"Hey, buddy," I said to my son one night at bedtime, "How'd you get those little red marks on your nose?" Based on the distinct half-moon pattern of the barely visible faint, red marks on his nose, I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
His gaze dropped to his feet, and he shifted his weight a few times, carefully composing his answer. "Walter bit me - for NO REASON!"
Now, here's the problem I have with my son's story: Walter's really short. He stands, at his tallest, about 10 inches off the floor. Knowing both Walter and my son, I was able to surmise that it was unlikely Walter leapt up three feet into the air to bite my son on the nose.
Therefore, my first question on my fact-gathering mission was, "What was your nose doing so close to Walter's teeth?"
"I was saying hello to Miriam," my son went on to dig himself in deeper -er - explain further, "And Walter just bit me - for NO REASON. I didn't do anything!" Uh huh. My son, at the time, was 6 years old. I have heard variations on "Not my fault!" for as long as he could string three words together. Further, I know that my son's idea of "just saying hello" to the dogs often involves some unorthodox wrestling moves and using them as a pillow for his head. Suffice it to say that they don't like this.
Our dogs are dachshunds, and enjoy sleeping on stacks of pillows and blankets on the couch or bed, during which time they do not seek out attention.
In fact, they often burrow deep underneath the blankets, making it difficult to locate them, much less become injured by them. They will growl if someone sits very near them while they are so buried, but I see this as a survival instinct - they have some experience with being nearly sat upon and being flung unceremoniously out of the blankets in the past. I can only imagine how grumpy I'd be after waking in midair just before I hit the floor.
So, here's how I figure this nose-biting incident went down: Walter and Miriam were cuddled into the blankets and pillows on the couch. My son, unable to resist disturbing them, moved in to tease (aka, to "say hello" to) Miriam, probably for the third time inside of 30 seconds, and Walter, unable to take it any longer, let him have it.
My son was quick to add the " for NO REASON" part of his statement because he thought that by saying this, he would avoid the lecture. Unfortunately for him, his assertion that Walter's attack was unprovoked was his very undoing - his story didn't jibe with what I know about both parties involved. Also, I come from a long line of parental orators, and this was a prime example of an occasion that clearly required a stern lecture.
Walter has 42 very sharp teeth, and he, like most dogs, has the potential to do some serious damage using his mouth, should he so choose. He could have disfigured my son's nose permanently. He could have bitten my son's nose off. Fortunately Walter has a pretty long fuse - he will not bite unless provoked, and on the rare occasions that he has bitten, he has not done any serious damage.
Unfortunately, my children are constantly lighting Walter's fuse and although he is accustomed to their noisy, rowdy behavior, he can only take so much of being poked with a magic wand and having whistles blown directly in his face. It's enough to make the most level-headed of us come unhinged.
Probably the most common question I received while working with strange and interesting creatures at Clyde Peeling's Reptiland years ago was, "Does it bite?" My standard answer was, "Yes." Anything with a mouth can bite. Whether it will choose to bite is another matter, and can be very individual, even with certain animals within a species. This is as true for lizards and snakes as it is for dogs and cats.
Bites from any animal can be serious. Take alligators, for example. Or pit vipers.
Generally speaking, these animals bite when attacking and eating prey or when being provoked.
Most people - most people who have any sense - do not go around provoking alligators and rattlesnakes. Most people with any sense would not poke an alligator with a magic wand or blow into its face or use it for a pillow.
A word about children: when it comes to animals, many children don't have any sense at all.
Learning how to treat animals gently and with respect is an ongoing learning process.
My children are not monsters - they are inquisitive and energetic and noisy. This is normal. My children are quick to learn in most instances. But, for some reason, they push the limits of patience with our pets.
We are fortunate to have two uncharacteristically easygoing cats that have never (to my knowledge) bitten the children, despite being the frequent recipients of "squeezy" hugs.
However, the dogs receive the majority of the teasing, and I suspect it is because they offer the best reactions - it's no fun to tease somebody who likes it. By definition, it's no longer teasing.
Apropos of my recent mortifying experience with my son and Walter, are the following statistics: Dog bites worldwide have reached epidemic proportions, and roughly half of the nearly 800,000 dog bite injuries reported each year involve children and about 75 percent of those were injured on the face or neck.
Children aged 5 to 9 are the most frequently injured and were most often boys. And, most of these dog bites occurred within the homes of family or friends - the dogs were known to the children.
It might be interesting for some folks to learn that there is no one dangerous dog breed.
Outrage at reports of pit bulls and Rottweilers maiming or even killing people tends to skew the reality that nobody wants to hear - any dog, no matter which breed, no matter how large or small, can be dangerous and no owner is immune - embarrassingly, not even veterinarians.
As the actual number of dog bites to people is estimated to be somewhere around 4.7 million a year, it is difficult to imagine the numbers of all animal bites to people. With such staggering statistics, how do we, as responsible parents and pet owners, attempt to prevent serious damage to our children from bites? Common sense: if you have a particularly dominant, fearful, painful or aggressive animal, keep it away from children -period. Vigilance: as nothing substitutes for adult supervision, and many serious incidents can be avoided if bad behavior can be interrupted. Education: as children and pets need to be taught boundaries for their behaviors. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Don't go it alone: ask for professional help if you feel the problem is serious.
Bites generally happen when an animal perceives a threat. "Perceives" is the operative term; sometimes people and animals don't agree on what might be a threat. I have compiled a list of several rules I have given to my children repeatedly over the past few years, which other parents may find useful:
1. Don't tease, pinch, poke, throw stuff at, cover up or sit upon the pets. I know they're soft, but the cats are not pillows. Leave them alone when they're sleeping.
2. Don't touch the dogs or cats while they are eating, chewing a toy or are guarding something - even if it's your sock or Barbie.
3. When Walter is growling, hiding or showing his teeth - HANDS OFF! Duh! How many times do I need to say it?
4. Don't shoot Nerf darts at animals. Don't shoot Mommy, either. In fact, Nerf darts are for outside. OK, gimme it. Stop crying and go do something else.
5. Running away from the dogs causes them to chase you. While this is fun, they are much faster than you, and when they catch you, they will bite and try to trip you. Remember that this hurts and makes you cry? Remember how they tore your best jammies last time? Well, I do care.
6. Don't stick tape on the cat. No, not stickers, either. I mean it.
While this list is by no means comprehensive, I hope it serves one important function - to help pet owners realize that avoiding animal bites is always a work in progress, and it is as much about training animals as it is training people.
I am finding the people are harder to train - at least the dogs don't require lengthy explanations of the rules.