By Christie Long
Several years ago my husband and I went on vacation in the Honduran rain forest. At the end of several days of trekking, we were plucked off a remote runway by a plane and deposited in civilization.
At the end of the runway sat a restaurant owned by an American that promised burgers and the coldest beer around. Naturally, it was our first stop after deplaning.
The owner had a black Labrador retriever that wagged his tail when we arrived and seemed to enjoy the attention we lavished on him. After settling in and ordering, I went back into the room where the dog was to visit with him again. As I reached down to pet him, I realized something in his demeanor had changed. In a split second he curled his lips, growled and sank his teeth deep into my hand.
Luckily, the dog was vaccinated for rabies, and I had an up-to-date tetanus shot. The bite was painful but didn’t require stitches, and I healed normally.
I wasn’t a veterinarian at the time of that bite, but now I deal with the possibility of being bitten by animals nearly every day. The look in that dog’s eyes is etched in my memory, and the lesson I learned that day has saved my hands and face on many occasions.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 4.7 million people bitten by dogs in the United States every year. Most victims are children, and most encounters occur with dogs that are familiar. Since most dogs bite in response to fear, the most important thing that dog owners can do is to socialize dogs as puppies to help them be comfortable in all situations. Training your dog to obey basic commands, such as “sit,” “stay,” “wait,” and “come” teaches dogs their role and helps them to understand expectations. All new puppy owners should enroll in puppy classes that teach basic socialization and commands.
Regular exercise provides an outlet for the considerable energy that puppies and young dogs have, and provides mental stimulation. Avoiding games like tug-of-war and wrestling will keep dogs from becoming over-stimulated, which can lead to biting behavior. Neutering is especially important for reducing aggressive tendencies in male dogs.
Keeping your children and your family protected from dog bites involves maintaining a healthy respect for all dogs, even your own. When I got bit on vacation, I made the mistake of approaching a mostly unfamiliar dog on his own territory. Teach children never to approach an unfamiliar dog, or to put hands through a fence to pet a dog. Children should learn the signals a friendly dog displays, such as a wagging tail, and that they should always ask permission from the owner before approaching a dog. Small children should never be left alone with any dog, especially an unfamiliar one.
If you or a family member is bitten by a dog, obtain the owner’s contact information, and seek medical attention. As soon as possible, contact the veterinarian to ensure that the dog has a current rabies vaccination.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.