Visiting the Grahams was always exciting although, in retrospect, it was usually pretty ordinary. Kenny Graham was a very funny kid, about the same age as my big sister Martha and I were. His family had a dog, a black and white Boston terrier named Buster. I loved that dog and I was sure that he loved me back. Our family didn’t have a dog. I wished we had one – just like Buster.
Our visits to Kenny’s family were always on Sunday afternoons. His parents were like June and Ward Cleaver; Kenny was like Beaver. Life was pretty simple. I was 4 years old at the time; my sister Martha was 6. It was average baby boomer ‘50s stuff.
One day I remember the grown-ups sitting at the dining table playing cards and drinking iced tea. I was on the floor, being a goofy 4 year old when I spied Buster camped out under the table. He sure was cute sitting there. I could tell right away that he was inviting me to creep up to him for a bit of snuggling. I happily accepted. Rushing in on all 4s and reaching to hug the object of my affection I was startled by a quick snarl and was then summarily bitten on the face.
That dog was lightning fast. Surprise could hardly describe my emotions. Despite my overwhelming sense of betrayal there was actually nothing unusual about what happened. Rude awakenings to the realities of canine behavior occur somewhere every day. I understand these things now because I am residency trained in the diagnosis and treatment of behavior disorders of animals. I practice the specialty of veterinary behavior medicine.
Looking back at that pivotal day I realize that I had completely misread the body signals that were veritably emanating from scared Buster, hiding out near his owners’ feet. There was a reason he chose that “secure” den-like spot near his people. I remember his pinned back ears and his straight-on glare as I delightedly advanced on his little haven. In retrospect I recall what was perfectly legitimate canine communication. His loud and clear message: “I am freaked-out. I fear that you are going to hurt me, you homicidal nut job! If you push me I may perceive a threat and panic. I have a mouth full of teeth and I know how to use them!” As I, the child who assumed way too much, closed on Buster he issued his final, this time verbal, warning: “Grrr!!” Translation: “I will defend myself, damn it!” Which is, of course, is exactly what he did.
In her seminal research paper, Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre, Dr. Ilana R Reisner et al, explained that “Children are the most frequent victims of dog bites presenting to hospital emergency departments.” Of the 203 children enrolled in this study, “51% were under age 7 years old and 55% were male. 72% of children knew the biting dog. Most bites to younger children occurred during positive interactions, initiated by the child, with stationary, familiar dogs, indoors.” Well, I could have been part of that group. Clearly, I wasn’t the only goofy kid without a clue.
Immediately following this life-changing trauma the adults leapt out of their chairs as though they’d been shot from canons. Fusillades of reprimands descended upon poor Buster, now cowering and trembling even deeper into his erstwhile hideaway. This problem needed an immediate solution. Vicious dogs could not be allowed to repeat their mistakes. Solutions were bandied about like a ball in a free-for-all tennis match, emotion-driven remedies masquerading as informed logic bouncing off the walls, ceiling, and floor. Give Buster away? Put him away? (Eisenhower era-speak for euthanasia) Hit him with a belt? I was so overwhelmed by the attention being showered on me and the dog that I too was looking under furniture for a place where I could get very small. There were no winners that day, all because of an unsupervised dog and child.
One could very well argue that the injury to my cheek was actually my fault, not Buster’s. Or maybe it should have rested on the shoulders of the adults. Shouldn’t they have known the risk? They thought their dog was trustworthy with kids. We know what happens when we assume.
There wasn’t a lot known about canine behavior in 1954 (or even human behavior, for that matter). Research of this kind didn’t really start to take off until many years later. Still, what does the average dog owner know even today? Well, actually quite a lot, if you consider that most of it takes the form of private logic, the Internet, and TV information from reality TV experts with little or no formal education and even less understanding of the science. If you love dogs, and are open to science, I can help you understand what makes our dogs tick. Maybe we can derail or even prevent a few problems.
So what could I have done differently to bring out the best in Buster’s instead of his worst? Well, gimme a break, would ya? I was only 4 years old. I hadn’t even started kindergarten. But if I knew then what I know now I would have taken a moment to be observant before rushing in. I would have realized that I had choices at the moment but Buster did not. The fact that he had sought safety instead of coming to me for affection would have been a clue that he vanted to be alone-a choice that should have been respected.
If I knew then what I know now I would have looked before I leaped. I would have noticed that this dog had not chosen to interact with me and that he was trying to stay as far away from this unknown wild child as he could. I would not have backed him into a corner, leaving him no choice and thus triggering his panic and its ensuing defensive-aggression. As it turns out, Buster could have inflicted a severe facial injury. I came away with an abrasion, not a penetrating wound. It did bleed, which of course caused great alarm. I could have gotten rabies or tentanus!!! Instead I learned a little respect for a creature who could not speak a human language, a fish out of water who did what came naturally when his limbic system (the fear center in his brain) overwhelmed his ability to make a conscious decision. He could have tried to run past me to escape but panic flooded his prefrontal cortex-the cognitive, decision making part of his brain. The poor guy just freaked-out. It was not his fault.
Do you have a dog like Buster, who loses control of himself or herself when approached by “scary monsters”? Put that nervous Nelly in another room when people, especially children, are visiting. When everybody is seated a curious dog can be led out on-leash. He can approach people when he is comfortable. If a guest, including a 4 year old dog lover, has a treat the dog can be rewarded for mustering the courage to approach the person. But any dog who doesn’t want visitors should have her privacy respected.
I hope you have found this information valuable. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your pet-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.
Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.