Rex counsels on dog bites

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dear Rex,

My son was bit in the face by a dog when he was 3 years old. He is 8 now and is still petrified of dogs. This has affected our whole family. A few weeks ago we were out cross-country skiing and a dog came running up and jumped on him. Our son freaked out and started screaming and crying. When the owner showed up, my husband was trying to take control of the dog, and I was trying to comfort our son. Our other kids were yelling at the dog, and the dog owner was yelling at us for yelling at her dog. It was a nightmare.

Needless to say, we all had to go home. Our son's fears now control our ability to get outdoors and enjoy Juneau and they even effect who can come over. Our other children very much want to add a dog to our family. Should we just get a dog (maybe a small dog would be OK) and hope our son will get over his fears? What advice can you give us?

Worried Mom

Dear Mom,

Dog bites are scary. I know, I have had a few in my day. Your letter brings up several points and I would like to address them separately.

The first is your son's fear of dogs. You say he was bit in the face when he was 3. Many bites to children happen because the child puts their face in the dogs face and does something that startles the dog. My dog friends may be perfectly harmless (and disease-free), but when someone puts their face in our face, biting could be the reaction.

So as a warning and lesson to all parents, you need to teach your children (or find someone to teach them) how to be safe around dogs. That includes never - every - letting a dog (especially a strange dog) put its face close to your child's face.

Most dog bites are a consequence of cause and effect. In other words, the dog bites because it is injured, startled, protecting its food or its young. And then there are dog bites sustained when a person tries to break up a fight or a mating session between dogs by putting their hand between the fighting or mating dogs. That is called the "what were you thinking?" bite.

And finally, there is the dog that bites people and is not provoked by some external circumstance.

Your son's recent reaction to a strange dog running up and jumping on him is understandable. The bad behavior of the dog is the result of the owner's inability to take responsibility for training. And the response of the owner is all too common and is really not defensible.

As for the idea of getting a small dog instead of a big dog because they might not be as scary to your son, it's not a good idea. Small dogs bite too. The bite may be smaller, but it can be just as damaging and just as scary.

So here is my advice. First, it is important to learn how to be safe around dogs and other domestic animals. The Gastineau Humane Society has staff that can work with you and your child to help alleviate fears towards dogs. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Humane Association have quite a bit of good information about being safe around animals and are easily found on the Internet. Local groups such as Canines Unlimited and Grateful Dogs are made up of individuals who want to help dog owners and dogs. I would also suggest you talk to your pediatrician about your son's problems.

Finally I would strongly urge you not to add a dog to your family until your son has resolved his fears. Getting a dog and hoping it will help is not fair to either your son or the dog.

Helping your son will take time. But take it from me - pet dog extraordinaire - when you have reached that point, it will be worth it.


• Ask Rex is a column coordinated by the Gastineau Humane Society. Send dog-related questions to "Ask Rex," Gastineau Humane Society, 7705 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK 99801, or call 789-0260.

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