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Whose Fault Is It When A Dog Bites?

I’d been fielding a lot of phone calls from people eager to adopt a dog. When my phone rang for what seemed like the 50th time in less than two hours, I almost let the answering machine kick in. But, that would only have postponed the call. Picking up the receiver, I announced that the caller had reached the Greystone residence and waited.

“Is this the number where I can find out how to adopt a dog?” asked a tentative female voice. Plopping myself down on the nearest chair, I replied that it was and asked how she’d heard about the program.

“We were at the all breed adoption event last weekend and we fell in love with the dogs. I picked up an application but wanted to talk with someone before I sent it in,” she explained in a more confident tone of voice.

“Okay, “ I said. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and I’ll fill you in on how the adoption process works. Can I ask if your yard is fenced?” She was quiet for a moment and then asked me why I needed to know that.

“Having your yard fenced makes your life a lot easier when it comes to taking the dog outside to pee and run around in a safe area,” I explained. “Especially if you have kids. Do you have kids?”

“My daughter just turned three and my son is six months old. I’ve never had a dog before but I’m home during the day and the dogs were just so cute and well-behaved when I saw them that I knew I wanted one. We live in a neighborhood with lots of other families just starting out and we’re not fenced. My husband doesn’t think that fencing for a dog is necessary. He never had a fence for his dogs when he was growing up.”

As I listened to this woman happily share her story with me, my heart sank. All the red flags for a dog bite were waving in my face with each new piece of information she revealed. How was I going to explain to her that bringing a dog into her home, now, would set into motion a series of seemingly unrelated elements that would result in one or both of her kids getting bit … and, that the bite would not be the dog’s fault. It would be hers.

Families with very young children – toddlers and babies – are at high risk for dog bites, especially if one of the parents has no dog experience whatsoever. And so, for this woman, the breed of dog her family adopts isn’t important. Any dog will bite, given the right mix of factors. It’s kind of like the perfect storm scenario in which there are some things you can control and some things that you don’t control because you can’t.

Imagine this innocent scenario: it’s a quiet night after dinner with mom, the kids and the dog all hanging out in the family room. Mom’s holding the baby and the half asleep toddler is tucked up against the back of the couch. The dog lays sleeping on the floor, stretched out alongside the couch directly below where the toddler’s napping.

Suddenly the phone rings and several things happen almost instantaneously. Mom with baby in her arms walks quickly across the room to grab the phone before its persistent ringing wakes the baby. The toddler yawns, slides into a prone position and slowly rolls to the edge of the couch. And falls off, landing directly onto the back of the sleeping dog. The dog startles, instinctively whipping its head around to protect its rear and bites the toddler’s face.

Here’s the sad reality: the scene I’ve just described is a true story with just a few changes. There was no baby. I made that part up. The mom wasn’t home when the bite happened. She and her husband had dinner reservations. They’d hired a reliable 14 year old girl to babysit their three year old daughter.

The dog was an ex-racing greyhound that this family was fostering.

When the parents left the house that night, the dog was asleep in front of the couch. Hours later, after their daughter had been bit in the face and taken to the emergency room by ambulance, and the dog had been safely removed from the house by one of the adoption program’s volunteers, and the mom and I were talking on the phone, I had one very important question.

“Why,” I asked , “wasn’t that dog crated before you left the house tonight?” After a long, painful silence, she told me.

“I didn’t want to disturb the dog; I thought he would be fine sleeping on the floor.” We both knew that this was a dog bite that should never have happened. Knowing that didn’t help. It was a nightmare, especially for that very young child. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to tell that mom that the dog bite was her fault; that by not thinking carefully about the best practices for protecting her daughter and the dog, she’d created a perfect storm.

But, she didn’t create that perfect storm by herself. I had a hand in it too because the decision to place that foster dog in her home was mine. As I drifted back to the present moment, I found myself searching for a way to bring the mom I was speaking with now to come to a more sobering point of view.

What I had to find out was if she was willing to assume the responsibility of putting her two children at risk for a dog bite because of her lack of knowledge and understanding of dog behavior.

Taking a deep breath, I asked her the one question that I hoped would slow down her enthusiasm for wanting to adopt a dog today and make her think. “Let me ask you this,” I said carefully, “Are you willing to take responsibility for one or both of your children getting bit … because you need to know that it’s only a matter of time before that happens. And that bite will be your fault. Not the dog’s.”

There was silence on her end. I waited, letting it work for me. Finally, when I’d almost decided to speak up, she gave me her answer.

“No,” she said firmly. “I’m not.”

I got lucky today. Lucky because I’d been able to guide this conversation to a place where this mom would choose to postpone getting a dog until her kids were older. If she had decided that she wanted a dog, I would have suggested she look someplace other than my adoption organization.

What I didn’t have time to teach her is that dogs signal their intentions with their bodies. When you know how to read their bodies, you get pretty good at figuring out what dogs are telling you.

Their behavior is their voice.

Dogs that end up in animal shelters and adoption organizations rely on their human caretakers to be their voices. If we ignore that – if we disregard what we know to be true – we fail them. And, we open the door to a world of hurt.

Sometimes, we can turn that hurt into teachable moments. Like the conversation that I had with this young mom. In the end, what I did was to give her one idea to think about. My simplified message to her was that what she herself didn’t know about dog behavior had the dangerous potential to hurt her children. And, could she live with that?

In the end, it’s not the dogs that are dangerous. What’s dangerous has always come from the human side.

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