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  Facts and advice courtesy of  
  Dog Bite Specialist
 Melissa Berryman

   Written by Raeanne Rubenstein




It’s the kind of headline that makes dog behaviorist Melissa Berryman’s blood boil, “Dog on Trial after Attacking Child.”

Dog SignAccording to this particular report, a pointer-hound mix named Milo, a dog that had never caused any problems, was napping on the couch in his home this January, when a 6-year-old neighbor arrived. The boy sat down on the couch and started petting the sleeping dog, who had never met him before. After being left alone with the dog, the child was soon bitten in the face, but unfortunately, no one witnessed the incident.

“That dog was put on trial for an accident that’s preventable,” says Melissa Berryman, who has spent years studying dogs and dog bites. “When people understand what our human behavior means to dogs, everyone, including the dog, will be a lot safer!” She also teaches classes on safety and liability protection for dog owners, provides community safety solutions and promotes the right way to behave around dogs.

A Massachusetts animal control officer from 1993 to 1999, Berryman is a national dog bite consultant who founded the Dog Owner Education and Community Safety Council (, which works with communities, rescue groups, dog owners and bite victims. Surprisingly, Berryman has worked with more than 10,000 dogs, from which she has learned a great deal of what to do and what to not do when it comes to pets. Berryman also holds an undergraduate degree in Animal Science Pre-Veterinary Medicine, and a master’s in Public Administration.

Running chid with dog following behindShe also designed and teaches a safety and liability class for dog owners, from which her recent book, People Training for Good Dogs is derived. This book helps pet owners train their dogs properly, by having a deeper understanding of an animal’s true nature.

Dogs are such a popular fixture in most homes that it's surprising how little most people actually know about them. Pet owners tend to choose a breed they are familiar with or find attractive, but the generalizations that breeders and the public make about the different breeds perpetuate myths that are not only incorrect, but also dangerous.

Berryman admits that she too shared many of these misconceptions before she became animal control officer for her home town of Falmouth, Mass. But the five years she spent in that job changed the way she thought about dogs and their owners. She now believes there are no bad dogs, just untrained owners.

“Dog owners are set up for failure because our default is to blame the dog. Owners get fined or sued for repeated human mistakes. Dogs often pay with their lives for mistakes made by people,” Berryman says.

Berrymen holding dogThat’s the case for poor Milo. At his Feb. 27 hearing in Mansfield, Mass, selectmen did vote to euthanize him, a tragedy for both the dog and the family that loved him. Originally, the court gave the owners just 10 days to appeal. (FYI- Subsequently to the first incident, Milo bit a 16 year-old girl under similar circumstances, resulting in his family not making an appeal for his life, and the dog was ultimately put to sleep.) This entire event prompted a storm of controversy on the internet, with those for or against Milo most vocal about their feelings.

“Prevention has to be the priority,” Berryman says. “Sure, it’s cute to us when the baby hugs the dog. But dogs do not say ‘I love you’ with a hug. When one dog ‘hugs’ another, it’s an act of domination. It should be a given that people do not hug dogs. Yet the message for children to hug dogs is prevalent in our culture and the facial bites continue.”

Dog growlingWhat are some other common misperceptions people have about dog and human behaviors, and how can you change them to prevent catastrophes?

Here are Berryman’s TOP 5 WAYS to keep both pets and people safe:

1. Myth: When greeting a new dog, you should extend your hand for it to sniff.

Fact: Dogs don't sniff each other's paws when greeting and like us, prefer to be asked before being touched by a stranger.  Instead, ask the owner and then also ASK the dog by tapping your hand on your thigh simulating a wagging tail and act friendly. The dog will relax and nuzzle you, or need to sniff you more to get to know you, or it will stay away. In any case, everyone concerned stays safe!

2. Myth: Breed dictates temperament.

Fact: Dogs, first and foremost, are predatory canines that live in groups. Breeds are generalizations that enable breeders to better market the living product they sell.  What dictates the temperament of a dog is their position in the pack, and therefore the role you, the human, play in the group and the rank of group members, is important. Dogs have superior/inferior inter-relationships, and they command or defer accordingly.  And just as siblings in a family have the same parents yet are very different, one cannot purchase behavior by buying a dog of a certain breed.

3. Myth: When a dog charges at you, there is nothing you can do.

Fact: When a dog charges you, it's trying to decide if you are friend, foe or prey. Their eyesight is often poor so hats, sunglasses and other objects you may wear or carry can scare them.  If this happens, act like a friend and no matter how difficult this may seem, pretend you are not afraid. Stand facing the dog with relaxed body language, tap your thigh with your hand and use a high-pitched voice for a friendly greeting like "good girl." Fake it if you are afraid.

4. Myth: Posting a "Beware of Dog" sign will protect you from liability if your dog injures someone on your property.

Fact: Dogs can only read body language. Signs like these make people react to your dog in a fearful manner, which is more likely to cause a dog to consider visitors prey and bite them.  Use “No Trespassing” and “Dog At Play” signs instead.

5. Myth: Only bad dogs owned by bad people bite.

Fact:  Even responsible dog owners operate under the same false beliefs about human and canine behavior. They are also encouraged to take a passive role concerning their dog.  So be assured any dog can, and often will bite, especially when it feels personally threatened, is exposed to prey behavior or fears being attacked. Also, is a dog thinks that another dog, or even a person it considers lower in rank threatens its resources, such as food, toys, bedding or the attention of its owner, it may be prone to attack!

Here’s one more tip to ALWAYS keep in mind. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

For more Myths and Facts about dogs and their behavior, check out Melissa Berryman’s web site at Or better still, purchase her informative new book “People Training for Good Dogs”  (Melissa Berryman (iUniverse, ISBN 978-0-595-46156-1, 234 pages, $19.95) through her website, online, or at your favorite local book store! / Issue 168 - September 2018
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