This week, we heard yet another story about a “vicious attack” in which a dog mauled a 5-year-old child. Yes, this is a horrible tragedy. What’s always eeriest about the media coverage of these stories is the lack of details. No, I’m not a voyeur hoping to slake my internal bloodlust, and I don’t particularly want to look at photos of the injuries. I do wonder why we received no information on what happened to the dog, and what preceded the attack.
In these cases, the animal is always blamed. There is rarely any detail as to where the child was, or what may have caused the attack. With all due respect to, and compassion for, James Nevils and his grieving family, there are questions to be asked and answered if we are ever to prevent future dog attacks, and also the tragic killing of animals who may be defending themselves, their families, or have other reasons for their behaviors.
What we heard on the news was a series of provocative and strident statements. The child was visiting a house in his neighborhood with his mother and sister. The dog’s family had recently moved to the block. The dog was supposed to be locked up. The dog “viciously” attacked the child. Specifically, the dog bit the child in the throat, and would not let go, until someone killed the dog with a brick. Two citations were issued to the dog’s “owner” – one for not licensing his dog, and the other for not vaccinating the dog against rabies. No criminal charges have yet been filed. The dog was “large and muscular” but no breed information has been confirmed.
Before we judge the dog to be vicious, here is what we should know:
- What happened when the visitors entered the home? Was the dog introduced to them by its “owner”, leashed or running free?
- Why wasn’t the dog in a different room from the children? Were they alone with the dog, unsupervised?
- Was this dog trained as a watchdog, abused, or used for fighting?
- Was the attack really sudden, or was the dog signaling aggression, stress, or fear?
- How was James behaving just before the dog attacked?
Regardless of stereotypes, there are no breed-specific connections to aggressive or violent behaviors. Animals are individuals, and they carry with them the scars – both physical/visible and emotional/imperceptible – of past treatment. They react to defend themselves, and aggression is often based on fear for their own safety or that of their human families.
What can trigger a dog to behave aggressively? Many things. Attacking the dog physically is the obvious one, but animals can also be provoked by loud voices, chaotic environments, overly enthusiastic grabbing and hugging, and even the speed and direction of an approach.
The story is horrible. A child has died. So has the dog. Is there fault here? The easy thing is to blame the dog, dismissing the animal as vicious. It seems cold and dispassionate to inquire about the behavior of the child, and whether the adults present should have prevented this event.
My work as a communicator has taught me something essential about these kinds of behaviors. They are always caused by something, often unknown, but very real to the animal. So, here’s what everyone who either lives with, or encounters an animal, should know:
- Respect all animals as individuals, and learn how to approach them. Teach your children to do the same.
- Never leave a child unsupervised with an animal, and never encourage or accept behaviors that will cause stress, fear or humiliation for the animal. If you are bragging that your dog is so nice to children that he “lets the kids do anything they want” then you are risking a future incident and being unfair to your dog.
- Be extremely careful about first encounters. Restrain both animal and child until they are clearly comfortable with each other.
- Report all abuse of animals, wherever you see it.
- If you adopt a rescued animal, find out as much as you can about his or her history. Communicators can assist with this process, and then help you and the animal move on. Revisiting instead of releasing past trauma only perpetuates the behaviors that result.
- Keep your expectations realistic and understand your own responsibility for maintaining trust in your relationships with other living creatures.
My heart breaks when I hear these stories. But I can’t help thinking that there are too many of them, and too little effort to do something about them. Let’s work together as a community to make sure that no child suffers this way again, and no animal pays the price for something we don’t understand, and could have prevented. Whose fault is this? We all share the fault, because we haven’t solved the problem.
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Filed under: Dog attack