The Denver dog bite incident and BAD DOGS

February 14, 2012 at 5:09 am 13 comments

There has been a LOT of internet discussion on this topic already. Everyone should read this article: A Perfect Storm. Also Sophia Yin: When A Kiss Can Get You Bitten  (with my illustrations!)

The whole incident brings up some horrible memories for me,  being the owner of a dog that has bitten people (even before I adopted him), and we’re talking  Level 1,2,3, and 4 bites . I can personally relate to how traumatic it must be for everyone – the person who gets bitten, the dog, and the owners of the dog. The first time that this happens is especially traumatic.

I was fortunate that the person that Boogie had bitten with a Level 4 bite was a dog-lover and did not sue me, and that Boogie does not look like a pit bull.

But I did spend $$$$ as a result of that incident and I remember the emotional trauma I went through  dealing with the authorities who wanted to take Boogie away from me and dump him back in a shelter. I fought really really hard to keep him, claiming as much responsibility as they would let me.  Last thing I wanted was for Boogie to be back at a shelter or rescue. This was a life-changing incident as you can imagine and one that has led to me learning everything I could about dog behavior, and sharing all these illustrations.

The news reports are upsetting because the implication is very clear that the “aggressive dog” is to blame. Max the biter was quarantined for 10 days not for rabies testing as they say (this is not technically possible) but because he had bitten someone and was therefore considered a dangerous criminal. His “crime” was worse because it was to the FACE (as opposed to a foot or hand, I suppose). Never mind that the news anchor was the one who stuck HER face in his face by kissing him on the nose and freaking him out. No doubt her intentions were loving. Most people don’t know how to correctly greet a dog and/or don’t know how to read signs of discomfort in dogs until something bad happens.

What remains so disturbing is that after the storm, there has been no apology  from the Denver News crew – nobody is taking any responsibility here for human errors  and so Max still looks like a good dog gone bad…

“Max has no history of aggression. Max is a gentle, loving, family dog. Max is well-mannered and obedient, and he hardly barks. This incident truly is unfortunate and does not reflect Max’s disposition towards people.” (statement from Max’s owner)

And I suppose things don’t bode well for the breed –

Argentine mastiffs, also known as the Argentine Dogo, are known as big-game hunters and historically have gone after wild boars and pumas. While they are now used as pets, they were bred from a rather violent group of dogs. Because of the dogs’ violent nature, several areas have banned the breed, including Aurora, Colorado. Aurora is the neighbouring city to Denver, where the broadcast took place. The animal is also banned in New York City public housing, and laws in the UK allow police to take the dogs away from their owners and prosecute them.

And so poor Max  has become a dog “with a history of aggression”. Branded a bad dog.


As I was writing this blog post, there was a loud knock on my door, Boogie rushed to the window (the one that isn’t covered) and growled his head off.  The mailman was outside with a package that I had to sign for. I put Boogie in his crate (where he was howling and crying) and stepped outside. Our conversation went something like this:

ME: Sorry for the wait, I was putting my dog in the crate.

MAILMAN: You said that three years ago.

ME: What?

MAILMAN: You really love that dog don’t you?

ME:Yes I do.

MAILMAN: That dog bit me, you know? 

Several years ago, the mailman reached out to pet Boogie and Boogie snapped at him. No skin broken. I started looking for a trainer around this time.

ME:  I know, and I am really sorry. He hasn’t bitten anyone since I started training him.

MAILMAN: Yeah, three years ago you said you were training him. Three years ago.  Why is he still barking at me?

ME: He has not bitten anyone since. As for barking, this isn’t personal. You have to understand – you are the mailman, you are someone who comes and goes… you are not part of the family. And a lot of dogs have a problem with mailmen. There is really nothing personal in this and it’s something I am trying very hard to control. In fact I can’t control everything that my dog does. It’s not easy.

MAILMAN: That dog is a problem.

ME: I know he isn’t the perfect dog and this is why I keep working with him. Did you see I put frosting on the windows?

MAILMAN: It has been three years. I don’t know how you could love a dog like that.

In light of reading about the Denver incident, my own memories being dredged up, the drafting of this blog post, the last thing I needed today was to have someone try to make me feel guilty (in a passive aggressive way) for keeping and loving a “bad dog”, and for putting me on the spot to explain Boogie’s behavior. This  mailman  has had Boogie’s barking explained to him so MANY TIMES before by myself and by dog trainers. (barking is reinforced by mailman leaving etc etc )  He clearly does not want to understand dog behavior, accepts no explanations, hates my dog,  and I really don’t know what else to say.

