Reader question: I am in the second year of a disease study involving laboratory canines and I’m being sued. One dog took a dislike to a lab tech and nipped her several times. The last time it happened, the animal was so aggressive the tech required stitches. She contends that I was aware of the situation and should have made arrangements to excuse her from having any contact with this dog. Do I have any recourse? What can I do to prevent this in the future?
Expert comments: This incident wasn’t inevitable, but it was potentially foreseeable. Before the most serious bite, it should have been fairly obvious that the dog was uncomfortable with that particular tech and that the problem could escalate.
You would be in a stronger position if it were a freak accident without warning. But, in this case, the dog gave you warning. In a sense it was telling you that it was going to bite her, but you evidently didn’t see it.
You will need to follow your lawyer’s advice as to the legal consequences, but there are steps you can take to prevent this type of incident in the future:
- Change the environment or training of the animal so it can feel more secure. If you’re going to handle the animal in a way it’s not used to, like turning it upside down or giving it an injection, you have to be mindful of its reaction. If a procedure might cause slight pain or fear, the animal might react with the natural “flight- or-fight” response and tend to bite.
To adjust for this, have someone give it special attention at other times, perhaps stroke it gently or offer it treats so that it accepts that person’s touch. Then have them handle it in the way that’s needed for the procedure until it gradually becomes used to that motion or position before actually doing the procedure.
- Work with your attending vet to see if there’s a medical problem. Perhaps the animal has a painful condition. It might have developed arthritis so that handling is painful. If that’s the case, your techs need to be trained to work with such animals.
- Perhaps it’s an environmental issue. If the dog is at the end of a rack, it can’t see people approaching and might be easily startled. Perhaps move it to where it can see people coming — or condition it by having everyone alert it by voice when they are approaching.
- The issue could be the animal’s training or its temperament. The dog might have come from a line of animals with integration issues and thus not be suit able for research at all.
- You’re attributing the incident to just that person, and that’s possible. But did the person do something? Did the dog “learn” to not trust that person? This tech may not have been trained sufficiently or may be missing some remedial training on safe dog handling. If this was a particularly difficult animal, a higher level of training may have been required. If so, it would have been better to assign another tech.
Keep in mind that the handling of all dogs on the same study must be uniform. There was something affecting that dog, and it could impact the results of your research. Behavior is never absolute. You gambled with getting away with it. Nine times out of 10, it’s just a growling dog but it always has the potential to be a biting dog.
The bottom line is that everyone has the right to a safe workplace — and that you can resolve unruly-animal is- sues only by finding out what’s behind their behavior.
Expert comments by Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD, Animal Welfare Scientist, Animal Welfare Division, American Veterinary Medical Association.