Yesterday Mira tried to eat a small child. It was not a proud moment for me on several levels. First, I should never have let it the situation happen in the first place. Second, I’m disappointed that she still has this reaction. Third, I’m still struggling over whether or not my response was appropriate.
Here’s what happened. I live in a very population dense neighbourhood that is teaming with children. Many people worry about flea infestations – I worry about kid infestations. I cannot walk out my front door without running into at least a half a dozen children under the age of 5. Often many more. This is one of my biggest challenges in having reactive dogs, and why fostering rescue dogs has been so tough at times. It has also been one of my biggest challenges with Mira.
As a puppy, Mira was terrified of children, but expressed this through considerable aggression. At 4 months of age her response to a child was to dive in and bite. This was not a herding instinct, as she would do it to children standing completely still. It was all about fear, something Mira has plenty of.
I have been treating her for this homeopathically, in conjunction with training. The training really did very little to help, but I did notice a big improvement with the homeopathy. She can now be out with the children running around, and even passing right by her, without any problem. But she still apparently can’t handle them coming right up to her.
Yesterday I had her and Hannah out to potty. Two small children came up wanting to pet the dogs. I told them they could meet Hannah and let her leash go loose so Hannah could walk over to meet them. I put Mira in a sit-stay at my side and put two fingers in her collar. I kept my grip on Mira loose so as to not convey any stress to her. She sat quietly, waiting for the kids to go away. I’ve done this many times and all has been fine.
Unfortunately the smaller of the two children made a move towards Mira and asked if he could pet her. He’s probably about 2.3-3 years old. She barked and he jumped back, and I told him no. I’m not quite sure what happened after that, but I suspect he kept staring at her. A few seconds later, Mira lunged for him. Because my grip on her was loose, and because I wasn’t expecting it to happen, she slipped out of my grasp. I still had the leash and pulled it back, but not before she launched in the air and snapped in this baby’s face, missing by a fraction of an inch.
Now I know that this is fear based and that what she wanted was this kid to go away. And I also know that when a dog is afraid, punishing it can cause this fear to escalate. I preach this all the time to people who punish their dogs for alarm barking at passing people and dogs. As the theory goes, if the dog sees a child (stranger, dog etc.) and thinks “oh dear, a child, that’s scary!” and then reacts and you punish it, then the dog’s fears are confirmed. Bad things do happen around children. From this perspective, the appropriate response is for me to ignore the attempted bite, redirect and focus her on me while moving her away from the scary child.
I thought about doing this for a fraction of a second.
The other way to interpret this situation is that the dog, while scared, should not be making these kinds of decisions. I’m in charge and how close the child comes to us is up to me, not her. Clearly she felt that I was not doing my job, or she wouldn’t have decided to do it for me. So that this happened at all is entirely my fault. I know that and will do my best to not let it happen again. No more kids coming within leash length to pet the other dogs when I have Mira with me. It’s clearly too much pressure on her.
That said, it happened and her response was entirely and utterly inappropriate. Plus I can’t control everything that happens. With all these children around, they do from time to time run into us. There is just no room in our society for a dog who bites kids, especially in the face.
My herding instructor will punish her dogs if they even think about fighting – acts of aggression are simply not allowed in her home. She has 3 intact bitches and 3 intact males, and they all live together in her house with no problem. Mind you she doesn’t kennel them together because she knows that when she is not around, there could be problems. But when she’s present, she’s in charge, and there’s no fighting.
Unless there is some horrible slip-up, I will always be present when Mira is around children. So she needs to learn that any acts of aggression are not allowed. I know that in my instructor’s home, any aggression will likely be linked to social climbing, and not fear, and as such involves a completely different set of dynamics. But I have seen Hannah correct Mira on a regular basis for any type of alarm barking (say, at a passing dog). Hannah gets impatient when Mira acts up inappropriately and will tell her off briefly but firmly. So clearly there is a place for corrections around fear within the pack structure. Is this something I should – or even can – emulate?
All of this flashed through my mind in the split second between the time that I caught Mira mid-air a fraction of an inch in front of this baby’s face, and getting her back on the ground at my side. And in that split-second, I decided that I was going to give her a correction. So I scruffed her and shook her and pinned her down and yelled at her. I wanted to strangle her. Thank goodness I have very fast reflexes; had she made it half an inch further and she’d have been euthanized. I’d also have had animal control on my doorstep and that would have put all my animals in danger.
I have been playing this scenario over and over in my mind ever since. Will my correction have made her think twice about trying this again? Or will it have served to confirm her fear of children and make her more likely to do it again? I guess time will make this clear. I certainly won’t be allowing the scenario to play out again, at least as far as I can prevent it. Still, living with a dog who is a danger to children is not something I plan to do for the next 15 years. I don’t mind if she doesn’t like kids, but choosing to bite is not permissible. Would she have simply backed away if I had not been holding on? Maybe – I’ve seen her make that choice when off-leash. But I’ve also seen her move forward. Good thing she’s obedient, but I need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The stakes are just too high.
So back to the drawing board. Or should I say back to the homeopathy and training books, to see what more I can do for her. Mira continues to be a very interesting teacher, both in how much can be accomplished, and also what may never be possible. I guess only time will tell which way this will go.