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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Presidential Puncture Wounds

President-elect Barack Obama has assembled his transition team, and will make a raft of important choices over the next couple months as he prepares to govern the country. He will not only look forward, but will also evaluate the actions of his predecessors and learn from the mistakes of presidents past.

Barney One of those learning experiences deals not with national security or economic policy, but with the presidential pooch. Last week, President Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney, bit Reuters television White House correspondent Jon Decker. The bite punctured the skin of Decker’s finger, and was bad enough that he was treated by the White House doctor and given antibiotics.

Once the video of the White House dog bite made the rounds on the Internet, reporters and bloggers had a field day. It was open season for jokes ranging from Barney’s anger over Democratic wins on Election Day to the dog’s general displeasure toward the bias of the liberal media. The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board quipped, “While Bush has been known to bark at the news media, at least he doesn't bite.”

The incident, however, can provide a more serious and relevant lesson for people hoping to avoid future dog bites, and can serve as more than just fodder for late-night talk show monologues. The Obamas have famously promised to get a dog for their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and animal lovers are buzzing with both speculation and suggestions about what kind of dog to get. Because children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, the Obama family can learn from Barney-gate to minimize the possibility of a bite from their own future dog.

Animal experts can easily identify a couple common mistakes that people make around dogs, just by watching the video of Barney biting Decker. First, Barney’s posture was extremely stiff. There was visible tension in both his body and face—his ears even dropped back a bit. These were clear indicators that Barney was stressed and wasn’t interested in a petting. Second, Decker moved quickly toward Barney and from above—which can be very scary, especially for a small dog.

Barney’s bite wasn’t out of anger, nor was it a political statement. He was clearly stressed and probably scared. He communicated these feelings as best he could through his body language. Unfortunately, the reporter’s movements crossed a threshold for Barney and the result was a bite.

For families with children—like the next First Family—it’s especially important to provide supervision. Kids’ behaviors around dogs can range from obviously irritating tail-pulling to well-intentioned hugs. And while many dogs will tolerate these episodes with good humor, there’s a major distinction between tolerance and enjoyment. A dog owner’s ability to make that distinction will prevent bites from occurring.

The lesson for dog owners (presidential or otherwise) is to pay close attention to your dog. Our canine companions are constantly communicating with us through their body language and it’s up to us to keep them safe and minimize their stress. Every dog has his or her limits, but as attentive dog owners, we can keep them out of situations that test those limits and prevent future dog bites.

And maybe journalists should take a lesson from my colleague, John Balzar, who carries a healthy supply of dog treats in his pockets, so he is better equipped to meet the canine companions who come to work with their owners at The Humane Society of the United States’ office building.

By the way, it’s not the first time politics and dog bites have mixed. Congress has considered legislation on the issue, thanks to the leadership of Rep. Thad McCotter (R-Mich.) who has introduced resolutions encouraging municipalities to adopt and enforce protections against dog bites and recognizing National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

It’s an important policy issue for dogs, as well as for public health and safety. But we all have personal responsibilities when we’re around dogs. Visit for tips on how to stay safe and prevent dog bites.


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