On dog-related misconceptions

Unlike other entries in this section of my website, this is not a reply to any particular email or message. It rather addresses some persistent questions I receive as a long-time dog handler.

Does it bite?

This question has two meanings: the general about all dogs and the particular about my dog.

Let us tackle the general case first.

Yes, all dogs can bite. Why do you think they have these bone-crushing jaws? They are carnivores. They have the anatomy and instincts of an apex predator. In the interest of brevity, let’s just say they are domesticated wolves.

The wolf analogy is a useful approximation, though we should not take it at face value. Dogs have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years. Breeding (i.e. human selection instead of the natural one) has given rise to types of dog that deviate considerably from the canis archetype of the wilderness. Some breeds are more docile than others, but all retain a kernel of the animal’s wild nature. This is made manifest in a variety of situations, depending on the dog’s breed but also their upbringing.

Dogs will bite as the final act of self-defence, or when hunting, or while fighting with other dogs over territory, resources, mating rights. Any dog can and will bite given the right circumstances or triggers. A non-exhaustive list of body language you should be aware of (these may appear together, though not always—it is important to understand the situation):

  • Open, upright posture that makes it look big.
  • Tail is raised and pointed. A wagging tail is not friendly in this context.
  • Constant growling or barking while not backing off.
  • Wrinkled forehead.
  • Raised back hair.
  • Locked straight eye contact.

As a variation of the above, a dog may be in a defensive position: it lowers its body and head, puts its tail between its hind legs and grawls or barks while exposing its front teeth, including the gums.

Don’t conflate the potential for biting with innate aggressiveness. A dog will not bite without communicating its intent. I hear stories that a dog just “snapped” and attacked someone. I don’t believe them. In all the years I have experienced dogs I have never witnesses such apparently inexplicable or insane behaviour. It is more likely that those reporting the stories simply ignored the visual cues and body language of the animal. It is okay to admit ignorance of a dog’s complex modes of communication. But it is outright irresponsible to spread misinformation.

This picture is spot on.

To our point though: yes, dogs can bite. Do not ever make the mistake of thinking otherwise. Dogs are not toys. You don’t get one as the animate equivalent of your child’s teddy bear, or as a fashion accessory, or even to show your social status and how much of a badass you think you are. If you want a toy, buy a toy. If you need some fashion accessory—which you don’t—acquire one. And if you really want to tell the world how much they should respect you, you can sod off. Life is simple.

Those granted, dogs are domesticated animals. Their behaviour is in large part moulded by their human companion and their immediate environment. If I see a dog that is aggressive and anxious around people, I infer that it has been the subject of direct or indirect abuse by its human. The person neglected the animal’s wellness: lack of training, poor socialisation, and maybe even violent methods of subordination (which some peddle as “pragmatic training techniques”).

A well-trained dog that lives in a loving household should always be comfortable around people and should never show signs of aggression for no good reason. Put differently, if the dog is aggressive and stressed out, it most likely is not its fault.

Now the particular question about whether my dog bites.

Yes, it can bite. The real issue though is whether I am treating it properly and whether its upbringing makes it a good canine citizen or not. It is. My dog would never bite on a whimsy because it is well trained, is treated as an equal member of the family, and generally leads a happy life.

What does “well trained” mean? Without going into the technicalities, consider those two simple yet insightful tests:

  1. Does the dog walk by your side while on a leash? Or is it constantly pulling in different directions? If it is the latter, the dog is not well trained and/or does not get enough daily exercise.
  2. Give the dog something delicious to chew on (e.g. a bone). Let a minute pass and then put your hand in the dog’s mouth to remove the item. Can you do that? If yes, it shows you are competent and the animal trusts in your judgement. If you wouldn’t even dare try something like this, you clearly are not in charge of things. The dog is not trusting you and, by extension, will not provide prior assent to your calls. In other words, the dog will act on its own at the worst possible time.

