10.13.2015

Why I Won't Sign The "Save Neville" Petition

There is a post circulating like CRAZY on Facebook. It’s called “Save Neville.” The Change.org petition states that a family with a young child was looking to adopt a dog. They entered a pen with Neville and “other dogs” that were playing. The staff advised the family not to put the child on the ground, but they did anyway and when the toddler grabbed Neville, Neville bit the youngster in the face. As a result of that single bite wound Neville is court ordered to be euthanized.

Upon hearing that story, I’d sign that petition! This dog is misunderstood. His face is so cute! It seems to be one bite. This dog might not be placed with kids in the home, but surely this is a dog worth saving, right? I mean, the parents clearly didn’t listen and the responsibility is on them...right?

Here is a great lesson in making sure you have all the facts before jumping on a Change.org bandwagon, especially if it seems like the petition is one sided.

According to a news piece on this story, there were up to five dogs in the pen with Neville and they were all playing. As a professional, I read that as “jazzed up.” The shelter said they told the family not to put the child down (citing common sense) but the family denies being told. This part is he-said-she-said and can’t be proven unless the surveillance camera (which is part of the case) can point to the staff saying, “Hey, don’t put your kid on the ground.” When the 2-year-old reached up to “hug” Neville after hugging and shaking the dog previously, the dog turned and bit the child in the face which resulted in 16 stitches at a local hospital.

The photo of the child’s wounds was notably absent from the petition.

That does not sound like a single bite wound, though maybe it is? It *could* be a quick bite to delicate skin where 8 top teeth met 8 bottom teeth resulting in 16 stitches (or something like that.) It could also be 3 teeth grabbing and shaking the toddler which would scale significantly higher on the Dunbar Bite Scale.

What is the Dunbar Bite Scale? If you call a professional like me into your home if your dog nips, bites, or wounds another party (person or dog), the scale I use to quantify those bites is the Dunbar Bite Scale. If you scroll down through the linked article, there are great cartoons that aren’t too graphic that illustrate perfectly how I scale a bite from Level 1 (air snap/ dog bit and “missed”) to Level 6 (death to the victim). There are only 6 levels, but they are quantifiable and can tell us a lot. How riled up was the dog? Given the severity of the bite, was the dog reacting to stimuli (a kid grabbing him?) or “looking for trouble” (charging and attacking the victim). Dogs don’t tend to start biting at level 3, 4 or 5...so the higher up the bite scale tends to indicate a bite history. This bite scale is really important in my line of work and professionals like me work hard to get this information out there. I think every bite needs to be quantified and an appropriate plan should be in place. All of this is dependent on the stress of the dog and the bite level of previous bites.



I feel if we can change the way we talk about dog bites, we can stop victim blaming and stop our knee jerk reaction to the poor dog who just didn’t know any better. I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with the situation, or want to save the dog - but this type of banter needs to stop:
 
“The parents should have known better.”
“The kid shouldn’t have hugged the dog.”
“Yes, the kid got 16 stitches, but he won’t likely have permanent damage.”
“I’ll take Neville. Say he ran away and give him to me.”
“The parents should have been bitten.” "The parents brought this upon themselves. I have no respect for them."

These are all, sadly, comments taken directly from the Change.org petition. It’s heart breaking. This happens every time there is a dog put on doggie death row, but we have to change the way we talk about and handle dog bites and ethical rescue/adoption in this country if we really want to save these dogs.

Again, I’m not saying this dog is dangerous. I don’t have all the facts - and that’s why I’m not weighing in on if he should have a stay of execution. Some dogs are dangerous. Some dogs should not be homed. Sometimes it’s the people, but sometimes it IS the dog. Sometimes it’s the environment. Sometimes it’s poor placement from the shelters. And sometimes it’s the people. All the people. Including the shelter employees. We need to stop saying “there are no bad dogs, only bad people” because that isn’t fair to the 2 year old kid in this case who has to deal with stitches and maybe long term fear of dogs. Yes, there were people in this case who made this worse, but canine genetics might have also played a part in this case, and the dog might not have been ok with kids. That’s not for me to say because (again) I haven’t met this dog or seen the file. It is, however, food for thought. There is much more here than an online petition.