When the mailman left, I burst into tears. Even though I personally don’t believe Boogie is a bad dog,  and why should I care what other people think, it is still upsetting. I can’t help feeling immense empathy right now for “bad dogs” and the owners of these “bad dogs” everywhere…especially those of us who are trying so  hard to educate ourselves and others.


*Edit to add* This comment from a pet dog behavior specialist (on this FB post about the Denver incident):

One aspect of the video overlooked in most commentaries is the owner’s behavior. The owner held the collar tight,but the dog was on leash. The owner may not be a great reader of canine body language, but he knew his dog was uncomfortable. The owner held the collar tight because he felt his dog had the potential to act out in the situation. Why couldn’t he express this feeling? Because it would require a tacit admission that his dog might act “aggressively.” Dog aggression is taboo, especially from a Dogo Argentino. So the owner pretended his dog was fine, while tightening up on the collar. Now, after the bite, the owner is forced into a defensive position regarding his pet’s behavior, with no lesson learned. Dog owners need to feel more empowered to tell people when their dog is uncomfortable.

So true.

Entry filed under: Articles, links, Reads, Rescue.

The window film… Extinction burst? Good reads – dog behavior-related

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. julesmelfi  |  February 14, 2012 at 6:04 am

    This whole incident left me feeling terrible for all of the people involved. It would be nice if everyone took responsibility for the role that they played, wouldn’t it?

    I’m sorry about your mailman . . just another person that throws around their opinion and doesn’t care to understand 😦

    • 2. lili  |  February 15, 2012 at 12:45 am

      My mailman… I really shouldn’t have engaged him in the first place and I won’t bother next time. Lesson learned after this upsetting experience!

  • 3. teresavet  |  February 14, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Sorry about the mailman. Some people don’t like dogs and just don’t understand that behavior doesn’t have a quick fix (thanks, Cesar Millan?). But I don’t know anyone that has worked so hard to help a dog, so kiss and treat yourself!
    It’s really difficult to work with a “second hand” dog, and you’re doing awesome. And the dog hasn’t bitten anyone in three years, thanks to you! The mailman should be grateful you keep him crated, and no free in the backyard, like so many other people…
    The other topic, I have just seen the video, and a) obviously it’s a people’s problem (owner, tv crew, reporter…) but b) that dog is a timebomb. Not the dog’s fault, either, but if you have a dog that size, you have to educate it to tolerate that kind of treatment. Because EVERYBODY touches dogs like that, so the probability of the dog of being put in that situation again, its high.
    So a) you don’t put the dog in the situation (like you do) and b) you TRAIN the situation so the dog ends up liking it. It’s hard, I know, but it can be done.

    • 4. lili  |  February 15, 2012 at 1:04 am

      thanks for the support, Teresa! I don’t feel so bad today. Yesterday was a bad day in general so the mailman comments sort of sent me over the edge.

      Re: Max, I believe you can train a dog to not react to this sort of forceful petting but I don’t think it’s fair to the dog…. especially if it’s a person he doesn’t know. And yes, it is hard when you have a dog that doesn’t instantly love every person he meets. (And why should he, anyway?) I too would get suspicious if I meet someone for the first time and they are all over me being super touchy feely. I would want to move away. In this TV scenario, there was no room for the dog to move away. He was trapped.

  • 5. Elisabeth Weiss  |  February 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act made great breakthroughs. One great spokesperson at the time was Itzhak Perlman the great violinist who’s lower body was paralyzed by polio but who had a miraculous talent for playing the violin. Touring and concertizing was arduous for him because there were no access ramps, no wheel chair accessibility in bathrooms and on and on. In other words, it became socially unacceptable to discriminate against people with disabilities.

    Before people with disabilities demanded those rights I am sure they had to overcome a lot of shame about being different. It takes courage to be different.
    Now, going back to the mailman: I am sure that if you had a human child he would NEVER EVER dare to criticize the child’s learning curve. He would either just think about the mother who has a huge job on her hands or try to find something redeeming about the child: “Oh, but she makes beautiful drawings !” Or, he would not care.

