I am sometimes asked to evaluate a foster dog for Colorado Greyhound Adoption. I conducted one such evaluation last week (October 2010) for a female greyhound who is believed to be around 5 years old. Before I evaluate a dog, I do not want to know much of the dog's history. I prefer to go into the evaluation with no preconceived ideas of what this dog might or might not do.

I use the SAFER evaluation that was developed by Emily Weiss for use in shelters. It tests the dog's response to different things like looking the dog in the eyes, handling and pinching the dog, trying to entice the dog to play, trying to take food away from the dog, and seeing how the dog reacts to a neutral dog. Each test item is graded from an A to an F based on the dog's responses. Ideally, we want to see a dog who is friendly, very accepting of whatever you do, and will defer to the human. What we're looking for is the probability the dog might bite in any of these types of situations in the future.

Evaluations give us an opportunity to make some predictions about the future, but they won't tell us for certain whether a dog will bite or not. The thing that some people don't seem to understand is that ANY dog can bite under certain circumstances. I can't tell you how many times I hear people say something like “I want to make certain that my dog will never ever bite.” In those cases, we trainers usually recommend a stuffed animal rather than a real dog. There are no guarantees!

So back to this particular dog. She was very accepting of everything I did to her. She wasn't overly friendly and soliciting attention, but greyhounds can often be very stoic, so that didn't surprise me. When it got to soliciting play though, she was quite dramatic! She immediately started bouncing around as soon as I said “Let's play!” While nice to see she was more than ready to play, I did see that she could easily injure someone with her enthusiasm. Self control or impulse control was perhaps not her strong suit. The other part of the test that was of concern was her reaction to the other dog. She certainly was interested but not brave enough to come all the way up to the other dog. She appeared to be feeling conflicted – interested but cautious. This is where we have potential for trouble with other dogs. She thinks she wants to go see them and maybe even start playing, but then she feels overwhelmed and could easily bite to “defend” herself when she feels she's in over her head and can't get out of there fast enough.

So, overall, I saw a very nice dog who can be very excitable and is a bit conflicted and afraid around other dogs. These dogs often end up labeled “aggressive” when really it's fear-related and, in her case, probably combined with a lack of impulse control. She reacts first and asks questions later.

So, once the evaluation was completed, I was told her background. She was originally brought into the adoption group because she'd been found “for sale” at a garage sale. Ugh!! I won't even go there, you can insert your own commentary. She was brought into foster and was going to be adopted by her foster family. On a trip with her new family, she was in a strange place, with other dogs and people, and there'd been a lot going on. One family member and another dog entered the room the dog was in (I think she had a bone at the time as well, but I could be wrong) and she bit the family member. In looking at the situation, it was clear there were a number of factors that could easily have added up to a high stress level that led to the bite. Each one of those stressors alone probably would not have pushed the dog to biting, but when put together it created “the perfect storm” for that dog. A few other instances of growling after that caused the family to decide this was not the right dog for them after all. She is currently living with another foster family, and that's when they came to me for the evaluation.

So, is this a bad dog? Some rescues will not take in or work at placing dogs with a bite history. It's too big a risk for some, and there are plenty of other dogs needing help. While I certainly understand their positions, I applaud CGA for being able to look at each dog as an individual. Is this particular dog a bad dog? I don't think so. I think given a different set of circumstances, this dog would be like many others and have no bite record. This dog, as so many other dogs that have bitten, was put into circumstances that she was not able to handle. Though not done intentionally, this dog was set up for failure.

You can look at the statistics about dog bites – I think last I read was something like 4.7 million dog bites in a year – and you can make judgments about how dangerous dogs can be. But if we looked at the circumstances of those bites, I would bet that most of those could have been prevented if the humans took the time to understand dogs better and learned to read the early warning signs. Bites rarely happen “out of the blue” and in fact, are quite predictable, if only someone were paying attention. Dogs tend to give plenty of warning. Question is, is anyone listening?

If we're going to choose to live with dogs, we need to make the effort to learn to read dog body language and communicate more clearly with dogs. It should not be their job to simply adjust to us and accept anything we do to them without protest. We need to take some responsibility if we truly are the smarter species we claim to be.