Last fall I wrote an article for the StarNews about what to do if charged by an aggressive dog. I had been confronted by a snarling canine during a neighborhood jog and wanted to find out the proper response. After interviewing an expert and arming myself with arcane information, statistics, and regional trends about dog bites, I felt prepared in case the scary dog ever approached me again.
Well, a few months later the same dog charged me. This time I was ready and this time I was bitten.
When I came around the bend of our residential circle, I was listening to a comedy podcast on my mp3 player, simply lost in a scene and giggling to myself. Then the atmosphere shifted. I saw the big black dog bolting from his yard. I had several seconds to retrieve the information from its mental folder–the one labeled What the Dog Expert Said–and immediately stopped running, averted eye contact, put my arms down by my sides, and tried to emit a non-threatening vibe, like I was supposed to do.
The dog ran right up to me and chomped onto my upper left thigh, leaving a deep puncture wound. The plan switched from “I Come in Peace” to “Get This Beast Away From Me.” As he leaped and snarled and made repeated lunges towards me, I swatted at his muzzle and did all I could to keep his mouth away from my body. It was like slap boxing for my life.
At some point in the melee, the dog scratched my back and triceps and I fell backwards into the grass by the road. (Reminder: this happened on my residential circle–maybe 100 yards from where my serene family was having breakfast and had no idea Daddy was in a dogfight.) When I landed on my back, I knew I was in trouble and my priority then was to keep the dog from my face and neck.
Luckily, a kid that lived in the house had heard the menacing barks and human curses and came to my rescue. He called the dog off and I clambered back to my feet. I was relieved to find all of my fingers and no serious damage besides the tooth hole in my thigh and the raking scratch across the back of my arm.
In defense of the expert I had interviewed previously, she did note that there is no 100 percent guaranteed effective response. Even if you stop running, show submission, or quickly grill the dog a bratwurst, it may bite you anyways. When that happens, your main goal is to mitigate the damage.
What surprised me the most during my encounter was my complete lack of what some call “the killer instinct.” I could have assumed dominance and punted the dog in the face or ribs, anything. Yet even as it growled and jumped, I knew I didn’t want to hurt it. More than anything, I wasn’t sure what to do. All I could do was stay on the defensive and see what would happen next. Fight or flight. According to adage, those are the two options. I think we should add flounder to the drop-down list.
As it turns out, I flounder in tense moments when unexpected danger comes into play. The dog attack brought back a shameful memory.
My brother and I were latchkey kids in the early 80s. At the time, our mom was a probation officer and she had a few wackos assigned to her. Beyond the fact that there was some partially-justified paranoia about convicts coming to our house to dismember us, we were also devotees of classic horror movies from that era so any isolated moment had the potential to end in a bloody death at the hands of a masked lunatic. I thought about that all the time and the Iron Maiden posters on my bedroom wall provided little comfort.
One day I came home from school by myself. I was maybe in the 5th grade. My brother had some sort of an appointment so I was on my own to open the back door, come inside, veg, and snack. Of course, I had the long walk down my street to get good and scared. When the bus dropped me off, I scanned the woods for movement. I watched for old suspicious cars to slowly turn down our street. I felt murderous eyes upon me with every step and I wanted to sprint the last 50 yards to our house.
I let myself into the back door that opened to our laundry room, and shut it behind me. I had made it! Moments later I heard thundering footsteps coming down the stairs. Someone was inside the supposedly empty house and tearing down the stairs like he was in a race. I had a few precious seconds to get a weapon or run from the house–instead I slid down the wall, sobbing, and with pitiful resignation awaited my executioner.
My brother opened the door to the laundry room and gaped at me heaped in the corner, eyes closed, heaving melodramatically. He was back from his appointment early. He may’ve said, “What’s the matter?” And I may’ve answered, “I thought you were someone else.” That’s the best my memory can produce as far as a transcript. But it did become an immediate joke, one that has endured for over thirty years. It was also an early look inside to see what I’m made of, and it turns out that I’m a cream-filled donut.
The encounter with the dog brought all that back. Even though the incidents are separated by decades, this floundering in the face of peril is part of a larger pattern. No matter the preparation and in spite of close-at-hand rationality, you never know how you will react in those situations.
Be prepared but realize that the tables can turn in an instant and you may be forced to think defensively. In fact, if your luck is anything like mine the pain and injustice may continue long after the bite. The defensive stance may need to be held for weeks after the incident as you square off with the owners of the dog that bit you. You may still need to brace for questionable enforcement of county laws and watch how protocol gets trumped by local political connections. You may still need to hobble into the clinic to get treatment for your infected thigh hole. And when it’s all over, you may still need to jog by that same house–still unfenced with the same biting dog somewhere inside–armed with mace like a debutante at her first frat party.
All bets are off. Be ready to react whether you’re facing hostility, ineptitude, local corruption, or your own inner wuss. It will only help your stamina.