6 Things I Learned From My First Bite!
My first job after undergraduate school was with moderately to profoundly mentally disabled adults. I loved working with that population, and what I learned from them was at least equal to what I taught them. I was a new instructor at the time and didn't know the clients very well. During my first month there one of the clients, we'll call her Bea, who was known to act out aggressively, had gone to the bathroom and not returned after a lengthy period of time. I was told to check on her. Bea had spent much of her life in an institution she was non-verbal and somewhat suspicious of people. I knew her history and being insecure in my position and skills, it was with some trepidation that I went to see what was going on. I found her sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth, in an attempt to self-soothe herself. Taking the "dominance approach" I told her to get up and go back to the classroom. At first, she ignored me so I stepped closer to her and said something similar, at which point she jumped up, and rushed into me full throttle, biting and hitting. Almost before I knew what happened, I was on the ground, bleeding from various bite marks. At that point, some other staff members heard what was going on and came in to rescue me and take care of Bea, since I had failed miserably at my first test of handling difficult clients.
I don't mean to equate mentally handicapped people with dogs, but the reasons I was bitten that day are much the same as why people are bitten by dogs in general, Yes, I've had a few dog bites, too, but so far none as bad as the bites that Bea gave me that day.
About the only thing I did * right* was that I didn't fight back. Besides the legality of fighting a client, it would have made things much worse. Same thing with dogs. The old idea of the "alpha roll" has been discredited for the most part and there is data to show that you're more likely to get bit if you try to do that maneuver. Even the Monks of New Skete, who originally coined that term have backed off from that advice. If you do that to a dog and you don't get bit, it's because the dog is showing some restraint, it's NOT because the dog snapped and "missed," although I have had a few owners tell me that. Dogs have much quicker reflexes, if they want to bite you, they will.
What I Did Wrong
#1. I didn't take time to assess the situation.
Here was someone who was emotionally upset, had a history of biting and attacking, and I immediately pushed my panic button and hers, too. I ignored body language that was saying "I'm uncomfortable, STAY AWAY," and instead came on swaggering like some sort of bad-sheriff imitation from an old "B" cowboy movie. It didn't work for me then, and it wouldn't work for me now.
Dogs give lots of warnings that they are uncomfortable with a situation. Being a non-verbal species, they have to. Besides growling (which often gets punished, thereby taking one way of warning you out of their arsenal), they may give a hard stare, stiffen, show the white of their eye (called "whale-eye"), or a number of other, subtle signals.
#2. I invaded personal space by getting too close and I was hovering.
Aggression and fear are often two sides of the same coin, and a dog who's feeling trapped only has "fight or flight" as an option, and if you take flight away, fight is all you have left. Often, people get bit reaching for a collar. In puppy class we do exercises to get the puppies used to us grabbing the collar, but if you don't know a dog, and it is giving you signs it's uncomfortable, don't reach towards its face (For an animated PSA on avoiding dog bites click here).
#3. I didn't have a good relationship with her, so just telling her to do something wasn't going to work.
If you're working a dog you don't know, and you have no learning history with that dog, the dog may ignore anything you have to say. A dog who is anxious might inhibit biting someone she knows, but strangers are fair game. When working with fearful and/or aggressive dogs, you have to take time to let them get to know you. This has to be done gently, quietly, and with no sudden movements. Avert your gaze, don't look at them head-on. Move slowly and deliberately, if you must move at all. Fast movements incite a chase reflex and turn on prey drive, not something you want if you may end up being the prey.
#4. I gave her no incentive to work with me (this goes back to #3).
We tend to take the approach that the dog should "just do it," and if she doesn't, it's some sort of statement about *us*. Take the personal aspect out of it, you wouldn't necessarily do something a stranger on the street asked you to do, especially if it's something you didn't want to do anyway, why should a dog?
#5. I didn't take into account her emotional state.
My major professor in graduate school, a radical behaviorist, talked about the "internal state" of the organism. She was obviously in a state of arousal and it didn't take much to induce her to act out. Also, when dogs are aroused--for whatever reason--and they are thwarted from doing what they want to do, they may then turn on whoever is close to them instead. Redirected aggression is fairly common.
#6. I didn't ask for help. If you're in a situation where what you are doing isn't working and you are in a position to do so, consult with someone more experienced.
There's nothing wrong with admitting you're over your head, and you owe it to the dog or client for that matter. Last year I was involved in a couple of complicated aggression cases where there were multiple dogs and multiple family dynamics involved. I assessed the situation and wrote up a behavior plan, and as it went along, even though we were making progress, as things often happen when you have multiple personalities involved, another issue popped up that I should have seen coming but didn't. I consulted with Dr. Patricia McConnell's group (I did NOT pass the charge on to my client, BTW), and they were very helpful not only in telling me what I was doing right but pointing out other things to look for as well. Besides Dr. McConnell's group, I have attended numerous workshops on dog aggression and reactivity, besides doing extensive research on the subject and also have one client referred to me by a veterinary behaviorist at UT. I also take continuing education courses as part of my clinical psych license. You can never stop learning and overconfidence will come back to haunt you every time.
For what it's worth, I continued to work with Bea and other students in Charlotte NC for several years. It was a demanding but rewarding experience, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you don't know anyone with mental disabilities, you are missing out on a valuable opportunity and if you do, I wish you all the best.