    It takes a lot of courage to admit that your dog has problems and needs to be shielded from doing harm to others. We have to spread the word that there should be NO SHAME connected with that as long as we take responsibility to protect others, nobody should be questioned or frowned upon. Why should it be such a big deal to say: My dog is nervous, please don’t look at her. Or judgement from other dog guardians: “Oh you mean your dog cannot ride in an elevator with another dog? Well, well, I guess you should have socialized your dog more…tsk tsk.”

    Just let it GO!
    I will stop here…after all, this is just a blog comment:)

    • 6. lili  |  February 15, 2012 at 1:06 am

      Thanks, Elisabeth. We already discussed via email. Yeah, I’m not wasting any more time and energy on this.

  • 7. Pamela  |  February 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Sounds like you’ve processed this and are moving on. I’ll just say Boogie is lucky to have such a committed and caring person.

    I didn’t know if you saw this post with a video of a dog trainer pointing out the signs that the dog was uncomfortable long before the bite.

    It’s excellent that at least one news show tried to understand what happened and why in an educational instead of hysterical way. Thought you might find it encouraging.

    • 8. lili  |  February 15, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      Hi Pamela, I hadn’t seen that video and thanks for sharing this! Going to reshare!

  • 9. oreoowner  |  February 15, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Let me start by saying I love your blog. 9 months ago I started my own blog after my dog Oreo was attacked, and has since become reactive. I have been working with her so hard, and sometimes one little thing brings you down. In the long run you have to remember barking is nothing. Nonreactive dogs bark at the mailman, that is a normal behavior for ANY dog, and that mailman makes me mad!
    But I know it’s upsetting to hear someone tell you your dog is bad. Your dog isn’t bad, they are just scared. You are a GREAT owner to train Boogie!
    I love all of your illustrations and have shared your blog with other in the reactive dog class I am in. It’s nice to hear from others and know you are not alone. Just last night my dog had a level 1 bite with the vet, after the vet just told me how well she was doing and what good parents we were. I was upset on the way home and my husband didn’t understand why. Well it’s because WE (all reactive moms & dads) try sooo hard!
    All dogs are different, and it’s a blessing that Boogie has you. Keep up the good blog work, good Boogie work, and listen to your heart, not other people. People are very ignorant when it comes to greeting dogs, training dogs, and especially reactive dogs.

    • 10. lili  |  February 19, 2012 at 1:15 am

      thank you, Oreo’s mom. I know you can relate, and yes it’s nice to know we are not alone; we are all trying hard, and we shouldn’t feel bad and put up with shit from people who don’t get it. Oreo is lucky to have you!

  • 11. Arina H.  |  February 15, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    As a guardian of a reactive Boston terrier, who has unfortunately also made a few Level 3 mistakes, I completely empathize. I have been upset and cried over some careless person’s comments about me and my dog. And the next day, you don’t care anymore. Pets are not disposable property to us, but sadly, I know a lot of people would discard a dog because he is “broken” in some way.
    Max’s owner was clearly uncomfortable during the interview and he should not have put the dog in that situation.

    • 12. lili  |  February 19, 2012 at 1:29 am

      Arina – yep, I was fine the next day and stopped caring. Hang in there with your boston!

  • 13. Sarah Owings  |  February 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    (RANT ALERT) 🙂

    Hey Lili, I just read this entry and it makes me mad too–not at the mailman so much because those poor guys get charged at and bitten by dogs all the time, which just has to poison their perception of dogs after awhile–but at the whole backwards mind- set behind his statements. What he doesn’t get, is that it is this very attitude and presumption about what a “good dog” is, which is creating the very real and dangerous “culture clash” with all dogs that he has to deal with each day on his job. In a weird way, he is sort of a victim too.

    But before I get into that part, I want to say very clearly that if your mailman isn’t able to open his mind, see the truth, and say the right thing, I will do it for him….This is what he should have said: Lili, THANK YOU FOR BEING A RESPONSIBLE DOG OWNER, PUTTING YOUR DOG AWAY AND KEEPING PEOPLE SAFE!

    There you are doing everything right–managing Boogie beautifully, investing in training, changing your whole perspective on dogs (and becoming really really knowledgeable in the process), even sharing your knowledge with other struggling dog owners…. I mean really, pat yourself on the back. Go treat yourself to ice cream. Go snuggle with Boogie in the sun. You deserve a reward. Many people go into denial about their reactive dogs, and DO NOTHING. They don’t invest in any preventative socialization training with their puppies. Don’t learn anything at all about dogs or dog body language. Repeatedly put their dogs in highly stressful situations where no one understands them, no one listens to their signals, until finally the dogs really have no choice but to act out. Then people act totally surprised and shocked. “Where did this “bad dog” come from?” they say. “He’s never acted this way before.”

