Don't blame the dog for behaving like a dog

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 3/7/10
By: Gail T. Fisher

Several people have asked me if I think Tilikum, the Sea World Orca, should be euthanized. I don’t. Did he intentionally kill his trainer? No one can know for certain, but I seriously doubt it. It’s far more likely that he saw a braid floating in the water, and grabbed it in play. Tilikum was not thinking with premeditation that his size and weight, his ability to stay under water far longer than a human can, and his underwater antics would tragically result in his trainer’s death. So what now for Tilikum? With structure and management, there’s no reason he can’t live out the rest of his life without endangering any other humans.

I used to raise English Mastiffs, most of whom outweighed me. They often, totally unintentionally and without malice, hurt humans. Their happily wagging tails, often swinging whiplike, made many a grown man cry. Days before my 40th birthday, one of my dogs playfully bumped me with her hip, inadvertently causing back spasms so bad that I was flat on my back at my surprise party. My dogs were just being dogs—doing what dogs do—unaware that we, with our different physiology, may be harmed by their most innocent actions.

A dog that happily greets a human friend, knocking them down, breaking a hip, does not do it with intent. A dog that runs under someone’s legs, causing them to trip and injure themselves, did not do it with premeditation. A dog’s “normal” behaviors can result in human injury—but that doesn’t mean the dog is bad and blameworthy.
A few weeks ago, Cannon, my Bearded Collie, came in from the yard on three legs, holding his left forepaw off the ground. As I examined his leg, his biggest reaction was when I held or touched his pastern (wrist), and when I tried to take a closer look to see what the problem was, he screamed in pain and bit me. Now Cannon is a lover, not a biter—but he’s also a wuss with an extremely low pain threshold. I hurt him and he reacted like ... a dog...he reflexively struck out with his mouth, just as a human might have reacted by reflexively throwing an elbow, foot or fist.
Cannon’s vet diagnosed the problem, discovering that he had split his dewclaw (the one at the side of the wrist), painfully exposing the nerve, and it had become infected. Even a stoic dog may well have reacted to the extreme pain of an exposed and infected nerve, so I don’t blame Cannon for reacting as he did.
Animals are animals—including humans. We, as with our pets, retain our natural instincts and reflexive reactions to pain and fear. When we choose to adopt a pet, we’re choosing a role to be that pet’s owner, caretaker, and advocate; to protect them as much as we are able to, to foresee issues before they arise, to train them for the control of behaviors we are able to, and to manage them and their environment to prevent tragedies. From what I’ve read, apparently Tilikum was supposed to be handled differently. It should not have happened that a human braid was floating within reach so he could grab it and drag his trainer into the pool. But it did happen—a human’s error. It should not be compounded by blaming the animal, anymore than I blame Cannon for my sore finger.

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