Thoughts on dog bites and how to recover from them. Part 1
A student writes, “I’ve been doing massages at our local shelter for over a year now . . . NO bites – a few signals that guided me toward not getting a dog out of his kennel, but no major problems.
“However, during the Christmas holiday, I was at my friends’ home, getting ready to leave. I had cuddled Etta, their female pittie, whom I had massaged several months back – and got the beloved pittie kisses – all was well. I was waiting by the back door to leave when the owner let the other 3 pits in. The intense high energy ignited Etta, who, in seconds, attacked and bit me 4 times before the owner could call her off. There was no warning, no chance to react. I treated my wounds and am fine, but I find myself not really fearing dogs, but being much more cautious and tentative when dealing with them.
“It would be helpful if you could suggest some exercises, some positive thoughts, etc. for dealing with a post-attack situation, as we’re all bound to have them at one point or another.”
This was my initial response to her: you learned a powerful and helpful lesson. We are not always the source for the dog’s behavior. Sometimes we are; but not always. Sometimes we are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. You are correct noting that Etta was overcharged by the dynamics of the moment. It was probably not the first time. And, it wasn’t about you or anything you did.
This is an important conversation. Bite injuries are always a possibility for people who massage/assist dogs. The physical injury heals in a week. The emotional trauma of a bite can be devastating. It can last for years or forever.
Anastasia, my life and business partner, has always been a little stiff and hesitant around dogs. She was often intimidated by our first boxer and needed to be schooled in dog handling. It didn’t come naturally or easily to her. She’d been exercising her fear-the-dog muscles for 4 decades. She still backs away when she’s in the same room as a terrier. She gets so agitated when there are several dogs in the classroom that she has to leave, for fear of being caught in the middle of a dog fight. As part of the conversation we had while I was preparing this blog, she spoke for the first time with me about an incident that happened to her when she was 9-10 years old and on the way home from school. She had put her hand out to pet a friend’s dog and caught its teeth in the webbing between her thumb and pointer finger. It was a wound that never really healed. Her hand was fine. Her spirit was mauled. She was being friendly. She was coming from a place of joy and innocence. She did not understand, could not understand how, or why it happened. She was physically and emotionally violated.
I’ve met many adults who are still traumatized from childhood encounters with dogs. As adults they can intellectually understand how their body language and unintended actions were complicit and might have been the reasons for the attack. As adults they can be logical and rational. But when a dog passes by, they don’t respond as an adult; they revert to their emotionally injured child.
The legacy of fear is passed onto their children. Their kids beg them for a dog. They model their fears for their children. There will be no dogs allowed in this house! Hurt people hurt people.
I’ve met dog people, people that interact with lots of dogs, who are apprehensive around certain types of dogs. As part of my research for this paper I interviewed an RVT who works at an emergency animal clinic. Her words were telling. After talking about how everyone gets bitten occasionally and that they’ve learned to have at least two people in the room, and they sometimes use muzzles and e-collars, and that they deal with it and accept it as part of the job, she murmured “but I won’t have anything to do with huskies.”
So, she’d had toxic encounters with huskies. Her spirit carries the scars. The fear she projects is so profound that huskies smell it and act out because of it. I feared Chow Chows for many years because once, while on a walk, one attacked Oskar, my first boxer. For years, every time I saw purple on a tongue my heart would race, my eyes would dilate, and my throat would get tight. These are all signals that dogs recognize in prey.
Several years ago I was on a TV show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, demonstrating canine massage with a beautiful merle Australian Shepherd. Her eyes were intense; they tracked my every move. I was reaching my hand toward her paw when I caught sight of the flash of some very white and sharp teeth, snapping at my wrist. I was momentarily shocked. Nonplussed. And, in the same breath, I realized that her snapping at my hands was instinctive herding behavior, like nipping at sheep’s hocks. She was simply redirecting my movements. It was most effective. I understood. It is still redirecting my thoughts. Experience is a powerful teacher. I am always a little extra careful around herding dogs.
I’ve massage thousands of dogs and I’ve been tagged a few times. Teeth have found my hand, my nose, and my leg. As a loving, understanding dog person, I’ve always claimed responsibility for the event. Oh, I’m sure it was something I did that caused the bite. I leaned over too far. I didn’t give the dog enough space. I didn’t recognize the warning signs. The bite was my fault. My responsibility. My bad. If I’d done everything right it would not -could not- have happened.
As “responsible” dog people we feel we always have to take the ownership of the responsibility. “It’s not the dog,” we chant, “it’s us.” We want to believe that dogs operate in the spirit connected strata of perfect dog consciousness. Anastasia’s Affirmation #211
That’s not always the case. We’re not giving dogs enough credit. That’s us being arrogant and patronizing. We never know what’s going on in their minds. We might be doing something to trip a hardwired switch for a psychotic event. Then again, we can also accept that sometimes dogs lose it, too. Like children that scream, kick, and throw things, dogs don’t always think first. They overreact, get into fights, and occasionally make bad choices.
Dogs are not reactive robots. They are dogs. They think like dogs. It is the combination of thoughts going on in their minds that are the triggers for their attacks. Their own internal wiring gets crossed, sparks, short circuits, and flash-flares. That is what caused the bite. It wasn’t because our shoulders were not turned at the correct angle. It isn’t always because of us and what we are doing. They experience moments of silly, of clumsy, of irrationality, of crazy. They are like us; they do things they later regret.
Bites happen. It’s like lightning. It strikes and it’s not because of anything we did or didn’t do.
I interviewed a couple of dog trainers and dog handler instructors. They talked about the skills to avoid the bite. When pressed about how they process having been bitten, they admitted that it was a situation that they just dealt with and moved on. The most important point, they emphasized, was to not get angry at the dog or blame the dog. You can get angry at the experience. That’s healthy. Anger is an essential element in the stages of grieving and part of recovery of working through PTSD.
Next week: Resolving PTSD from dog bites.
We emphasize safety and personal responsibility in our PetMassage workshops. We offer a home study course that addresses dog handling skills:
https://petmassage.com/store/confident-dog-handling-for-the-canine-massage-practitioner-petmassage-home-study-course/ Or, if you’d just like the video download: https://petmassage.com/store/confident-dog-handling-for-the-canine-massage-practitioner-petmassage-streaming-video-and-download/
Here is the link to “Anastasia’s Affirmation”: Just like me, dogs are working through their issues. I am aware. I am safe.