That’s My Job! Really???

What is your job as a dog trainer, behavior consultant, or certified behaviorist?  Is your job to meet an owner’s unreasonable expectations of wanting to have a serious aggression problem resolved in five minutes before the next commercial break? Is your job to push a dog during training or “evaluating” him to the point of biting you? 

I don’t know about you, but those tasks are NOT in my job description and I’m proud to say they aren’t.   What person in their right mind who works with dogs in any capacity would say that being bitten was part of their job?  Handling animals in any capacity, from training to veterinary care, puts us at risk of being bitten, but it’s certainly not an expected task in our job description.

I’ve only been bitten twice during my career as a trainer and later as a certified applied animal behaviorist.  Early in my career, I was doing something I shouldn’t  have been (reaching under a chair to pull a miniature dachshund out from under it).  The other incident involved a soft coated wheaton terrier who lept up from behind me and bit my thumb when I had my hand on the door knob to leave the house.  I really did not see that one coming.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have turned my back on this dog, but at the time I hadn’t seen any signs from the dog he was likely to do what he did.

Bites that come out of the blue and happen without any warning are pretty uncommon for an experienced behavior or veterinary professional.  If we are paying attention, and know how to read a dog’s communication signals, the vast majority of dogs are telegraphing that they are uncomfortable, anxious, or angry and are likely to bite if we persist in our actions that are eliciting those emotional states.

Rare circumstances excluded (of the truly dangerous dogs that give no warning), I figure that if I’m bitten I’ve done something wrong.  I haven’t been paying attention to what the dog is telling me.  I tried to do too much too soon.  I’ve done something stupid like reaching under the chair for the dachshund.  I’ve mis-read the dog (perhaps the terrier was giving signals I missed).  I haven’t taken the proper precautions (such as muzzling) a dog I must handle but that I can tell is “edgy” about it.  A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in less than half of the cases in which veterinary staff thought a dog might bite, did staff actually muzzle the dogs.

In case you’re wondering what’s prompted all this ranting, it’s a YouTube video of the National Geographic dog trainer being bitten by a dog that he has pushed to the breaking point.  As the owners apologize for their dog biting him, he comments that it’s just part of his job. 

While I won’t give you the link to the video on YouTube because I don’t want to promote the horrible actions you see there, I will give you a link to what is a very good commentary and analysis on the subject.  Go HERE to read Jim Crosby’s post.

12 Comments

  • Gillian Shippen

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    I have only been bitten once while attempting to sedate a highly stressed poodle and another two times both by dogs that were under the effects of sedation, so I had let myself be complacent – all three bites were only minor, not requiring any kind of attention that I couldn’t do myself.

    I voluteer each year for our RSPCA Million Paws Walk at the microchipping tent as the Veterinary Nurse animal restratin person. In my 15 years of doing this we have NEVER had a bite, even when the onwers had expressed concern that their pooch WILL bite, we have never ever had one. If we feel there might be a problem, we will NOT push the animal, we simply suggest they get the procedure done at the veterinary clinic under sedation. It simply is not worth the stress to all those around (including other animals) to cause that sort of tension and stress.
    In the clinic, where we can be time poor – we will take the time if necessary to not provoke the animal if we find them unexpectedly difficult to handle – it is not part of the job to get bitten, or stress our patients!

  • Kathy Reilly

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    I have only been bitten once during my 16 years of professional dog training. The dog that bit me was a Bischon, brought to me for aggression problems. After 5 lessons, I felt I had developed trust and was feeding him from my hand when he latched onto the meaty part of my palm. My initial thought was to grab him from the back of the neck with my other hand but figured he was faster than me and would have bitten my arm, so I waited until he let go and then went for stitches. Mistake #1, assuming that he was ready to make friends. Mistake # 2 – failing to read his body language. In hindsight, I couldn’t read his body language because the owner had him in her arms, I couldn’t see his eyes, muzzle or ears because of the fur.
    I have avoided being bitten by learning all I can about how to read dogs’ body language, not pushing them beyond their comfort zone before they are ready and generally respecting their space. It sure isn’t in my job description to be bitten.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    You story Kathy reminds of another incident with a cocker spaniel. I thought it was safe to pet the dog and as I did so the dog started “biting”. Something told me that if I pulled my hands away he was really going to latch on, so I willed myself to just remain motionless and the dog went all around both my hands with his mouth, covering them with dog spit (what would have been multiple bites), but never once chomped down or left a mark. I’m convinced if I would have even twitched, I too would have been in for stitches. This too was early in my career, and looking back on it, I’m sure he was giving me that “wide eyed” look that I wasn’t experienced enough at the time to catch.

  • Gitta Vaughn

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    THANK YOU!!!
    It isn’t in my job description either. I do like my skin intact and I certainly do not voluntarily give the dog another “lesson in aggression”. I’ll do my best to avoid it.
    I am aware, that any mistake resulting in an injury requiring medical attention WILL result in a report to Animal Control. Making life for the owners a lot more stressful than before my visit to “help”.

