident was attacked by two dogs who belonged to one of her tenants. The woman eventually died. After the horrible news broke, people started asking me what I thought about it because of my background in teaching and testifying about bite investigations and canine behavioral assessments. I wasn’t able to say much because I wasn’t privy to the details of this specific incident any more than they were, and it is dangerous to speculate about actual events when the public facts are few.
For that reason, I won’t focus on this particular incident but instead use it as a starting point. It’s a harsh, painful reminder that, no matter what we think of our animals, how much we love them, or can’t imagine them doing harm to anyone, they are still animals. Their behavior is directly connected to their base instincts and whatever stimuli they have experienced throughout their lives.
When I was teaching animal control and law enforcement officers across the nation, I always brought the focus back to base instincts. More often than not, the dog’s experiences and past training are an unknown. The only known constants are the dog’s instincts—specifically pack, predatory, and fear instincts. When a dog is under high stress, he is operating almost entirely on instinct. Even highly trained working dogs, such as those in military or law enforcement K9 units, operate on an instinctive level. The training just helps redirect and control it. Let me put that another way: Training is simply the suppression or redirection of instinctive behaviors.
Over the past 30,000 or more years, we humans have established an amazing relationship with canines. This has grown well beyond dogs meeting our original practical needs for protection and assistance in hunting or hauling supplies. Today, our connection with domestic dogs is primarily one of friendship, even lapsing into a perceived familial bond. Alas, there is the problem. When we anthropomorphize our dogs, we begin to interact with them as small humans, thinking their minds work like ours. They don’t. Dogs don’t see us as family. They see other living creatures as either in the pack or not. When we humans forget that, problems arise.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to submit written testimony or testify in person in a dozen or so court cases regarding dog bite incidents. In all those cases, as I analyzed the dog’s behavior, I could trace the root cause of the attacks to some human action. Even in the instances where a court was not involved—often at an animal shelter where the dog was showing extreme aggression—I could trace back almost all bite incidents to human causes. (The few exceptions involved untreatable neurological issues in the dog.) In the majority of the human-caused incidents, I found that the dog’s behavior, though unacceptable in western society, was in fact entirely normal for canines operating in a feral pack mindset. In essence, the dogs were just being dogs, operating on their base instincts in a moment when they lacked human guidance and control.
There was one court case that I had to testify in that involved a dog attacking and severely injuring another dog down the street. I won’t go into details, but I spent over half an hour on the stand. During a break after that, the owner of the dog that had been attacked approached me and said something I will never forget.
“What happened to my dog isn’t right, but at least now I know why it happened. Thank you.”
The dogs were just being dogs. As harsh as it sounds, that’s the truth. This doesn’t excuse the dog. Far from it. I will not hesitate to recommend a dog be euthanized if the level of aggression shown is one that results in severe injury or is very likely to be repeated. As a society, we can’t tolerate certain violent behavior. That is why we have jails. That is why we euthanize some dogs. It is something that society has deemed necessary.
The dogs involved in the recent fatal attack in Bozeman were euthanized and rightly so. But what about the other half of the equation? How about the human owners? In this particular case, they have been charged with two counts of vicious/dangerous dog and two counts failure to have current rabies vaccination per county ordinance and will face the consequences.
As mentioned earlier, in almost all the cases of canine aggression that I have assessed, I could trace the cause to humans. Though not necessarily the dog’s owner. You see, I’ve seen instances where the owner was not the cause. Perhaps it was a previous owner or, in rare instances, sometimes the victim’s actions triggered the aggression. Regardless, we humans almost always bear the yoke of responsibility when it comes to how our dogs behave.
I am a firm believer that we are made to be stewards of creation. That includes the care of the animals we share our lives with. For dogs, this care goes well beyond food, water, and shelter. There are far too many who think that is where their responsibility stops. No, responsible dog ownership must include training, socialization, containment, and in rare cases, the choice to end the animal’s life to protect others. If only all people understood and honored that responsibility. That’s my utopic dream now, isn’t it?
The reality is that we humans are flawed, prideful, selfish creatures much of the time, and those less savory qualities can erode the beautiful animal-human bond. When we forget our responsibilities to the animal, when we neglect training or worse, train aggressive behavior without the obedience to control it, that is when tragedy happens. The dog, without a solid foundation of training and socialization, will operate on instinct and, in some cases, this can end in catastrophe.
In dog-handler relationships, we humans are the ones whose moral choices can result in life or death, for our dogs and even for other people. This is a massive responsibility. Recently the weight and power of that responsibility really hit me.
While conducting research for my third novel, I’ve spent a lot of time with law enforcement K9 handlers from around the region. This is pure joy for me, and I count myself blessed to be allowed to hang out with them, observe their work, and even take some bites as a decoy every now and then.
During this research period, I learned that a new K9 officer just announced he didn’t want to do it anymore—after only a month as a handler. He’d completed all the training, got placed with an amazing dog, and then said no. The dog was left in limbo, stuck in a kennel for weeks until things finally got sorted out.
|Taking some bites from Gallatin County Sheriff's Office K9 Miles
I was shocked. Angry even. Then I learned that the other handlers felt the same. I struggled to understand my own anger, but it wasn’t until I spoke with one of the other handlers over lunch that I grasped it. He explained to me what kept him committed to his work as a K9 handler. What most people don’t realize is that being a law enforcement K9 handler is a 24-hour a day job. The handler’s work doesn’t end when the shift does. He or she still needs to care for the dog, which goes beyond basic needs. This continual work is done without pay. When I asked what kept him doing it, his answer captured what is at the core of the strongest human-canine bond: Commitment.
“I don’t want to let him down,” the officer said, referring to his dog.
You see, that man saw the dog as a highly trained, highly capable partner who was only held back by the limitations and willingness of his human handler. Years of training investment had brought this dog to his present aptitude. For this K9 officer, and I think most others, to “let the dog down” would be on par with letting down a spouse or a fellow law enforcement officer. That is how strong this officer’s bond was with his dog.
It was then that I understood my anger in response to the handler who quit. He had let his dog down. He had broken the bond that he had built up over the time they were together. I don’t know the reasons for his decision, and I don’t hold any anger towards him specifically. It’s more general, a deep grief regarding anyone who breaks the bond, as I know how hard it can be to form it.
The bond. That is what it all comes down to. What are we willing to do to build and maintain it? Do we comprehend the responsibility we have by entering that bond? I hope so. God knows it took me a long hard year with my first two Rottweilers to learn it. I swear the only thing that makes the bond possible is that dogs are forgiving creatures. We humans fail repeatedly. We get lazy and forget to train, or we train with improper methods or motives. Still, the dog forgives.
You see, our dogs want the bond. They want that connection where the framework of training and structure intersect. They want you to not let them down, to not break the bond. Because when we break it, the dog is the one who pays the heaviest price.