In this case, I see several failures and teachable moments:
  • On the part of the parents who put a kid in a pen with multiple dogs, but maybe they didn’t know better - and knowing that “hugging” dogs is not good practice is just now getting in the zeitgeist. Not everyone knows this so that’s not fair to put on the parents. We are all still learning. Also, not every person is a dog expert, and we’re learning more every day. If they ignored shelter staff, then this is on them, too.
  • On the part of the shelter for having a family with a young child meet more than one dog in a pen.
  • On the part of the shelter for not knowing subtle stress signals in dogs if any were given, or likely triggers in dogs (for instance: 5 dogs zipping around and a toddler reaching for one of them).
  • On the part of the shelter for not immediately intervening when the toddler moved towards Neville. The parents might not be experts, but the shelter staff should know better...but maybe they don’t. Again, we are all still learning, and many shelters don’t have access to the tools they need. Their good intentions are there, and needed to save dogs, but they need more tools to make better decisions when introducing families to pets.
  • On the part of the shelter for not removing the family if an employee did say, “Hey, I don’t advise you putting your child on the ground.” That would be a great time to reassess the situation if there were warnings about putting the toddler on the ground. Maybe then pick a suitable match and bring the family into a single room to meet the dog - a room with a poster on “how not to say hi to dogs.”

Here’s the take away: Victim blaming is never...let me repeat, never, ok. The way I see it, everyone “failed” but that doesn’t mean it’s the time to victim blame. I see gaping holes in education and safety protocol. It’s time to look at this event and say, “Hey, we need to do better and we can’t let this happen again.” How do we do that?

  • The way to truly save Neville is to have an Applied Animal Behaviorist or a Veterinary Behaviorist assess the dog. And, they might say that he needs to be euthanized, but at least it’s from someone with the authority to make this sort of call. These findings should be presented to the court.
  • There needs to be a management plan and a behavior plan in place if he is saved.
  • The shelter needs to look over their policies of how families meet dogs (and maybe provide education to their shelter staff, volunteers and community about how to interact with dogs safely.)
  • They need to learn about, and teach, stress signals in dogs.
  • The shelter needs to be ok if this dog gets euthanized. They also need to make sure they take the proper steps to make sure this never happens again.
  • The shelter can ask a behaviorist (someone with a PhD in the field or a certification stating they have taken classes in animal science - not any ol’ person who says they are a behaviorist. They need to back up their profession with actual credentials) to come in and work with them on proper assessment practices and how to manage the dogs and the people who want to adopt these dogs safely.

This dog still might get euthanized, or he might not, but public outcry should not be the thing that saves Neville. Using this as a teachable moment for all parties involved and to start programs in local schools (like Doggone Safe) to teach kids and parents about safe interactions with dogs is a fantastic place to start. Additionally, the Family Paws website and everything at
Living with Kids and Dogs is useful for all parents, even if you don't have dogs. Your kid might come in contact with dogs on walks, or get chased by a dog off leash - the information in these websites is invaluable and can prepare families for the unexpected.

This shelter should take the lead, learn about safe practices, and make sure they are on the hook if Neville bites again - because if they place this dog and he has another incident where someone gets seriously hurt, the shelter who stands by this dog needs to have some accountability.

-M3 *Due to hateful language in the comments section, the comments might have to get shut down. That said, I have reported comments that call me an asshole, or call the parents terrible things. I won't stand for it and will report all comments that are hateful and not helpful to the conversation. If they continue the post will remain up but comments will be disabled. We are all adults, so keep it civil. We can agree to disagree, but any and all personal attacks will be removed and reported immediately. I find it telling that the comments removed were exactly the speech I'm aiming to change. Clearly, there is more work to do.*