    I also noticed the absence of the “cure”. The trainer did not show that the dog was cured of the problem. I didn’t see the trainer demonstrate it and I didn’t see the owners try it either. So, who won this confrontation? The dog learned that appeasement signals are a waste of time. No matter how often they are repeated. Efforts to de-escalate the conflict are being ignored. It was another lesson in: food bowl + human = confrontation.

    I can only imagine the fear the owners must have of their own dog. I do wonder what will happen to this dog. How much damage this session has done to the human-animal bond.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    We know Gitta! To be honest, I find these things so disturbing as to be able not to watch. The only way I got the info about this one was from people like you telling me about the video, and then I had to position the video on my computer screen such that all I could see were the controls and hear the audio. I can’t bear to watch these dogs doing absolutely everything they know to do to say please don’t do this to me, to no avail.
    It just breaks my heart and also makes me so angry I want to throw things.

  • Jules Avery

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    Suzanne and Dan, you guys are the best!

    Are dog trainers and behaviorists afraid to use CESAR MILLAN’S name because we fear that protecting dogs from his abuse and owners from his lack of education will result in libel? No need to answer, just hoping that you will keep this post up so search engines will bring your article up if his name is searched.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    Thanks Jules! I’m not afraid to use Mr. Millan’s name in a post like this because all I’m doing is relating my opinions about his techniques. I just don’t like to give him more exposure than he already has.

  • Gillian Shippen

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    Suzanne, Dan and Jules; Nicolle Wilde wrote a piece on this particular video.
    She just did a plain description of the whole incident, mentioned no names, and didn’t even mention the “FDT” tag given by Jim Crosby. For all intense & purposes all she was doing was describing a scene that she may have witnessed.
    I remember being horrified reading the description and I am 100% certain most people would have felt the same way; the demonstration was little more than abuse.
    It wasn’t until the end of the piece did Nicolle mention the “gentleman” (now that is an oxymoron) in question was Cesar Millan. Unfortunately mention that man’s name and you end up with an absolute barrage of abusive comments from his fans, suddenly the animal abuse is alright because it is him.
    One of the respondents on Jim’s blog likened CM’s techniques to a mechanic putting a car through its paces to find the problem (really?…….an examinant object that has NO feelings or emotions is the same as dog and dog evaluation?) or a surgeon putting a patient through a stress test after a heart attack………….but not to the point of inducing another heart attack!
    I often find myself asking (mmm, not a good sign – talking to myself!) why is this sort of abuse acceptable when it comes to dogs all in the name of “training” yet with any other animal we would dare? We wouldn’t do it to cats, because we know they have 5 sets of weapons and don’t want to have them used against us. The trainers in Zoo’s, wildlife parks or any other such enterprise also do not use this type of training, surmising that animal will be dangerous and hence taking heed! Yet when it comes to the humble compliant dog, in the name of training (and being the dominant one) it is acceptable? why?

  • Charli Sorrentino

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    Suzanne & Dan: Loved the article. I had already read Jim Crosby’s post and I had done exactly what he did. I replayed the video over & over noting everything Holly was doing and everything CM was doing.
    I too have made it a practice to choose the safe methods. Those who call me a coward can think what they want. I don’t want to put myself in a position to be bitten and I don’t want to do that to the dog or their owner. I generally do an long phone consultation prior to the visit and ask people to be completely honest. I quell their fears by telling them that I am not here to judge, as I’m not, but rather to help them with the situation. I unfortunately you-tubed more videos, one of them Shadow the husky and was just as frustrated and angry as I was with Holly.
    Your article was right on the money in my opinion. What is our job as trainers and behavior specialists? I guess it varies depending upon what methods you rely on. I, as well as you, depend upon our knowledge, education and experience to guide us to the proper conclusions and therefore can design a program that works best for the situation at hand. The CM style is to use dominance in every situation, because he has nothing else to fall back on. It’s time for CM to hang up his leash for good.
    Please keep doing what you do by providing as much education for the rest of us.

  • Robin Ehn; CPDT-KA

    Reply Reply September 20, 2012

    I don’t believe that being bitten is in MY job description! I certainly do my very best to avoid it! I educate myself in as many places and ways as I can afford to, to help me do just that!
    I have been bitten only once. Years ago when I was a kid and was trying to teach our Boxer to retrieve a dumb bell. I had learned all I knew about dogs and training from a traditional trainer and knew nothing about body language, just that you MAKE the dog do what you want. I asked our dog, Guido, to take the dumb bell and he said no, so I asked again with more force, he again said no (by not doing it!) so I TOLD him to do so, and he TOLD me NO, by biting me! I didn’t give up and he did eventually learn to retrieve the darn thing – of course I now know that result was very reinforcing to me and the traditional way of teaching!
    A few years ago, while working at the local humane society doing temperament tests, I narrowly missed being bitten (and from the direct eye contact stare this dog gave, he probably would have gone for my throat) by having learned body language. Of course if I hadn’t been testing the dog, I would never have gone as far as I did – he was quite clear in his ‘statements’!!
    I am so very grateful that I no longer teach or think that way!

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