A few weeks ago, I was at an international meeting where I (among other things) presented some learning points from recent work that we have done with regard to the use of a particular breed of dogs in the police force. This was one of the most fascinating projects I have ever worked on, and one that I am rather proud of, because we managed to turn the initial reaction in the line of “remove the bad apple” to a more system and context oriented approach.

After the meeting, a colleague approached me. He told me another dog story that contains some good learning points as well. This true story (somewhat altered below to make it more anonymous) also illustrates perfectly our initial desire for justice or retribution versus a more systemic view that makes one wonder if the concept of cause and effect applies here.

The Story

This colleague, and his family, had visited a cousin. This cousin and her husband love animals, and they had taken in a former stray-dog from a dog asylum. While this dog had seen a lot of neglect and abuse earlier in its life, it had become rather well adjusted to family life and being around people. It had not caused any real problems so far. Still, because of its experiences, the dog would feel threatened and react accordingly when it was surprised, especially when approached from behind.

Therefore, the hosts told their visitors to be careful around Max, the dog. It was fine to pet him and play with him, but they were not to frighten or scare Max. They were told to always approach the dog from the front, as much as possible, to avoid surprises.

Everything went fine. The family had a good time together and the colleague’s kid, aged 5, played a lot with the dog. The kid and the dog went very well together and seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

The next day something terrible happened. The kid went to play with the dog again. Since they had played all day before and she and Max had become best friends, she dropped all caution. And so it happened that the child approached the dog from behind. The dog was startled, reacted instinctively and bit the child in its face. The kid was seriously injured and had to be brought to the hospital a.s.a.p. for stitches and treatment. Luckily, the damage there was no permanent. The result could have been fatal, however. Had the dog bitten about 10 centimetres lower, he would have injured the main arteries or other vital parts.

We MUST have accountability!

So, what was the cause for this unquestionably unwanted event?

  • The dog, for biting the child, injuring it badly and potentially killing her, had it bitten 10 centimetres lower?
  • The child, approaching the dog from behind, even though she had been told not to do this?
  • The hosts, for allowing the dog (who was a known potential problem after all) inside the house with guests and children present? Or for taking in an unstable pet in the first place?
  • The parents, for not watching out more carefully, and reminding the child to take care?

Whom or what are we going to hold accountable? Whom do we blame? When something terrible happens we must have someone who is held accountable, after all.

Or do we?

None of the choices feels fully right. Just mentioning some factors:

  • Max, the dog, was minding his own business until he was provoked. The dog reacted aggressively, sure, but an instinctive defensive reaction is perfectly normal, given the sudden stimulus and his history.
  • The child acted out of her expected pattern. Even though she had been warned, successful practice had made the warning look overly cautious. She had played with the dog the entire day before and everything was fine. Besides, children are often forgetful when they play.
  • The hosts love animals and they figured they did society and the animal a favour of taking Max in their home, instead of having him killed at the dog asylum. They were used having the dog inside the house and they had never before experienced trouble when they had visitors.
  • The parents had warned the child, seen that everything worked fine the day before, and besides, they cannot go after a child all day long.

It is hard to argue that we have an incident caused by broken parts or bad apples. The various parts functioned fine in isolation and had functioned fine together the day before. Was this then a case of normal people (and animals) doing normal things? I would say it definitely was. This is a case where an unlucky combination of several rather normal factors led to a serious outcome. Surely, it could have been worse, which is very easy to imagine seeing the injuries in the child’s face. But, the outcome could of course also have been better had the dog missed the child, or only snapped a warning. In that case, I would probably be sitting here and writing another story. The kid would have been frightened for a moment, calmed the dog and most likely have carried on playing. At worst, it would have run to its parents and probably ignored the dog for the remainder of their stay.

No action was taken in this case and while the colleague in question said that this was rationally the correct decision, he felt só unsatisfied. His child was hurt and could have been disfigured for life or even dead, so someone must be accountable. He would not have lost any sleep over putting Max to death for reacting the way he did. After all, it is only a dog. I think many of us can sympathize with that view, emotionally. Reason and emotion are two different things and they are not always in tact.

Know any Maxes near you?

We see often that the easiest way to deal with problems is to pick on Max (the weakest party). It is also a rather satisfactory solution (to a certain degree) for many, because the party who did the harm receives punishment (satisfying our “eye for an eye” desire) and there is some quick and decisive action. But would it be fair? Or logical? And would it really solve the problem?

Now translate this story to a workplace accident near you and reflect.

(And do read Ron Gannt's fine article on where failure comes from)


Also published on Linkedin.