Nicole Wright of Dunwoody walks her two pit bulls, Emma and Billy, around Target shopping plazas.
It’s noisy and busy. Children and red shopping carts are everywhere. It’s far more chaotic than a walk through Piedmont Park.
And that’s the point.
“We want them to be comfortable around people of different shapes and sizes,” said Wright of Dunwoody.
And before she gave birth to her son, Brady, who is now 18 months old, she even walked her dogs with an empty stroller.
Now pregnant with baby No. 2, she has enlisted Amber Burckhalter of K-9 Coach for a refresher course. Wright never leaves her child alone with the dogs, but she’s seeing her efforts pay off.
The dogs love to play ball with Brady. And Brady is starting to talk. One of his first few and favorite words is “Emma.”
Fear is the most common reason dogs bite, according to Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia. They’re less fearful if their owners expose them to a variety of people and places from a young age — a process known as socialization.
The first six months of a dog’s life is a critical time for socialization. That’s the best time for a puppy to meet and learn to trust a diverse group of people — children and adults, people of various races, people wearing hats and uniforms.
And while it’s far quicker and easier to teach a puppy from the beginning that the world is a safe place, a dog of any age can — and should — be socialized.
While many owners like to treat their dogs like children, Crowell-Davis cautions against it.
“It’s a good thing we have this animal that is part of the family, and we love it and it loves us back,” said Crowell-Davis. “But we have to understand it’s a dog. We may think of it as a 4-year-old child, but 4-year-olds don’t go chasing joggers. Dogs are predators and they can go into hunting behavior, and not just for deer and rabbits.”
Every year, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs, and about 20 percent of the victims require medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2009, 29 children were admitted to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for serious injuries resulting from dog attacks. Pit bulls and Rottweilers were the two breeds responsible for the most severe injuries, according to the hospital.
In recent months, there has been a spate of dog attacks in metro Atlanta. In February, a 5-day-old Rockdale baby was killed by the family’s pit bull. Also in February, a 7-year-old girl from Cobb County suffered a severe leg injury when she was attacked on her way home from school by a mixed-breed bull dog.
In early March in DeKalb County, 8-year-old Erin Ingram was playing in her front yard when she was mauled by two dogs; one of them was a pit bull.
Family attorney Kevin Adamson said Erin had just arrived home from school, called her dad and gotten permission to play basketball in the family’s front yard. Erin’s 17-year-old sister was inside doing homework.
Almost immediately, two dogs ran from a nearby house and attacked her. A woman driving past saw the attack and called 911. When police arrived, the dogs were still attacking the girl, and an officer had to shoot one to free the third-grader.
Erin is still hospitalized for her injuries. She lost her left hand in the attack and has undergone surgery to save the other hand, according to the family’s attorney.
Twyann Artrell Vaughn, the owner of the dogs, was charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor.
Adamson said he plans to push state legislators for stiffer dog biting laws in Georgia. “Certainly, if you accidently kill someone with a car, you may be tried for a felony, even if you did not intend to kill that person,” said Adamson. “There is absolutely no reason the person responsible be charged for a misdemeanor, while Erin’s life was forever changed and will never be the same.”
Crowell-Davis said a dog’s behavior is influenced by both genetics and environmental factors. Pit bulls have a history of being genetically bred for increased aggressiveness, she said, adding their sheer size can make them potentially dangerous.
“The onus is on you if you have [a] big, powerful dog. You need to appropriately train it so it acts nice,” she said.
Michelle Petit, co-owner of Dogwood Obedience school in Doraville, once adopted a dog that spent most of his life in a kennel and got nervous over the smallest changes — even something as small as her putting on a hat.
Concerned her dog might bite out of fear, she devised a plan: Every day for a month, she took the dog to a Publix shopping plaza and gave the dog treats as people rushed by.
“I wanted going to Publix and seeing all these people to be a very pleasurable experience,” she said. “It took time but she made great progress. I had to have work done on my house and she barked the first day and then that was it. She was fine with people coming in and out of the house.”
When Rayandra Slonina adopted Arabelle from a rescue shelter, she knew her dog needed help.
Arabelle, a miniature dachshund, weighed less than 10 pounds and had sweet brown eyes, but she was a nervous dog. She shook around strangers and cowered in corners; her tail was always low.
And the 2-year-old canine was never socialized as a puppy and had grown into a potentially dangerous dog liable to bite strangers out of fear.
So she enrolled Arabelle in a class designed for dogs on edge, a course titled “Nervous Nelly,” offered by K-9 Coach dog training school in Atlanta.
For four weeks, Arabelle joined six other skittish dogs in a controlled environment. And Slonina learned strategies to put her pet at ease around strangers.
Slonina slowly introduced Arabelle to new sounds and unfamiliar people, all the while rewarding her with her favorite peanut-butter treats.
“It takes a lot of time. It takes patience, but you get out of it what you put into it,” Slonina said. “I will tell you it is totally worth it. She’s come so far ... I wanted her to be more comfortable, and I felt no creature should live in constant fear and anxiety.”
1. For puppies, aim for 30 minutes to an hour a day introducing your puppy to many different environments such as parks and shopping plazas. For older dogs, try to spend even more time going on outings.
2. Try to make the outings as pleasant as possible. Avoid situations where a child might pull on the dog’s ears or a situation where the dog might encounter an aggressive dog.
3. Don’t overdo it to the point of the puppy or older dog becoming exhausted. “Don’t play pass the puppy,” said Crowell-Davis.
4. Exercise is good — but not too much. Making sure your dog gets regular exercise keeps your dog healthy, but avoid extreme exercise such as strapping the dog with a weighted backpack. (Crowell-Davis said some dog owners are doing this with their aggressive dogs in hopes of wearing it out and helping the behavior. Instead, she said, the dog gets very strong — and is still aggressive.)
Source: Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia
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