Who let the dog bite?

June 24, 2014

Summer… that time when people are outside, children racing in and out… the flies come in and the dog gets out. Or, in the alternative, the dog is let out in the morning and allowed to determine its own course until evening. One sure sign of summer is the calls to the courthouse about dog bites.
It has always been – and continues to be – my position that, unless it is actively working in the immediate presence of its owner, no dog should be loose. Most cases of dog bites are avoidable by the animals’ owner. Under certain circumstances, any dog with teeth will bite, and even small ones can inflict serious bodily injury or cause death. An owner who says otherwise is mistaken. Of the twelve people (approximately) who die from dog attacks each year in the United States, most fully believe that the dog in question will not harm them. The trial of the owner of the Presa Canari responsible for the death of Diane Whipple in California is a prime example. In her testimony, the owner expressed continuing disbelief that her dog could do this deed. As the verdict showed, the jury was convinced, not only that the dog could kill, but that the owner was responsible for its actions, even to the point of a murder conviction.
The California trial was one of the first, if not the first, times a person has been convicted of assault or murder as a result of the actions of a dog, especially when the dog did not have a record of having bitten before. It is probably a solid prediction of the direction our laws and communities are heading; ownership of a dog carries responsibility for anything the animal does when outside its home or yard. The facts in that case indicated that the dog was in the common area of an apartment building, and that neither its owner nor property were threatened. The owner of a loose dog, one being walked that is a threat to others (the dog in the criminal case was on leash when the attack occurred) or one that the owner is not strong enough to control needs to be aware that there may be both civil and criminal responsibility as a result of the dogs’ actions.
With that said, there are steps that can help prevent bites; things that children as well as adults need to know.
It is possible to avoid being a dog bite statistic. First, never approach a dog without the approval of the owner. Medications, health problems, the presence of puppies and several other things can alter the temperament of a dog you think you know. Even if you, or your child, has been friendly with the dog in the past, double check with the owner before petting it. There are many medications and health conditions that can turn a normally sociable animal surly.
When approached by a strange dog, be calm. Whether you like dogs or not, whether it seems friendly or not, agitation on your part will increase the likelihood of the dog responding with aggression. Some authorities recommend that children and people afraid of dogs learn to “be a tree”. By standing perfectly still with their arms at their sides, they do not appear to be a threat. By closing their eyes, they are more likely to remain calm, helping to defuse the situation.
Never run from a dog. The laziest lapdog traces its heritage to an animal that caught other animals to satisfy its hunger. Called the “prey drive”, the instinct to chase anything that runs still exists – hence the wonderful chases dogs have with cats! When anything, including a person, runs from a dog, the prey drive kicks in and inhibitions about biting disappear. Rapidly raising your hands from your sides in an effort to fend off the dog has a similar effect. The dog follows your hands, resulting in it jumping up and often knocking the person to the ground. This creates another dangerous situation.
When knocked to the ground by a dog, the smart move is to curl into a ball and be perfectly still. This helps protect the throat and abdomen. By placing the hands over the face and curling inward, this highly vulnerable area is protected. Research has shown that, if the person remains still and quiet, few dogs will continue the attack.
Many otherwise docile dogs are unintentionally encouraged to attack by an unwitting person looking into their eyes in an attempt to “stare them down”. This is a challenge to most breeds, and a dog that does not respect you will accept that challenge. Obviously, disturbing a dog that is eating, drinking, or caring for puppies should not be disturbed.
Any person bitten by a dog needs to contact law enforcement. The owner needs to be contacted to insure that the dog has been properly vaccinated. Tetanus shots may be needed by the victim. In most cases, law enforcement will take the steps allowed by law to prevent this from happening again.
Dog bites are traumatic for both the victim and the owner – and can be fatal to both dog and victim. Following these suggestions (and keeping dogs under control!) can help avert a serious confrontation.

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwaterreporter.com.

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