If you have ever been to visit London it is extremely likely that you have used the Underground (in American terms it’s the subway). If you have, you undoubtedly heard the disembodied voice of the Underground saying “Mind the Gap”. Fans of Neil Gaiman recognize this as a particularly strong warning, but for the rest of us it means don’t step too close, watch your placement, and try not to fall under the train. Not a complex strategy, and a piece of advice that applies well to dogs and dog bite prevention.
Dogs are not all fluffy cuddle muffins. Some dogs need a little space. Dogs can be wary of strange people approaching them too closely right off the bat. Many times people are bitten, especially children, because they have pushed too closely to a dog that is not ready to accept them.
You see, dogs have a clear language and communicate well. But not all people speak dog. Those who don’t can fail to recognize signals that a dog is uneasy. If we are trying to impart information to another person and they are not listening we tend to raise our voices. Dogs have a bit of a different path. Their body language can express increasing levels of discomfort, but we have to recognize them as such. How many times have you seen a person that does not speak the same language as someone else start to speak more slowly, and even louder? Slow and loud may sound clearer to the speaker, but the listener still doesn't speak the language, no matter how loud you shout.
That happens with dogs. Dogs start with their own language: body signals. Averted eyes. Tight lips. A turn of the head. Maybe a lip lick, or a yawn. They are speaking ever louder in their own language, but we just refuse to listen. We have limited is choices. Finally (and this may go quickly in our terms since dog signaling tends to be very rapid) the dog raises his voice in the only way he can: he bites, or at lest growls, barks and lunges. The human gets bitten and everyone is suddenly excited as to why the dog “just snapped”, or became “vicious”.
How do we fix this? Mind the gap. Don’t close with a strange dog. Even if the dog seems friendly, let the dog make the final approach to you. Stand with your body slightly turned to the side, don’t stare directly at the dog’s eyes, and let them investigate you at their own speed. Slowly extend the back of your closed hand for them to sniff. Try not to loom over them. Respect their space. Let them cross the gap to you. They will decide-or not.
If the decide not to come to you, don't be pushy. Give the dog time. It may not be personal. Dogs have their own baggage, their own quirks, their own personalities. We all have our difference, our different level of comfort, our own customs for greeting. As an American I admit that when I first began interacting with a larger number of Europeans, future friends and friends of friends, I was unaccustomed to the hug-kiss-kiss greeting. Honestly, I still get hung up on whether it’s hug-kiss or hug-kiss-kiss.
Your dog can have the same problem. Maybe they come from a reserved owner, who says “Hi Chuck”, gives a gentle pat and then moves on. You, however, ma be “OH HELLO PUPPY YOU’RE SO CUUUUTE I JUST WANNA SQUEEZE YOU SO MUCH…” and we have a communication breakdown. Chuck is freaked, has nowhere to go, and doesn't understand that your over-the-top enthusiasm is just the way you are, not the threatening advance of a total nutjob. One of you bites the other and the situation goes south from there.
Instead of trusting in the good nature of most dogs, or just luck, mind the gap. Don’t fall under the train. Make yourself non-threatening, give out good signals, and don’t step too close too soon. Let the dog choose to close the distance to you. You and the dog will be safer for it.