The Tragedy of Ever Trusting A Dog
I am a dog lover but also a truth-teller because this is so important
Content advisory warning: refers to injury and death
I am a huge fan of the species known as the dog. I have worked in boarding kennels and I’ve worked as a professional dog walker. In my home life, I’ve lived with more than ten different dogs, most of them rescued. Be in no doubt, I love dogs.
Tragically though, in the United Kingdom where I live, we’ve had a recent spate of dog-related deaths, usually, but not always involving children.
In the last few weeks, reports of dog attacks have been too often in the news. Only today a two-year-old boy from Worcestershire died after an attack earlier this week. Two very young babies have been killed in separate attacks in different parts of the country. In most cases, the attacks took place in the home. But in more than one of the recent cases, the attack has been by a dog in a public place. Despite different breeds of dogs being involved in these attacks, it has been reported that the dogs involved were not on the list of four banned breeds in the UK.
It’s a horrible fact, that all of the dogs were somebody’s pet and some of the dogs were owned by the victim’s relatives, often the parents. And whilst it’s upsetting to dwell on, the truth is, that in very rare cases, owning a dog can be fatal.
The purpose of writing this post is not to shock the reader but to pass on a few reflections on living safely with dogs, particularly around children.
The dog I loved but couldn’t trust
I am going to use a personal example first. I am changing the name of the dog because he went on to live a long and very happy life with a new family. I’ll call him Rex. He was a beautiful collie cross. A gorgeous fun-loving dog. Not large. Friendly to everyone he met. A little bit silly and excitable. A little bit jealous of where my attention went.
At the time I had two dogs, Rex and Caesar. They got on well. Except for a handful of occasions when they would fall out. On these occasions, Rex could have a little bit of a red mist descend and although Caesar was twice the size, he would always come off worst. It was nothing serious though and they were always friends afterwards.
Then I had a baby and I knew I would need to keep an eye on both the dogs. They had never been unfriendly to children in their lives, but they had never lived with a baby so it was all new to them.
I kept their routine the same. I kept a close eye on them around the baby. They were never left unsupervised with her. All was fine.
Then I had a second baby. The oldest was a toddler by then. Again the same rules applied. Keep the dogs’ routine the same. Keep an eye out. Give everyone their own space. It’s very important that every pet dog has its own space to go to and lie down quietly if it wants to.
I did nothing different than the first time, but two children are twice as much work as one. Rex liked a lot of attention and he was getting a little less than before. If I was feeding the baby, I sat in an armchair, no dogs were allowed on there with me.
Knowing a dog
My eldest daughter was now toddling around, taking an interest in the dogs. We taught her to be gentle and kind, but you could just tell in Rex’s eyes, he didn’t want attention from my eldest daughter. He just looked like he was tolerating her.
Then one day, he jumped at and snapped. No harm was done but I had seen it happen. He was giving her a warning. He could have just walked off. His exit wasn’t blocked, he just felt for whatever reason he needed to communicate this to her.
The problem was he could have bitten her face as they were now a similar height. I had also seen the look in his eyes when he was around her. I was heartbroken but I did not want to hope for the best and run the risk of her being bitten with everything that might mean for my beloved Rex.
To cut a long story short, I found a loving home for Rex with a childless couple. He lived very happily with them and I saw him still from time to time. I wish I could have kept him, but it was a risk for everyone, including him. Once a dog has bitten someone, let alone a child, it makes their future very uncertain.
Training a dog
Of course, making sure your dog is well-trained is important. However, if there is an overnight change in the family, you can’t train a dog to acclimatise in advance. One thing that has often struck me about some of the tragic cases mentioned is that the dog involved had experienced some sort of change leading up to the event.
Whether it’s a new baby in the home, or the dog is new in the home the dog’s reaction needs monitoring and assessing and supplementary training provided if needed.
When I think about the situation I described, I am not sure what training I could have put in place because it was a one-off event. If I’d been prepared to take the risk of keeping Rex, and I did think about this hard, he would have had to have been muzzled around my daughter, or kept separate. As we lived in a small flat, the last option would have been impractical and muzzling a dog for much of the day would have been unfair.
Safety around dogs
I am pretty risk-averse, so I will always err on the side of caution.
At the end of the day, a dog has teeth and claws. If a dog is strong and powerful enough it can kill you.
Last year there was a horrible case where a man in Scotland who worked with rescue dogs was killed by one of the very dogs he had taken in as a rescue. There is no merit to repeating the details here, but this man, Adam Watts, knew as much about dogs as anyone reasonably could and probably more.
I don’t assume that just because a dog I have in my home has always been friendly before, I can take that for granted always. If we have visitors, I have always either shut the dog out of the room or kept a very close eye.
The rescue dog I have now is not especially friendly to people she perceives as strangers in the house, so my caution in her case is well-founded. The dog I had before was very friendly, but as a rescue dog also had quirks and in his case you really did had to let sleeping dogs lie. If he was disturbed he could be quite unpredictable.
I don’t have grandchildren yet. If I did I would never leave the dog near the children unsupervised. Stair gates can be very handy. If your dog is crate trained that’s also a useful retreat for a dog. Mine isn’t because of her trauma history, so she would have to be managed with great care. If needs be, total separation from visitors.
This article is not written to scare people. As I said, I love dogs and the vast majority live very peaceably with their humans at all times. I do just want to make the point that it’s so important to manage the interaction between any dog and an unfamiliar person, particularly a child, with great care and vigilance.