If the dog is not well trained, it likely is not properly socialised either. Which implies that it lacks confidence in its own means and will be anxious and/or aggressive in various circumstances. For small dogs, this may not pose a problem. The dog is still a threat, though a minor one given its lack of sheer strength. Whereas a powerful breed with the same maladjusted behaviour is a potent threat and, by extension, its human is, perhaps unwillingly, a menace to society.

To summarise:

  • Dogs are domesticated predators. Keep it real.
  • Learn to read the visual cues. Dogs are not bloodthirsty killing machines that “just snap” and bite people.
  • Unlike predators in the wild, dogs are heavily influenced by their humans.
  • An aggressive dog is the product of inadequate upbringing. It can be due to ignorance, neglect, recklessness, or outright cruelty.
  • If you do not understand the responsibility of handling a dog, you most definitely should not have one.

Those who try to paint a hagiographic picture of dogs as all-loving cuties are doing us a disservice because their campaigns engender unrealistic expectations among the general public. Understand what a canine is and then demand that its human assumes full responsibility of living with a dog.

Do its jaws lock?

There is this notion that the jaws of certain breeds/types of dog, like a pitbull’s, will lock in place while it bites, effectively making the attack deadly. As with all big lies, this too rests on a modicum of truth:

  1. Powerful dogs exert considerable force in their bite. If you try to open their mouth without their cooperation, you will need to expend a great deal of energy. Most humans are physically incapable of doing that.
  2. A well trained dog should always—always!—open its mouth to its human (see previous section). Otherwise the so-called “locked jaws” are a clear sign of failure to train the dog and tend to its needs.

Now a few words about pitbulls in particular. Most dogs that are described in those terms have little in common with the bull-and-terrier that were used for bull baiting and dog fighting in yester centuries (cruelty writ large!). There are differences in breeding practices though the single most important change is with how [most] humans treat these animals: a canine that is perennially abused for the sole purpose of a blood “sport” will always be lethal compared to a dog that is raised in a loving and stable household.

Modern day pitbulls retain aggressiveness towards other animals, such as cats, but are not human-aggressive. If your dog is animal-aggressive, it is your job to keep it in a controlled environment. No amount of training will eliminate the prey drive.

Isn’t raw meat making it more aggressive?

A lady asked me this question a few days ago. She was walking a Miniature Pinscher and I was with my dog who is highly athletic and weights over 30 kilograms (mix of American Pitbull Terrier and German Shepherd Dog). To which I replied: will your dog become a wolf if I feed it a bone?

In case you wonder, the answer is negative. This is yet another one of those persistent lies… Raw meat does not turn dogs into wild beasts. What is actually happening is that the dog has a latent prey drive that may go unnoticed.

Even dogs with a high prey drive will not exhibit it from day one. A puppy may have to grow up to 5-9 months old before it starts showing its true nature. So if your cute little pup “suddenly” gives chase to a bird, rabbit, rodent, or other animal it simply means that it is maturing and its potentiality is being fulfilled.

Whether one should occasionally feed their dog raw meat or not is another discussion altogether. As are the egregious malpractices of the meat industry and of every industry in the capitalist world for that matter: we will always be having these kind of discussions for as long as our kind sacrifices morality to the altars of short-term profit and expedience. But I digress.

The gist is that you should not panic if your dog eats raw meat. Nothing changes. If the animal is naturally docile, it will remain so. If it is predatory towards other non-human species, it will stay that way. Whatever the specifics, remember that the human factor is of paramount importance. The animal’s behaviour is still contingent on its upbringing and day-to-day experience with its human[s]. It is the person who has responsibility to keep the canine safe from trouble, because animals do not share our sensitivities and have no interest in our laws.

Mixed-breeds are worse, right?

A purebred dog is one that conforms with a breed standard. This is a set of specifiers regulating the overall appearance of the animal. They are written by the kennel club associated with the breed in question.

