By Kim Everson, DVM
If you’ve been on the internet at all this past week you’ve doubtless seen the horrifying video of Denver news anchor Kyle Dyer being bitten in the face by a large dog on air. The footage is raw and, of course, the dramatic incident carries highly charged political connotations. Animal behavior experts areon what went wrong and how the bite could have been avoided.
As a veterinarian, I am at risk of being seriously bitten on a daily basis. Multiple times a day I interact with dogs and cats who are complete strangers to me. I peer into their ears, lift their lips and manipulate their limbs. These animals are often highly aroused — for cats the adrenaline has been pumping since their owners locked them in that dreaded carrier and drove them to the clinic! Most of them associate the veterinary clinic with poking, pinching and prodding, and some are simply not going to take it sitting down. I have learned through formal training, experience and intuition when an animal poses a threat to me. And frankly, when an owner insists their growling pet “never bites” it’s a sure sign I need to grab a muzzle.
Ironically the worst dog bite I’ve ever had was from a skittish English Setter who was waking up from anesthesia. In general, bad things happen when you let your guard down. That’s why I got bit. I was tired from surgery and inattentive to the dog’s signals. I was sitting in her recovery cage as her anesthesia wore off (meaning she was probably not only naturally inclined to bite but also dysphoric from her drugs) and reached over her head to adjust her blankets when she snapped and caught my arm. I did so many things wrong here I can hardly blame the dog: I was in her space while she was not in her right mind and I acted threatening to her. She was not a big dog, but I had to pry her jaws from my forearm. Tylenol, ice packs and time was all I needed. I’m grateful it was just my arm.
The tragic unfolding of events in Denver has affected me like it has many others. I empathize with Ms. Dyer and hope she recovers fully. I worry about what will happen to Max as a result of his highly publicized bite. And I fear the impending backlash against “pit-bull” breeds–already a popular target for breed specific legislation. No one can undo the damage that occurred in an instant on that television set, but we can learn from it.
I want to share a great dog safety resource with parents and educators reading this blog. One of my family’s favorite board games is Doggone Crazy! This educational board game teaches kids and adults alike how to behave safely around dogs, especially strange dogs. If the spinner lands on the picture of the snarling dog all players must stand up and “Be a tree!” to make the dog go away. Being a tree means you 1) stop, 2) fold your branches [arms], and 3) watch your roots grow [count while staring at your feet]. Basically you become as non-threatening as possible.
Doggone Crazy! contains stacks of photographs of real dogs in real life situations, and players earn points by identifying not only if the dog is safe or unsafe to approach, but also why or why not. A few of the pictures are obvious, but many dogs display very subtle signs of stress. And a stressed dog may bite at (what seems like) the least provocation. My children and I have become much more skilled at observing a dog’s body language from playing this fun game. Still, as I said before, inattention is a danger magnet, and my educated kids are as spacey as they come so I don’t trust them unsupervised with any dog (including our own EdGrrr).