By now, you have most likely heard about Max the Argentine Mastiff who was rescued from a pond in February 2012. It was a feel-good story about a firefighter rescuing Max from drowning. The following morning, Max and his owner were on the Denver Channel 9 morning news along with the firefighter. Kyle Dyer was interviewing them, and Max was there as well. Kyle, being an animal lover, bent down to get near Max and leaned in to give him a kiss. Unfortunately, Max bit Kyle on the lip, requiring Kyle to need reconstructive surgery.

Was this the case of an aggressive or “vicious” dog as some sites have reported? I believe the video has now been pulled from the internet, but many people either saw the live interview or saw video footage online after the fact. If you were able to see it, you hopefully were able to recognize the signs of stress in this dog. Lip licking, turning away, a lip curl, perhaps a growl, and tension in and around the eyes.  This bite was predictable and could easily have been prevented at many points along the way as this story unfolded.

Most often, we simply look at the moment just before and during the bite to try to figure out what went wrong. We often forget to look at all of the events leading up to this. This bite was not a result of just that moment in time, but of all the events within the past 24 or so hours. Think about this. The day before this interview, the dog was nearly drowned in icy water after he chased a coyote onto the ice. This dog spent about 20 minutes in freezing water before being rescued by a firefighter. Then there was a news crew at the dog’s home later that day. The next morning, the dog is brought into a studio for the live interview. Gee, do you think this dog was in a high state of stress by this point?

I don’t know the owner of Max, but my guess is he was probably nervous being in the studio and on live television as well. I’m sure Max picked up on his owner’s stress in addition to his own stress.  According to news stories, the owner and Max had been at the studio already for around 45 minutes by the time of the interview. Several people had already petted Max. Now, during the interview, this woman (Kyle Dyer) whom Max does NOT know, bends down and gets in his face. Max gives off several stress signals, but this stranger to him does not back away. In addition, the owner has a tight grip on the dog. When your “flight” option is removed, the only one you have left is “fight.” This dog was forced to remain in a very stressful situation. When Kyle leans in to kiss him, he does the only thing he can think of – defends himself and bites her on the lip. In an interview with Doug Kelley in regard to Max being held at the Denver Animal Shelter states that one of his concerns is that the dog bit someone in the face. Of course he bit her in the face – her face was right in his face!

So who is to blame here? It’s easy to say that this never would have happened if the owner had simply kept the dog on a leash in the first place. That’s true. Some have criticized the owner for not having a “100% solid recall” on his dog. Perhaps the dog was not well-trained enough to be off leash. I don’t know. Perhaps the dog is pretty reliable off leash, but the sight of a coyote running away at close proximity might have been too large of a distraction for him. I don’t know.

The owner could have declined the interview so soon after the traumatic event. The owner could have participated in the interview himself but left the dog at home. The owner could have recognized the stress in his dog and made sure the dog was not put into the position he was put into. I don’t want to vilify the owner. Did he make mistakes? Yes, several. Does that mean he’s a bad person? I doubt it. I think he got caught up in the events and spotlight and forgot to be the advocate for his own dog.

What are the lessons to be learned here? Keep your dog on leash until your dog is reliable off-leash and is in an appropriate and safe off-leash area. After your dog has suffered a traumatic event (nearly drowning certainly qualifies!) make sure you give him plenty of down time to recuperate and get stress levels back to normal. If your dog is in a strange place and receiving attention from lots of people he doesn’t now, watch for signs of stress. Find ways to reduce the stress or remove your dog from the situation if you can’t reduce the stress. Don’t allow people who do not know your dog to get in his face. Teach people the appropriate way to interact with your dog. Set your dog up for success and ALWAYS be an advocate for your dog. Your dog should trust you to look out for him and protect him. Don’t let him down. It’s not always the easy thing to do in a situation – especially when you’re on a live news show – but it’s the right thing to do.