When your dog bites

00:33, Jul 29 2010

A few minutes ago, my dog bit someone. A tiny bite, but it feels awful to be the owner in that situation. That it happened was fully my responsibility. Sometimes (not this time), a dog bite is caused by the victim. But so often, the focus of blame goes on the dog, when it shouldn't.

Working at my desk at home, I heard Phoebe start barking. A man had come on to our fenced deck, seen the sign that has a dog picture on it and that asks people to close the gate, and closed it.

Phoebe has never bitten anything that wasn't in a food bowl but she's a dog, and if someone comes to the door, she barks.

The noise roused Connor from his sleep and he started yipping too. Both dogs were in the hall, barking at the front door pane, through which I could see a man in courier driver's colours.

"Won't be a moment," I called as I tried to shepherd the dogs behind a baby gate, as is my habit when someone firsts comes to the door. "It's okay, I've shut the gate," the man called back.

And, with the dogs still free, I opened the door. Mistake.

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The dogs ran out to see him. Connor, jumpy with excitement, went behind and nipped the man through his long pants, on the back of his ankle. "Hey, I'm being bitten!" he said. The man wasn't happy but he did laugh as if to tell me it wasn't a big deal.

Well, it's not that big a deal because Connor is the size of a small cat and though his nip seems to be aimed generally at clothing, it does sometimes go through and you certainly feel it. It would probably make a child cry, though Connor has never acted like that with a youngster. The only recipients of his nips, so far, have been me and my partner. And now this morning's courier man.

The man stepped back from the dogs. I picked Connor up and signed for the courier pack, and the drama was over.

But it's a worry. And just to avoid a slew of comments giving me training advice, be assured we know what we have to do with Connor, and to protect people from his nip. We just haven't done it well enough yet, or successfully enough. Just a couple of sessions of having someone knocking at the door while the dogs are controlled from inside would probably make a big difference. We just keep putting off those sessions.

My point is that it wasn't Connor's fault. He's a breed with a watchdog instinct. He's more than averagely aggressive with other dogs, but generally fine with people.

Which is the kind of comment you see on news stories, after a dog has just bitten someone badly.

If Connor had been a big, powerful, scary dog, then the courier man probably wouldn't have laughed. (Mind you, I probably wouldn't have been so lax with the dogs.)

Today, I could start to imagine the guilty and shocked feelings I'd have if a dog of mine bit someone and really hurt them. Fellow dog owners, have you had the same fears? Or been through the experience of having your dog hurt someone?

Sometimes when we're walking the dogs and a child approaches to pet them, I hold my breath. Often, kids haven't been told to ask permission first, to approach carefully, to not offer an open hand or touch a dog behind its head, or to make no sudden lunges. My dogs are easygoing in those situations, but like many dogs they're capable of being spooked, and that could lead to a growl, a bite, a crying child, an accusatory parent, officialdom, fines... It all plays out quickly and scarily in my imagination.

Then I read the other day of that poor petshop worker attacked by a Rottweiler. The woman got too close in the wrong way, and despite her pain and injury she took responsibility for what happened.

That was a rare event. I wonder how many of us would question our own conduct if it had helped lead to a dog attack against us?

But also, how many of us dog owners would shoulder responsibility if our dog had bitten someone who hadn't contributed at all to the attack? I believe we should do so.

So this weekend, in our house, Connor will start getting the front-door visitor training he needs. We'll look at other methods too. And me, I'm relearning not to let the dogs run free around a visitor until they're settled.

My dog bit, but it was my fault.

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