I was 8 years old when it happened, playing across the street at my best friend’s house. It was summer, we were bored, and one of us had suggested playing truth or dare. Her first dare to me was to kiss her dog on the lips.
I didn’t think anything of it. I’d known her dog, a chow, since they’d gotten him as a puppy. I’d been around him plenty over the years. He was lazy and mostly calm, and he was lying down just a few feet away from us, eyes open, just watching everything around him.
I crawled beside him on the floor, petted his head, and told him he was a good boy, and then leaned down to plant a kiss on his snout.
He didn’t growl. He didn’t try to get away. He just attacked.
That dog latched onto my face and whipped me around. He had to be kicked off of me by my best friend’s mom, who had come running into the room upon hearing her daughter’s cries. I don’t remember feeling anything at all. I didn’t even think it was that bad, until I put my hand up to my face and saw my fingers covered in blood. But the shock and adrenaline kicked in quickly to act as a natural pain reliever.
I remember my friend’s mom grabbing towels to put on my face as she called my parents and asked them to meet us at the hospital. I remember my dad, a police officer at the time, had to keep leaving the room upon seeing me. The gore of his little girl’s face mauled and bleeding was too much for him to stomach. I remember I didn’t cry until they came at me with shots, eight to be precise, meant to numb the area that, in my mind, was already numb.
We waited in the hospital for hours until a plastic surgeon could arrive. In the end, I needed between 70 and 80 stitches, basically just piecing my lips back to my face. I had horrible scars for years, and then plastic surgery when I was 13 to repair some of the mess. There aren’t a lot of pictures of me from the years in between. I was too ashamed of how I looked, too quick to duck out of the way of cameras whenever they appeared.
For a long time, I was deeply afraid of dogs. The way this one had reacted, without any warning at all, left me convinced that any dog could turn on me at any time. I would panic at the sight of even service dogs, hyperventilating and doing everything in my power to put distance between myself and the animals I now saw as a constant threat.
As an adult, explaining to people that you aren’t a dog person and that you’re actually afraid of them, kind of brands you. I used to avoid talking about it, convinced people would think I was a terrible person for not instantly loving their furry friends.
When I became a mother myself, I worked hard to not pass my fear of dogs onto my little girl. But as she clearly grew into an animal person, I cringed, not ever wanting to risk having a dog of our own.
That all changed when our local animal shelter posted pictures of some puppies in need of homes. Something inside of me shifted. I don’t know why, but I wanted one of those puppies. And a few weeks later, we had one.
Overnight I went from being fearful of dogs to a total dog lover. I took our puppy everywhere. I doted on him. I adored him.
Then we got back the DNA results I’d sent in just for fun, and we found out he was a big mix of “aggressive” breeds.
This sweet, loving, adorable puppy suddenly seemed like a ticking time bomb to me, especially with my 4-year-old around. But then he licked my face with his sweet puppy breath, and I remembered how much I loved him.
I also remembered from my own experience how quickly a dog could turn. And so I committed myself, and him, to an extensive training regimen. I read all the books. I took him to all the classes. I prepared him for as many scenarios as I could, and by a year old, he’d passed his Canine Good Citizen’s test and was well on his way to therapy pup training.
About a month ago, we adopted another puppy from the same shelter, made up of many of the same “aggressive” breeds as our first. And I’ve been embarking on the same training path with her as I did with him.
They’re both incredibly sweet dogs with soft mouths — something you can actually train for — and no signs of aggression. Ever.
But I knew that training had to extend to my daughter as well. After all, she comes to the dog park with us and is around plenty of other animals. So we talk about how you should approach a dog, asking the owner first, and then allowing the pup to sniff your hand.
We discuss getting out of the way when dogs are fighting, even if they’re just playing, and never putting your face right in a dog’s face. I’m also quick to point out whenever our dogs are showing any signs of agitation at all — lip licking, hair standing up, pacing back and forth. I want her to recognize when a dog may not be their best selves, and to know when it’s best to maintain distance.
Maybe one of the most important things I’ve done, however, is allow my dogs to growl. A lot of people try to train the growl out of their pups, but doing so is a huge mistake. Dogs growl as a warning. It’s what they do when they don’t want to react more harshly. And when we punish them for that, when we try to prevent them from ever using their growl, we inhibit their ability to communicate with us when they’re stressed.
And that is a recipe for disaster.
This week, April 7th to the 13th, is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. As a childhood dog bite victim, I’ve grown to love the dogs I spend my time with. But I know they’re still animals, and that their behavior may sometimes be unpredictable. Which is why it’s on us to teach our pets what’s expected of them, and to teach our kids how to behave around those pets.
So that everyone involved can remain as safe as possible.
Leah Campbell is a writer and editor living in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s a single mother by choice after a serendipitous series of events led to the adoption of her daughter. Leah is also the author of the book “Single Infertile Female” and has written extensively on the topics of infertility, adoption, and parenting. You can connect with Leah via Facebook, her website, and Twitter.