School is out, and the sun is shining. Summer has started, and people are flocking to the outdoors. In the evening, it is not uncommon to see people jogging, walking with friends, biking, or just walking to visit with neighbors. Unfortunately, many of these pursuits are made traumatic by the dog, freed from confinement for whatever reason that chooses to chase. Despite what the owner may believe, dogs are predatory animals who consider things which move away from them as prey. I do not care to recount the number of times biking to work that Bob and I have had to take action against a loose animal!
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. Each year, more jury trials are held holding owners responsible for the injuries inflicted by their pets. Many of these are criminal, and some owners have been convicted of murder for allowing their dog to take a human life.
A trial in California a few years ago marked one of 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 was 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.Whether the dog is loose or being walked on a leash, civil and criminal responsibility can attach for damages done by the animal. People are often surprised that the presence of a leash does not absolve the owner of responsibility. Strong dogs have been known to pull the leash out of the hands of even adults, or to pull children down, in an attempt to get into trouble.
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 also 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 attempted.
Any person bitten by a dog needs to contact law enforcement. There is still a rabies quarantine in effect in Texas, making it important to insure that the dog has been properly vaccinated. Tetanus shots may also be needed. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org