In recent weeks several children have been brutally attacked by dogs in Edmonton. The most recent is a toddler who was initially expected not to survive – but after a week in a coma, has opened his eyes. He has some 600 stitches criss-crossing his tiny head and face, a horrific testimony to what this little boy endured during the attack.
The first incident occurred a little more than a week previous to this, involving an Akita, who attacked a young boy while he was playing with other youngsters on the neighbour’s backyard trampoline. Although the boy was traumatized, his injuries were relatively minor and only resulted in a brief hospitalization. This dog had attacked children several times before, but each time was returned to the owners after animal control investigated. After this final attack, publicity and subsequent public outcry led to the owners agreeing to have the dog put down.
The second incident occurred when a young girl going door to door selling chocolates attempted to pet a cuddly-looking Akita and was bitten. Shortly after this attack was reported, the third incident came to light – that of the toddler. This little boy was at a relative’s home, playing with their dog, again an Akita. Things appeared fine until the boy attempted to offer the dog some water, at which point the dog suddenly attacked the child, biting through his jaw, tearing into his skull. His terrified older sister observed the attack and managed to call 911. Even though the attack lasted only seconds, the damage was extensive, and the child faces many years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery – in addition to coping with the emotional trauma.
But the physical scars often heal long before the emotional ones. Reading about these attacks brought back a vivid childhood memory. When I was about four or five years old, I lived in a relatively new development on the east side of the city, an area that had previously been my grandparents’ farmland. We did not have many neighbours, since most of the area was still vacant lots, and no one had any fences. One neighbour across the street, a few doors down, had a dog. A black, very large, very scary, dog. The first time I encountered this beast, I had ventured outside to play on my front lawn. Suddenly out of nowhere this giant came bounding down the street towards me. I was very small and he was very large and very fast. He flew across the sidewalk, his long legs eating up the distance, barking and leaping, as he aimed directly for me. I ran terrified and screaming towards the security of my house, my heart racing, as I barely made it to safety behind the screen door.
This scene was repeated almost every day that summer. It would be a lovely sunny day, and I would open the door, peering around the corner to see if it was safe to step outside. Sometimes it was. Most of the time it was not. On occasion it would seem safe, and I would get brave enough to make it as far as the sidewalk, maybe start riding my bike, only to suddenly have the dog appear around the corner of his house. It finally got to the point where I was too terrified to even go outside anymore, and I began to spend most of my time playing alone in my room. I had no way of knowing when that dog might be running loose, and I could not take the risk of going outside.
To this day I don’t know if the dog was vicious, or if it was just playful. I only knew that the dog was twice my size and I was afraid.
The dog was gone by the following summer, but the trauma never left me. To this day I can see myself running from that animal, and I can remember the terror I felt. I clearly remember wanting to go outside to play, but letting the possibility of the dog’s presence prevent me from doing so. I was an excessively shy and quiet child, and I often wonder how much this was exacerbated by the dog encounters.
As I grew older, I never managed to develop any affinity for dogs. I never again had occasion to feel the same terror I had felt as a child, but all the same I had no interest in making friends with a dog either. For a while my brother-in-law raised and bred dogs, and although his dogs were beautiful, well-behaved animals, I was never really comfortable when the dogs were around. One of my daughters demonstrated the same hesitation, leading my brother-in-law to accuse me of passing my “fear of dogs” on to my child. This accusation was proven false when his second son became a toddler and began to exhibit an even greater excessive fear of the dogs – a behaviour certainly not modeled by his father!
Reading about these dog attacks, I cannot help but wonder if maintaining a healthy fear around dogs is perhaps a good thing. I’ve often read (and seen) about children who are quick to attempt to pet a dog, any dog, making the assumption that they are “pets,” all cute and cuddly and friendly. All too often, the dog has responded negatively – not necessarily with a vicious attack, but with snarls, nips and bites. Expert dog breeders warn that children and dogs don’t mix, noting that children move differently, and these movements, combined with their small size, can lead dogs to consider them “prey.”
Why the apparent increase in number and viciousness of dog attacks? Some believe that dogs are being bred to be more aggressive, to meet the security needs of an ever more fearful populace. Others suggest that too many dog owners are simply careless and lax in training, eager to own a particular breed but not willing to familiarize themselves with the breed’s traits. In the above three incidents, Akitas were involved, a breed originally raised as aggressive hunting dogs, but generally considered good, loyal family pets, according to their breeders. Akita owners in Edmonton were quick to defend the breed after the attacks, noting (quite correctly) that although certain breeds of dog are known to be prone to aggressiveness, any dog regardless of breed can become vicious given the right circumstance. Many pet owners are simply too busy to properly care for their dogs, leaving animals tied up to fend for themselves for long periods of time, leading to irritability and unpredictable behaviour.
Of course accidents can still happen. The toddler who was attacked had been playing all afternoon with the dog, and the incident occurred in a familiar environment in the home of relatives. There are, however, ways to minimize these occurrences. A lot of it comes down to responsibility versus irresponsibility. Irresponsible pet owners are those who have a dog that is already known to be capable of vicious attacks, and still allow it uncontrolled around others, as was the case in the first attack. The same is true of careless dog owners who allow their animal to run free around the neighbourhood, as with the dog that terrorized me as a child. Responsible pet owners raise their animals properly and keep them appropriately restrained if they are bred to be vicious guard dogs. People who adopt pets from animal shelters need to also exercise caution, since these animals come from an unknown background and environment, and could be potentially vicious in the right circumstance. Responsible parents teach their children to be cautious around dogs, particularly around unknown animals, and they make sure they supervise small children playing with dogs at all times. Common sense dictates that dogs, no matter how well trained or family-friendly they may be – are still animals. As such, they can be unpredictable. Common sense also dictates that a small child and a large dog should never be left unsupervised together – even a friendly dog with benign intent can cause serious damage to a small child.
The toddler’s parents went public with what had happened in the hopes that their story would serve as a warning for others to exercise caution when children are around dogs. Hopefully the responsible reporting of such events will have the desired result – not to sensationalize dog attacks or demonize a particular breed of dog – but to raise public awareness of the need to be responsible dog owners and responsible parents.