I was called to evaluate a situation concerning a “Bomb-proof” dog that snapped at a 4-year-old child. Bomb proof is often used to define a dog that nothing appears to bother. The rescue groups said this Bomb-proof dog would be perfect for a child as he could do anything to her. (Key words here “do anything.”) When a new dog owner hears this, what can happen? What do they think? What could a parent allow to happen?
Imagine the shock when Angel snapped at Billy – who after all was just playing.
Angel was friendly, sweet and responsive: however, she was NOT Bomb proof. Angel was simply a dog with a higher level of tolerance to her environment. When Billy began screaming and throwing toys, Angel began showing subtle signs of distress. Though she remained in the room, this did not mean she was Bomb-proof or enjoying Billy. It just meant Angel was not leaving the room. Angel’s body language indicated growing stress. The next snap could come faster, with less warning and even connect with skin.
This is the truth: there are no Bomb proof dogs and Angel, if expected to tolerate anything Billy wanted to do, could – and most likely would – could begin reacting faster and harsher. I pointed out the tense lips, wide eyes, lip licking, looking away and other subtle behaviors Angel used to communicate Billy was upsetting her. When I asked Billy’s parents about the first snap they noticed (air snap and no contact), it was after Billy had been “playing” with her for over fifteen minutes. Well if that dog tolerated fifteen minutes of what I just saw… And I will not give the gories but let’s just leave it at if this was how Billy was allowed to play with dogs… well I was shocked Angel had not bitten him earlier. Angel was outstanding but should never be expected to tolerate what Billy’s parents allowed. “But the rescue said she was bomb-proof.”
Bomb-proof is a serious and dangerous assumption that many breeders, rescuers, veterinarians and some trainers tout. No dog is, or ever will be, bomb proof. There are varying degrees of tolerance levels before a dog reacts in a manner that many humans will recognize. There are many missed behaviors indicating stress long before the snarl, growl, snap. If the early signals go ignored, a dog’s tolerance level may drop.
My old D’Argo was as close to bomb-proof as a dog could get. He handled everything well, laid back, easy going. I was honored to have him in my life and founded the Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project (www.safekidssafedogs.com) because of him. But I was realistic, watching for the subtlest of signals he was ready for a quick break from working. At this point I would ask children to step back and I would show how I knew D’Argo was telling me it was time to ease up. This is an important lesson for humans to learn: identifying early stress signals.
No matter how tolerant a dog is, eventually his limit will be reached. Respect this and do not push him too far. Angel’s owners needed to understand the bomb-proof reality. The way Billy was allowed to behave with Angel would eventually lead to some level of behavioral damage to dog and potentially physical injury to the child.
To further complicate things, Billy was often left alone, fully unsupervised, with Angel. In order for Angel to maintain her exceptional level of tolerance, Billy’s parents would have to address Billy’s behaviors and improve the management of the child and dog.
There are no bomb-proof dogs, just dogs with higher tolerance levels. What we expect of the dog can alter that tolerance for the good or bad.
Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.