Purity of breed is a human construct that does not necessarily predict the dog’s overall disposition and fitness for a given task. In my experience with shepherds, dogs are judged in accordance with their ability to perform certain tasks. If a dog can herd sheep, it qualifies as a sheep-herding dog. If it dares challenge a wild boar, it is a catch-dog, and so on. Conversely, if a canine that nominally counts as a sheep herding breed (e.g. German Shepherd Dog) cannot actually herd sheep, then it is of no use to a shepherd (notwithstanding other considerations). The shepherd needs to get the job done, not decorate their wall with some breeder’s pedigree.

Historically, there exist several land races, such as the Greek Shepherd Dog (and its relatives in the Balkans). Unlike modern established breeds, those were developed over centuries without a central authority checking whether a given specimen conformed with some standard for height, weight, shape of ear, length of hair, and so on. Rather than focus on some bureaucratic standard, people looked at what the animal could actually accomplish.

A breed standard is not bad per se. It depends on how it is interpreted. What counts as purebred may be comparatively worse at any given task than a cross-breed, mongrel, or mutt. This is because a narrow interpretation of a breed standard effectively diminishes the gene pool, which in turn increases the risk of hereditary diseases. On the flip-side, a mix-breed does not necessarily get the best of both parents. One must check the specifics.

The term “pure breed” has some unfortunate connotations. We associate purity with quality and think that unless the dog is of some fine stock, it cannot possibly be good enough for a given task. The average person should only care about the dog’s recognisable breed when they have a particular objective that is best met by certain types of dog. For example, Labrador Retrievers excel at numerous civil tasks, while livestock guardians have the requisite disposition to deter wolves and other predators.

Whatever the case, notice that I emphasised fitness for a given task. All dogs are lovely and there is no such thing as an inherent superiority or inferiority. Just as how an exceptionally tall person may be good at basketball but is not an innately better human than the rest of us.

Should I get a Malinois to have a good dog?

If you are asking this question, chances are you have fallen victim to an invidious fad. The Malinois and its Dutch relative have been hyped to ridiculous levels as some kind of superdogs and now every ignoramus wants one. Yes, they are used for military and police work, though I doubt anyone talking to me fits that designation.

Before getting any kind of dog, consider the following:

  • How many hours per day can you spare to cater to its needs?
  • Are you prepared to organise your life around the dog? Such as to go for a walk early in the morning and another one late at night.
  • Can you assume responsibility for the wellness of another being, or are you the kind of person who can barely do the dishes?
  • Are you willing to invest time in training your puppy and then in maintaining a healthy and loving relationship with the dog throughout its life?
  • Do you understand that a dog needs you every single day? It does not matter if it rains or there is snowfall: a walk is a walk. Can you afford that kind of availability?
  • Are you willing to commit a great deal of time to learn the fine details that are essential to your life with a dog? Such as why it wants to chew on your shoe all of a sudden? (It asks to go out to urinate or defecate. No worries though: it will eventually learn to communicate without becoming destructive.)

You get the idea: a dog is not a toy, as noted further above. The Malinois is no different in this regard. What it requires on top of the aforementioned is an experienced owner who understands what it means to handle a working dog with a high output of energy.

If you are asking me whether you should get a Malinois (or Dutch Shepherd), I must answer in the negative. There are lots of wonderful dogs out there, purebred or otherwise. Ignore the hype.

Protection training will save me, correct?

Assuming you can afford the exorbitant costs of a dog that is trained by professionals as a personal guardian, I think the answer is nuanced. A dog can indeed deter opportunistic aggressors and a highly trained dog will do so effectively. However, no dog will ever stand a chance against a determined, concerted attack against you. As such, I suggest you spend your money some other way.

For us ordinary folk who can’t approximate such levels of expenditure, it is better to think of protection training as yet another kind of training: it is quality time you spend with your dog. Consider it a game or a hobby rather than preparation for some decisive confrontation.

Your dog may protect you in the same way a friend or relative might. We keep people we love close to us for who they are, not for that one scenario where they save our life. Same principle for your dog who, as mentioned earlier, should be considered part of the family (or the pack, if you will).

Again, no dog is a toy. It is no weapon either.