When Dogs Bite, Who is to Blame?
So yesterday I spoke the words every parent fears: my son got bitten by a dog.
It happened while he was out in the neighborhood riding his scooter, so I didn’t see it actually happen. All I know is that he came running through the front door with tears streaming down his face before showing me the very scary looking mark right where his leg meets his abdomen.
My first reaction was shock. How could this happen? I have trained my kids since they were tiny toddlers on dog safety. My second reaction was to ask him what he did. He explained that he approached a person with two dogs on a leash and asked if he could pet their dogs. She said yes, he reported, and then the dog started acting crazy so he froze, and then the dog lunged and bit him.
The owner was nowhere to be found, so I ran out the front door to try and track her down. I found her, walking a very agitated and massive giant schnauzer on a prong collar. She seemed shocked when I told her what had happened. “I thought he was just sniffing your son,” she said. “Was he bleeding?”
“Yes,” I said.
First she blamed a neighbor’s Viszla for getting her dog worked up. Then she blamed a passing truck. Then she blamed my son for being on a scooter. Finally she admitted she just didn’t have control over her dog.
“I’m just trying to understand what happened so it doesn’t happen again,” I said. “Did my son ask permission to approach your dog? Did he stop when you said to hold on?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I just think it was the perfect storm of bad circumstances.” My son was in the process of backing up when the dog went up to him and bit him. There was really nothing more for me to say.
I have tried my entire life to teach my kids about safe dog interactions, including when to refrain from approaching dogs. As far as I can tell, my son did everything right in terms of waiting for permission to approach and stopping when he sensed the dog was agitated. I really wanted to be able to pinpoint something he could have done to avoid that precarious bite, but aside from just avoiding the owner in the first place, he did all he could.
I checked my son out very carefully, and we were very fortunate that the bite was very minor. We were very lucky. He is a big 10 year old kid and the dog bit him just a few inches to the side of something he really didn’t want to get chomped. Had he been a younger child, or shorter, or a little less able to follow directions, the results could have been much worse.
I see this sort of thing all the time in the clinic, an owner who has poor control over his or her dog, who laughs when the dog’s response to being scared is to try and bite me and they encourage it. Sometimes they get mad when I tell them they need to get more training, and tell me it’s my job to be able to manage scared dogs. My response to them is always the same: it’s not me I’m worried about.
I tell families all the time that dog safety training goes both ways: for dog owners and for people in the community who may interact with dogs. I’m really glad my son’s training kicked in enough for him to avoid more serious injury. I hope this is a major wake up call to this owner as well. Owning a dog, any dog, is a serious responsibility. Now that she knows her dog is capable of this it is incumbent upon her to 1. Get better control over her dog, and 2. Warn passersby not to approach him.
It could have been so much worse. I am so glad it wasn’t.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang