When I was a little girl I got bit on the face by our family dog. I was 6 years old.
Max the cocker spaniel was never very fond of me, but he was accepting of my teenage sibling. He’d even stand with his paws on her shoulders for pictures. My parents thought it was the cutest thing. The cooing over how adorable they looked was a reminder that I wasn’t very lovable. I was told that was why Max didn’t like me. Six-year old me wanted desperately to be loved… and hugged by our family dog.
Max came from a rotten past. My parents got him from a neighbor who had posted ads about a dog for sale. I remember visiting him at their house. The little girl was my age and scary. She showed me how she would yank Max’s ears and make him scream. Meanwhile, her parents showed my parents the broom they kept on the back of the front door. That family frequently disciplined Max with it.
My mom said that after meeting them, she no longer wanted to bring this dog home. She actually refused to purchase Max. But the family then offered to give him away for free. Mom tells me she couldn’t say no. She was afraid of what his life would be if she left him behind. And so, in 1991 we got our first family dog.
We have lots of happy photos with Max, but the photos fail to tell the whole story. Max used to attack the vacuum like a beast, but run from the broom like he was about to die. He frequently scratched up any visitor to the house. Most notably, he fiercely guarded his sleeping space and my mom. I’m honestly not sure how my family managed to have only one bite incident in the months Max was with us.
The day I got bit was like many other days. My parents left me unsupervised with Max. I don’t know why I became so determined to get a hug from Max in that particular moment, but I did. He was going to hug me. He was going to love me. This would prove to everyone that I was lovable.
I remember scooting up to Max and grabbing one of his paws to place on my shoulder. Before I realized it, his muzzle gave me one snap across the face. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I probably screamed and cried. The bite left me with small, but visible punctures.
I can still remember my overwhelming embarrassment and fear. But in that moment, I wasn’t afraid of Max. Growing up in a physically violent home, I was deathly afraid of getting in trouble. So, when my parents asked me what I did, my first instinct was to lie. I told my parents that Max attacked me out of nowhere. It wasn’t until later that I told the truth. But it didn’t matter. My parents had had enough. Max was going to the pound.
Later in life, my dad told me about his experience dropping off Max at the local shelter. He told them about the bite. No doubt he called it an attack. As he handed Max’s leash off to the staff, Max started to growl. The shelter worker shook his head and told my Dad, “You’d better get out of here.” I know Max was killed that day. And I have always felt it was my fault.
Though I frequently reference that bite, I rarely speak about Max. For as long as I can remember, I felt responsible for his death. I now know that it was my parents’ responsibility to manage safe interactions, but my feelings of guilt will always be there. Poor Max. He didn’t ask to be tossed from one dysfunctional family to another. But he was. And it ultimately cost him his life.
So why share this sad story? Because what happened to me and Max is a very common occurrence.
It is estimated that 50% of children will sustain a dog bite by the age of 12 (Stilwell 2013). Bites to children are usually corrective in nature, meaning a quick snap to the face. These types of bites are, among other things, a request that you back off. Under normal circumstances most dogs won’t escalate to the point of a bite. When they do, it is only after their previous attempts to communicate have been ignored.
Despite what we like to think, humans are not born with a natural ability to speak dog. In fact, we anthropomorphize our dogs to their detriment. Dogs coexist with us so well because they have become experts at reading us, not necessarily the other way around. Despite their keen human-deciphering skills, dogs remain a completely different species that speak a completely foreign language. And when pressured to their breaking point, even the best dogs can bite.
That is why it is so important to proactively teach dogs and children how to coexist peacefully. It’s not enough to throw them together and hope for the best. Nobody wants to be in the position my parents found themselves in. Trying to figure out what to do with a dog that bit your child is no easy task. Even for the most seasoned shelters/rescues, placing a dog with a bite history remains a very controversial practice.
As a dog trainer, I can tell you that I would much rather prevent a bite than deal with the consequences. Although a bite – provoked or not – may not always mean a death sentence, it sure does change life as we know it for that dog. And his/her family! I’m also certain that a bite has a lasting effect on the victim. It may instill fear, bias or shame. Either way, I’d much rather contribute to a world with fewer dog bites. Wouldn’t we all love to get along better?
As a dog mom, the power of prevention is in my hands. I don’t have any kids yet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help teach the ones I know to be safe and appropriate around dogs. Children aren’t play toys and neither are our dogs. Both flourish when given choice, just like both deteriorate when stripped of their right to consent. That is not say that kids and dogs can’t have fun together. We just need to show them how to have fun and stay safe.
Headlines like the one I chose for this post often blame the dog. Continuing to blame the dogs isn’t going to get us anywhere. Responsible multi-species parenting will. For this reason, I’m sharing some of my favorite resources for child-dog safety. Bonus, they come with a few good chuckles! Check out the links below and share them with other pawrents. Then, stay tuned for our next post on positive, proactive parenting tips.