    Once this starts happening regularly, many people don’t want to deal at all and take that dog to the pound, or, they simply ignore the problem and further isolate this now stressed out, highly reactive, under-socialized pet in the back yard, let him run loose barking like crazy at the fence or windows all day, don’t secure the gates, or worse, they tether the dog outside where the poor thing spends his lonely days barking at passers by, until the inevitable bite happens, and then the dog is euthanized. It makes me crazy! (This happened to my next door neighbor’s puppy last year. They had no yard, so each day they tethered the puppy in the driveway. Each day I heard the frantic barking, saw the puppy lunging at people walking by over and over again, saw the puppy lunging on leash at my dogs when we passed each other on walks–on a prong collar too and getting corrected. Needless to say, I saw the writing on the wall, even offered my services free of charge. But the owner did nothing, and eventually the puppy did bite someone and they got rid of her. “My vet told me that some dogs are just born that way,” this person told me the other day in passing. “Next time, I’ll get a “good” puppy from a breeder, not a rescue.”)

    As a professional dog trainer, I see a lot of these so called “bad dogs,” and when I get frustrated because so many of these problems are often so totally preventable, I remind myself to thank the responsible owner who at least has recognized he or she has a problem and called in a trainer…But here is my point: most of these “bad dogs” are actually acting totally NORMALLY and responding in the only way they know how to human created situations that are, to put it bluntly, crazy-making. Dogs are dogs and–with a few exceptions like genetic abnormalities or true neurochemical imbalances– most dogs with “behavior problems” are actually really just acting like dogs.

    Here is the standard we hold for what a “good dog” is. You tell me, could any human being (besides maybe Gandhi) live up to this standard?

    1. A dog should like all people and all other animals and all other dogs at all times, no matter what these people or dogs do to them.

    2. A dog should never defend personal property, personal space, or his possessions from intruders (aka mail delivery people), thieves (aka control-freak owners or other dogs who repeatedly take things from them), or threats (aka other dogs who send threatening signals, who attack them first, or perfect strangers who crowed into the dog’s personal space….However, a dog should know to guard his *owner’s* personal property from “real” intruders and thieves. That’s okay. Dogs who do that are considered “good guard dogs” and heroes).

    3. A dog should never complain or grumble–even when children jump on them, hurt them, wake them from a nap, take their stuff, pull on their ears, etc.

    4. A dog should drop everything and obey his human master at all times instantly–and without pay–out of love and because he fears and recognizes him or her as “the leader.”

    5. A dog should be seen and not heard except when the owner is in the mood for companionship. A dog should never ask for attention on his own, or have any emotional needs, or any of the foibles or weird, annoying habits we so often have to tolerate in human family members.

    6. A dog should immediately “know better” about never soiling the rugs inside the house once the owner has made this clear by rubbing the dog’s nose in it and getting really mad.

    7. A dog should never have any interests other than pleasing his master at all times. A dog should never prefer to stop and “smell the roses,” for instance, to play with another dog, to chase a squirrel, to relax and chew a bone, etc. (And a dog should somehow innately understand that pulling on leash or jumping on people is rude.)

    8. A dog can never have a bad moment, never feel ill or grumpy or scared or spaced out or a little out of sorts or just plain not into playing our silly training games that day.


    So, your mailman’s assumption that there is something wrong with Boogie is actually perpetuating the very mindset of people not listening to or understanding what a normal dog is. If people understood dogs better, we’d all do a lot more preventative work to actively teach our perfectly normal dogs react more *abnormally* in what are often very confusing, unpredictable and difficult circumstances (i.e. how to be infinitely tolerant of human rudeness and endlessly resilient in a huge variety of stressful situations).

    So anyway, rant over. Sorry it is a little cynical. The conversation I just had with my neighbor about her poor puppy the other day just got to me…But I feel bad for her too because she was honestly sad about the loss of her her dog also, doesn’t understand what she did that made that bite inevitable, and will probably do it again…

    ….But Lili, I’d like to say it again, you are one of the very best dog owners I have ever met. Period. Boogie is so lucky to have found you… and you are so lucky to have found him! He’s sure a character, and I know he isn’t easy, but what a treasure of wisdom he has brought you (and me as your trainer). What a gift he is!



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