Currently I have several cases where I have been asked to come in as an independant evaluator and investigate dog related incidents. My cases usually center around a dog that is alleged to be Dangerous or involved in a bite. In the past these have included the Philadelphia Four, Helo the Husky, and Memphis in New Jersey. Some of these involved dogs from serious and/or fatal attacks; some dogs have just been judged on their appearence, like poor Lennox in Belfast.
I want to clarify what I do and what is involved, since most people really have no idea. The most common category of investigations I do involve bites or attacks, often with fatal results. I do not go into a situation to "save the dog"-or to condemn the dog. I go in with the intention of fairly and objectively examining the dog(s) and giving back a report as to the behavior I observe, both good and bad. I look at the reported situation that precipitated the action, whatever it is, and look with (hopefully) clear eyes at the whole incident-statements, injuries, physical evidence-the whole banana. I then try and use my experience and knowledge of dog behavior to look for contributing causes and how the situation got so bad. It is my experience that almost every bite or dangerous encounter, in some way, makes sense to the dog. That sense is what I am looking for, and that is what I try and represent to the humans. I make recommendations based on the individual dog, the individual incident, and whether the dog's actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Helo the Husky was a prime example of this. My investigation raised serious questions as to whether Helo participated at all in the attack, and disclosed that other dogs present and (based on statements by persons at the scene) more likely to have committed the offense were never examined.
I apply the same procedure in civil consultation cases, cases where either the dog owner or the bite victim (yes, I do work for either side) retain me to give an opinion in the case.
Other cases I get called on involve general evaluation of a dog or group of dogs that have been labelled and are at risk simply due to the kind of dog they are, or what people think they might do.
Might is the key word here.
What a dog might do and evaluations of behavior outside a critical incident is a bigger subject I want to get into on another day. Prediction, whether it is from behavior evaluation, personality testing, or Tarot cards is a whole 'nother set of problems. Today I want to focus on a basic investigation, a response to a specific incident.
Let's use an example (people love examples) of a common kind of case that I get called on. This is not any particular case-the identities and details have been changed to protect...whomever. This is a composite of typical cases, so don't get excited that I am blaming, or insulting, or anything, any particular person or situation.
I get called because little toddler Rodney has been bitten in the face. Media reports are all over this, because Rodney is a cute little kid and has what appear to be massive facial injuries. We see him in the hospital with Mom, stitches where there aren't bandages, sadly sucking on a Popsicle while Mom describes the horrors. Rodney is bona fidely injured-no question.
With me so far?
I get called-maybe Rodney's parents, maybe the agency investigating, maybe interested advocates, maybe an attorney. I am tasked to see what happened, why it happened, if the vicious dog should be destroyed, how much Rodney should collect from the dog's owner (if it wasn't Mom and Dad's dog). Whatever the human purpose, I am investigating.
The investigation starts with an account of what happened. Typically, we start somewhere around "Rodney was playing quietly and the dog snapped!" Sorry, that is not enough information. I need to know exactly whatt happened in the absolute seconds before the incident, not just a general account.
So I dig, and prod, and back up, and dig some more and a more detailed story comes out. "Rodney, who is a toddler, crawled up to the dog, a dog familiar to Rodney and typically well behaved and calm. Rodney reached out to the left side of the dog's head to pat the dog. Suddenly the dog swung sharply towards Rodney and bit him one time in the face. The dog pulled back, Rodney's Mom grabbed the baby and pulled him away, the family yelled at the dog and sent him running outside into the yard, and when Animal Control got there they put the dog on a pole and put him in the truck. Meanwhile, everyone freaked out since there was so much blood."
Now we have some information. My next stop is to check the actual wounds based on the medical reports and, if I am luck, some closeup photos taken before treatment was started at the hospital. First, I have to look past the treatment plan; I don't care how the doctors fix Rodney's face, how many sutures, how much surgery there is to come. I want quantifiable information-how many bites, how many holes, how deep, is there tearing of skin and in which direction? I want the specifics.
What I find is that there are three clear punctures, under Rodney's eye and on his cheek. Two are relatively deep, and there is significant tearing of the facial flesh, all in the same direction, which gave little Rodney two open lacerations extending from just below eye level to nearly his chin. Tough injury for a cute little guy!
Now comes the fun. I go meet Buck, the evil mauler. Buck is sitting in a cage at Animal Control, with a big label on the cage saying DANGER BITE CASE!. I have to sign a bunch of releases that say if I get mauled and turned into Buck's next dinner I absolve anyone and everyone from everything ranging from bite injuries to metereorite explosion over a Russian city. And Buck and I begin to talk. We have a conversation. No, I don't start whispering to him. No, I don't care if my spirit is centered or if my Wa is composed. We simply talk-in dog terms. I watch his responses, and he watches mine.
Buck has probably spent a few days at least in the kennel with strangers acting strangely. They are tense, keep well away from him; sometimes they haven't even been allowed to touch the "vicious dog" and have kind of pushed his food and water through the kennel fence. Maybe they have had to operate completely behind separating guillotine doors. In any case Buck is a little freaked.
We build a temporary working relationship and I get hands on Buck. We move around a bit and I put him through my evaluation. In the course of the evaluation I notice that when I approach Buck's head with my hand gently, he shies slightly away and gives me disengagement signals. He tells me he is not comfortable with me touching his head, particularly the left side. This is the side little Rodney went to pet. I look as closely as I can and see--a small amount of crusty blood just inside the ear. I approach the ear closer and Buck gives me signs "Don't Touch My Ear!".
I talk to the Vet. We, together, sedate Buck a bit, muzzle him for all of our protection, and find he has a raging ear infection. His inner ear is red, tissue is swollen, and IT HURTS!
Now we have a picture that makes sense. Little Rodney came up to Buck, nothing unusual. Buck had a severe, painful ear infection that little Rodney could not either know about or understand. Rodney reached up and grabbed, in all innocence, Buck's painful ear. Buck responded like a dog in pain-he bit the closest target (Rodney's face) that was involved in causing him pain to make the pain stop. He only bit once because his bite made the hurting thing (Rodney) pull back. Buck is a big dog, so his canine teeth are relatively long. Rodney is a little kid, so his facial tissue is relatively shallow. When Buck engaged-bit-Rodney's face, both he and Rodney pulled away from each other. The two bodies pulling apart while teeth were still partially engaged with flesh caused the fragile flesh to rip. Rodney gets a pair of big tears across his face. Buck gets sent to the pound.
Buck's behavior was not vicious-it was appropriate for a dog in pain.
Is my investigation here condemning-or apologising for-Buck?
Buck acted like a dog. Rodney acted like a toddler. No more, no less. Both behaved appropriately, based on the facts of the situation.
I looked at the situation, dug into the sequence of events, and found out what happened. Someone is probably going to be unhappy with my findings-perhaps Rodney's parents, perhaps Animal Services, almost certainly a significant portion of the public who want revenge for the "horrible mauling" of the poor innocent child. But that is the nature of what I do. I am not there to make anyone, much less everyone, happy.
So back to the initial question-what do I do? What is my (granted self-defined) job description? I investigate dog-related injuries and attacks to find out three things: what happened; if possible, why; and how did the incident make sense to the dog based on my examination of the event, evaluation of the dog, and understanding of how a dog works. If in my investigation I find behavioral conditions that have gone unaddressed, or maybe encouraged, by humans, then so much the better for making someone responsible. But understanding a dog, how they perceive the world, and how they react is not apology. Or condemnation. It is assessing and describing what is.