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Two minor punctures were just visible above the old man’s ankle. He held his slacks up from his skinny leg as he told me how the dog had rushed off its property and bitten him as he walked by. As I took the report he told me about many other dog bites he had received.
The man was a quiet, soft-spoken widower who spent every morning walking around his suburban neighborhood. He lived in a nice area without a lot of loose dogs and I was puzzled at how he had been bitten so often. As an animal control officer, I handle aggressive dogs daily and am rarely bitten.
What was about him or his demeanor that incited normally docile canines to aggression? It’s not like the old guy wrapped his legs in bacon before he set out each morning. I questioned him about each bite and he told me that when he saw a dog he would yell in an attempt to frighten it away. As the dog approached he would flail around, kicking, swinging his arms and screaming. Wow…. that’s probably more effective than bacon. Jump around like a wounded antelope and hope the predator doesn’t eat you. No one deserves to be bitten while minding his own business but I could see how the man’s response could be a contributing factor.
In observance of the recent Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 20-26, I offer a view of dog bites from that of someone who has investigated literally thousands of them. In most cases the dogs were family pets that are normally friendly. A few were dogs with a history of aggression that was permitted or excused by the owner.
More than 4 million people a year are bitten by dogs and children are the most common victims. In almost every case, the bite could have been avoided with some effort on the part of the dog owner as well as from the victim (or their parent). In one case I investigated, a toddler was bitten by a relative’s elderly arthritic dog. The child’s father was furious, demanding that the dog be euthanized immediately. The family was visiting the wife’s sister and the child wandered into the other room where the dog was lying on his bed, chewing a bone. The child climbed on the dogs back and sustained a minor puncture to the hand. The parents were extremely negligent for letting their baby roam around someone else’s home unattended. Of course the dog’s owner should have been alert as well. It was deemed a provoked bite and the dog was spared, but sadly many dogs are euthanized for minor, easily preventable bites.
The importance of socialization, training, not allowing dogs to roam and not leaving dogs unsupervised with children is critical. Many people are also in denial about what their dog might do. I can’t tell you how many times a person has told me “Oh he would never bite”. Often when I’m looking at a dog whose body language screams “I would bite in a hot second!” Dogs are limited in how they can say “you’re scaring me” or simply “leave me alone”. Biting is a way that dogs communicate. Most dogs won’t (and shouldn’t) challenge their owners, but a child or visitor may not be so lucky. I’m also amazed by how many people allow their kids to abuse their dogs. “They can do anything to him.” They tell me proudly. Sadly, the long-suffering dog may eventually tire of the torment and suffer the ultimate consequence for his predictable response.
Dogs should be off limits to kids when eating, sleeping, chewing a bone etc. It’s critical that children are taught to respect a dog’s space, food and other potential triggers. Dogs who are sick, scared, injured or have pups are also at higher risk for biting.
Equally important is that people stay still when approached by a potentially aggressive dog. Even an aggressively charging dog on its own property will rarely bite a perfectly still person. I can vouch for this, having been charged many times by dogs that have previously bitten. When they don’t get a response from me, they stop and lose interest.
I was impressed with a boy who approached a house while selling candy bars. Inside, a highly aggressive dog that had bitten several previous visitors saw the child. She crashed right through the front window in a shower of glass. The terrified boy screamed bloody murder but didn’t move a muscle. The dog snarled and circled him repeatedly but didn’t bite.
Please remember that even the nicest dog can bite and even the nicest child can irritate them. Dogs deserve our respect and protection, as do our children and visitors to our homes.