Who is responsible when a dog bites a child?
When I was about 9 years old, my 10-year-old big brother and I were standing outside a grocery store in Fort Collins, Colorado when we spotted something little boys often feel compelled to investigate.
Chained to a bicycle rack near the front door was a beautiful tail-wagging German Shepherd that looked very much like a dog we owned. My brother and I approached the dog, which appeared friendly, and began to pet it. At first the dog seemed comfortable and even excited with our attention, but then suddenly it lunged at my brother with a ferocious growl, biting him deep in the face. He was badly injured, punctured in several places near his eyes and cheeks and bleeding.
We were both very frightened as people ran to help. The dog owner came out of the store, unchained the dog and left. We never saw or heard from him. Since there was no information to confirm whether the dog had been vaccinated for rabies, my brother had to undergo a series of painful rabies shots, which at that time (if my memory is correct) were administered through his stomach.
Of the 4.7 million Americans bitten by dogs annually, more than half are children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. Postal Service, the medical community, veterinarians and the insurance industry are working together to educate the public that dog bites are avoidable.
Now that I am older, I realize that my brother and I made several mistakes out of ignorance. We should not have approached a strange dog, especially one that was tethered. Asking the owner for permission first would also have been a good idea, but even this is not a solid fail-safe.
"Don't worry, my dog won't bite," is often heard by letter carriers before they're attacked, according to Mark Anderson, postmaster of Los Angeles, where 83 of nearly 5,600 postal employees nationwide were attacked by dogs last year.
"Given the right circumstances, any dog can attack," said Anderson in a recent press release from the U.S. Postal Service. "Dog attacks are a nationwide issue and not just a postal problem. Working with animal behavior experts, we've developed tips to avoid dog attacks, and for dog owners, tips for practicing responsible pet ownership."
The Postal Service released its ranking of the top 25 cities for dog attacks on letter carriers to kick off National Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 19-25. The annual event provides dog-bite prevention tips, information on responsible pet ownership and advice about medical treatment if attacked.
Here is the U.S. Postal Service 2011 list of dog attack rankings:
1 Los Angeles, CA, 83
2 San Diego, CA, 68
3 Houston, TX, 47
4 Cleveland, OH, 44
5 Dallas, TX, 41
6 San Antonio, TX, 39
7 Phoenix, AZ, 36
8 Denver, CO, and Sacramento, CA, 35 each
9 Minneapolis, MN, and St. Louis, MO, 32 each
10, Louisville, KY, 31
11 Chicago, IL, and Philadelphia, PA, 30 each
12 Seattle, WA, 28
13 Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR, 27 each
14 Baltimore, MD, and San Francisco, CA, 26 each
15 Dayton, OH, and Detroit, MI, 25 each
16 Cincinnati, OH; Oakland and San Jose, CA, 24 each
17 Ft. Worth, TX, 23
18 Buffalo, NY and Miami, FL, 22
19 Indianapolis, IN, 21
20 El Paso, TX and Memphis, TN, 20 each
21 Oklahoma City, OK, 19
22 Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Long Beach, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Richmond, VA; and Tacoma, WA, 18 each
23 Jamaica, NY; Milwaukee, WI, and Washington, DC, 17 each
24 Charlotte, NC, and Orlando, FL, 16 each
25 Baton Rouge, LA, and Rochester, NY, 15 each
I fully admit that my brother and I made a foolish mistake approaching that dog so many years ago. We learned a painful lesson that day (albeit more painful for my brother than for me.) Fortunately, the only remnants of that mistake are faded scars on my brother's face. It could have been much worse, and for many children dog attacks leave much deeper physical and emotional scars, and sometimes turn fatal. Between 12 and 20 people die from dog attacks annually, according to the CDC. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2011 alone more than 29,000 reconstructive procedures were performed as a result of injuries caused by dog bites.
I never made that mistake again. But the other party in this story made what I consider the initial mistake and should bear responsibility -- the dog owner.
I do not believe a dog owner should ever leave their animal tethered and unattended outside of a business, especially next to the door of a grocery store where small children will surely walk by. I also believe dog owners should take some immediate responsibility if their animal bites someone -- provoked or unprovoked. The owner of the dog that bit my brother saw people rushing to help us. He appeared to deliberately walk away. Had he stayed he could have at least verified whether his dog had been vaccinated for rabies. This action could have eliminated an extra unnecessary chapter of an already terrifying story for a child.
But it is not always a stranger's dog that goes on the attack. Just last month a Nevada toddler was mauled to death by his family pet on his first birthday.
"Children are three times more likely than adults to be bitten by a dog," said Kathy Voigt, whose daughter Kelly, was mauled by a neighborhood dog. "Education is essential to keeping children safe from dog bites." The attack prompted their creation of Prevent The Bite, a non-profit organization that promotes dog bite prevention to young children. See www.PreventTheBite.org.
There is one more part of my story that I should address. Where was my single-parent mother when two of her young sons were approaching a large, unattended German Shepherd?
I do not know where she was. She may have been inside the store, or my brother and I may have wandered away. But children do that. And yes, parents should watch their children, and should do their best to teach them to stay away from strange dogs, but I would place the lion's share of responsibility on dog owners.
Tips to Avoid Attacks
· Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
· Don't run past a dog. The dog's natural instinct is to chase and catch you.
· If a dog threatens you, don't scream. Avoid eye contact. Try to remain motionless until the dog leaves, then back away slowly until the dog is out of sight.
· Never approach a strange dog, especially one that's tethered or confined.
· Don't disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
· Anyone wanting to pet a dog should first obtain permission from the owner.
· Always let a dog see and sniff you before petting the animal.
· If you believe a dog is about to attack you, try to place something between yourself and the dog, such as a backpack or a bicycle.
· If you are knocked down by a dog, curl into a ball and protect your face with your hands.