Thursday, September 12, 2013


This one was mahogany red and while I was friends with all the dogs in the area, both pet and stray, this one just wouldn’t want to say hi. I would drift close to the gate and Jojo would slam into the gate on his side, growling, barking and spitting doggy expletives for all he was worth. But with his family, he was surprisingly gentle and affectionate.

Spurned thus, I gave up on him and went back to the ones I used to roam the streets with in those days. After some years, word trickled in that Jojo had turned on his master, that he’d ‘gone mad’ and so was put down.

These mad-dog stories abound amongst all who fear dogs. Some were bitten by a neighbour’s pet or a stray. Others have never been bitten but have inherited this fear of dogs from those they have heard these horror stories from – of dogs being unpredictable, of how they turn on their masters and how dog owners might assure them that a dog wouldn’t bite, and yet they snap at an unsuspecting guest.

So what is the truth? Undoubtedly, these dogs have drawn blood. So are they mad dogs? Are they rabid beasts that need to be put down at the earliest?

A few months ago, I met our bhaiya, Jojo’s master, at a wedding in the old neighbourhood and inevitably talk turned to Jackie’s madness. And here’s how the story unfolded…

It was the night of Diwali and the smoke and crackle of crackers and the leaping lights of the night had given poor Jojo a terrible fright. Leaving his customary spot in the open courtyard, the nervous dog ran into a bedroom on the first floor and hid under a table. As luck would have it, the first floor was supposed to be off limits to the dog and while the night echoed with the sizzle and screams of shooting rockets and bursting crackers, bhaiya’s father tried to coax Jojo from under the table. Since Jojo wouldn’t budge, the man tried to hold the dog by his tail and yank him out. On a night like most others Jojo might have submitted and quietly given in, but fear had driven Jojo’s mind into a zone that he didn’t know how to control. For the first time in all his seven years with the family, Jojo growled at a family member. The man thought that Jojo had growled because he had grabbed his tail and so tried to pull him out by his collar. Jojo snapped and bit the arm that had grabbed the collar. The growling and the biting convinced the family that the dog must have gone mad or rabid. He was locked and chained inside the room for a day, and though the family loved their pet, with young children in the house, a difficult decision was taken. Though the dog had regained his cheerful demeanor by morning, unwilling to risk their children, the tearful family called in an executioner who dispatched a very confused and otherwise normal dog with a few well placed blows from a big stick.

I’ve heard other tales of ‘mad dogs’ biting people I know. On each occasion, including the above mentioned incident, on asking about the nature of the wound, the ‘victim’ has revealed two tell-tale puncture wounds were the canines broke skin.

Now go to Youtube and check out videos of wolves and wild dogs on a hunt. These pack hunters literally tear their prey apart while it’s on the run. That’s what those teeth are designed for. Have you seen stray dogs fight? When they mean business, once a dog has gotten hold of their opponent, you’ll see them vigorously shake their head and neck in an attempt to tear off a clump of flesh. A dog the size of a Doberman has enough jaw strength to break a man’s forearm. So when a dog snaps and all you get are two puncture wounds, it doesn’t want to hurt you. It is just a dog’s way of saying “don’t bother me please… I’m not in the mood”. Admittedly, some dogs in the same situation will just growl, while others would walk away and some would just whine and bear it. But then, it’s the same with people. Some just handle pressure better than others.

I have been bitten thrice, and on each occasion, I was aware that I was the one who had made the mistake.

The point I’m trying to make is that most dog-bites are nothing but a dog’s way of saying ‘lay off !’

The world of dogs is full of rules and hierarchies and corrections for misdemeanors and is swift . We get bitten when we break or misunderstand these unwritten rules. Some dogs bite out of fear and others because we confuse them.

For instance, if you’ve been spoiling a dog by not giving him any rules, letting him climb on the bed, eat off the table, poop on the floor and pull you on a walk, you are effectively telling the dog that he is the boss.

Dogs are pack animals and live in a very structured family in the wild. The alpha dog has all the rights and the omega (the last in the hierarchy) has the least number of privileges. The pack takes care of all his needs but his privileges are limited and that fact is consistently reinforced. A pet dog should always be the omega in the family pack. And the dog doesn’t have ego issues about that. He does not understand equality or democracy. His primal mind craves order and structure. Without consistent rules, the dog, in order to silence the chaos in its head makes up its own rules. And since the one who makes the rules is the one in charge, the dog assumes the role of an alpha.  

Now this dog who’d trundle off the couch without a whimper whenever you felt like imposing a little discipline will suddenly refuse to budge. Subject to the dog’s breed, energy-levels and nature, attempts to physically remove a dog that has assumed alpha status would either be met by repeated attempts to climb the couch, barking, a low growl or even a warning bite. The last two are the most common methods used by dogs higher up in the hierarchy to enforce rules and boundaries for subordinates and pups.

Most dogs that snap don’t mean any harm. They know that their existence is tied to the pack’s well being. But they need calm and consistent leadership. If you don’t provide that, the dog would try and provide that, for you and the family.

A dog needs physical and mental exercise that matches the animal’s energy levels. A tired dog is a happy dog. But a dog with pent up energy would express itself through destructive, neurotic and even aggressive behavior. So pick a breed your lifestyle, time constraints and physical fitness levels can afford.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t dominant aggression or territorial behavior but fear biting that draws the most blood in pet owning households. Most dogs lack the courage and the confidence to exhibit dominance oriented aggression. Instead they become biters because circumstance or nature has pushed them to the other edge of the aggression spectrum – a dog that is so insecure that it lashes out at its own shadow. A potential fear biter cowers when approached, fl ashes the white of the eye and the lips curl back in a snarl. It is important to just let the dog be until the moment or the mood has passed and the dog calms down and approaches you on its own.

Those of you who want to acquire a big macho dog to fill in for your own psychological inadequacies, be warned that you need a lot more help than what a dog can provide. If this is your reason for getting a dog, you’ll only end up with a maladjusted animal - a loose cannon that would end up hurting people and leave you with medical bills, law suits and eventually a dead dog.

Lastly, a word of advice for those who love their dogs to a premature death. Dogs are not children on four legs. They are dogs and are happiest being dogs. They don’t need pretty jackets and collars with bows. They don’t mind not sleeping in your bed and not pigging out on your table scraps as long as you can give them the rules of the house, exercise that meets the needs of the breed and a belly rub at the end of the day that’s says, so what if you are the omega, my life is still incomplete without you.

Here’s hoping that this piece goes a small way in helping you understand man’s best friend and the terms of that age old friendship a little better, and may the Iago of misapprehension never drive a wedge between you and your four-legged Cassio ever again.


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