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When Ben Davidson was in the second grade he was attacked by a dog and suffered many injuries. Years after the incident, he found that little information was available to children and families about how to prevent and handle an attack and its aftermath. So, he wrote this article.
Ben is an 18-year-old senior at Fox Chapel (Pa.) Area High School where he is an honors student and golfer. He intends to go to college and major in biology. He hopes to attend medical school.
It was a clear day in 1993, when I was invited as a wide-eyed eight-year-old to play street hockey with the older guys in the neighborhood. Fourth and fifth graders normally don’t ask a second-grader to join them. This day they were a man short and they knew I could skate. As I went into the cul-de-sac around the corner of my house, it was like entering the Super Bowl. The older kids welcomed me, and the game began.
Ten minutes into the game, a young girl appeared from the house in which a new family had recently moved. She ordered us to leave, because this was her street. Street hockey had been played here for as long as I could remember, and how could this new girl possibly think that this was her street? But being the youngest and smallest boy, I let the fifth graders call out to her with names and swear words that I knew were wrong, but seemed funny at the time. While the older boys were distracted, I saw my chance to get the puck, twirling it on the edge of my stick as though I were Mario Lemieux. I never saw the girl go back to the house, open the door and say the word, “Attack.”
Hunting animals are interesting creatures. They instinctively will choose the smallest and weakest prey. When the 70 pound creature flattened me from behind, I remember the sound of my face scraping against the cement. “Who could be doing this to me?” I thought, while oblivious to the pain. Why would one of the guys check me from behind and beat me so heavily? Then I felt the blood gushing down the side of my face and neck and heard the growl. Instinctively I knew my life was in danger and covered my face, tucking my chin into my chest. Clenching my head in its jaws, the dog violently twisted as it tried to get to my throat. For two minutes, the older boys stood frozen in terror save one who had the presence of mind to run to a neighbor’s house and scream for help. Someone kept creaming “Oh my God” over and over. The growing pool of blood was warm, and suddenly I felt an odd weakness and heaviness.
I had suffered over forty puncture wounds to my skull, my right ear was torn in half and detached, and there were gaping holes in my neck and shoulder. The ambulance arrived in less than five minutes. Bypassing the closest hospital, I was taken to Children’s Hospital, where a team of pediatric surgeons were waiting. My father arrived, and with tears in his eyes said that everything would be fine. My last memory was of a woman questioning whether the dog was being quarantined.
Incredible surgery by a talented team of physicians reconstructed my torn flesh and may have saved my life. The ambulance driver even had the presence of mind to retrieve portions of my shredded ear from the pavement and it was reattached, with barely a noticeable scar. During my recovery in the weeks and months that followed, I became mesmerized by the physicians who had performed their magic, as well as the psychologists who helped me deal with the aftermath. While I still suffer many scars from that difficult day, I also carry an unbridled goal to one day be able to serve others the way that they served me. While in the long term this will mean medical school and specialized training, this article is a first step in that direction.
After the attack, my parents searched for resources to help me cope with the psychological scars, which today I know are a form of post traumatic stress syndrome. Unfortunately, despite the seemingly hundreds of books and pamphlets on preventing dog attacks, there are virtually no publications for children to learn how to recognize and cope with aftermath of a dog attack. Recognizing that there is a genuine need for such a resource, this article is designed as a tool for child victims of dog attacks and their parents, written through the eyes of a high school senior who can look back as a child and now understand the cause and effect of the dog attack on my own psychological development. Through sharing my trials and tribulations, hopefully other children can find easier paths to cope with the pain of a dog attack that extends far beyond the physical injuries.
Special thanks in writing this work to my family, who helped me through my most difficult time in the recovery, my teachers who gave me guidance and my dogs Maui and Lida, who showed me that dogs can still be man’s best friend. A special thank-you to Dr. Kay Jennings of the University of Pittsburgh who graciously volunteered her time and effort to assist me by supervising this project and reviewing my work.
When a person is attacked by a dog, one of the first questions that can go through your mind is “Why me?” Part of this thought process is that the attack was a unique, single event and not an every day occurrence. Unfortunately, dog attacks are very common and happen every day.
There are more than 52,000,000 dogs in the United States alone. Approximately one-third of all homes have a dog as a pet. Based on how many dogs share our lives and our living space, it should not be surprising that there are so many dog attacks each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., there are approximately 800,000 dog bites each year that require medical attention. Even more amazing is the fact that 334,000 are severe enough to warrant treatment in a hospital.
Breaking these numbers into smaller increments allows one to really appreciate their magnitude. There are 2,400 dog attacks every day, 100 each hour or one every 36 seconds. While these facts do not diminish any one person’s injuries, it does make the victim realize that the experience is not isolated, and certainly not unique.
More than 50 percent of all dog bite victims are children. While only 12 percent of adults require medical treatment, 26 percent of all children need to go to the emergency room or see a doctor. The most likely place for the attack to occur is in the home of the victim. The second most likely place is at the home of a friend of the victim. Seventy-seven percent of biting dogs are owned by the victim’s family, a relative or a friend of the family.
According to the CDC, dog bites are a greater health problem for children than measles, mumps and whooping cough combined. They are more common than injuries from bike accidents, playground injuries, mopeds, skateboards or ATVs. Dog bite treatments cost more than a billion dollars each year. The most common victims are boys ages 5 to 9, and children in general are most frequently bit in the face, neck and head.
So what does all of this information tell us? It means that there is no reason to think that a dog attack is a unique, crazy act of fate or any kind of a punishment. Dog bites are not unusual and can happen to anyone. And they do happen each and every day!
When a dog bites or attacks you, there is an immediate reaction of surprise and shock. Depending upon the nature of the attack, the physical wounds may overshadow any other reaction as you cope with the trauma and your body heals from the bites and scratches. For more seriously injured victims, repeated surgery may be needed to repair damaged parts of the body. Unfortunately, in many instances this is only the beginning of the healing process. The attack can create an entire set of injuries that are not so easily seen, especially in the immediate aftermath. These injuries are psychological and can be found in the way that you think, feel and deal with other people, and the way they deal with you.
Following the dog attack there are a whole set of reactions that can suddenly seem to be at the center of your life, including:
After the attack, friends and family will want to show their compassion. While you are recovering from the injuries, this will be not only comforting, but also necessary. People will treat you as special, and you should take the generosity as an aide to help you through the recovery period.
As time goes by, if there are physical scars or you have trouble controlling your feelings, there may be some people who stare at you or even make fun of you. People who do not know you may make judgments about your appearance or behavior, not knowing the reasons or the events of the dog attack.
The changes that you experience may happen right away, or it may be days, weeks, months or even years before they appear. If and when they do occur, there is nothing more important than for you to realize that there is a reason for them and that you can change how you feel.
Okay, so you have been bitten by a dog, and even worse, you are suffering from some of the side effects described in the last chapter. The first thing that anyone in this situation has to do is to recognize that there is a problem, and then seek a solution. This is sometimes harder than it might seem to someone that has never experienced this kind of issue. Many victims are afraid to admit to themselves that they have a problem, or are embarrassed because they think other people will look down on them. Other people are afraid that there will be a stigma attached to them if they are seen as having a mental problem. Sometimes people, especially children, simply do not see themselves clearly enough to recognize they have a problem that needs help.
Once the victim recognizes there is a problem, then the question becomes how to fix it? There are many different ways to deal with the effects of a dog attack. While there is no one method guaranteed to address these issues, there are certain steps that almost always help the victim start down the path to recovery. The first step is simply the recognition that there is a problem. This realization and facing the truth can greatly reduce the fear created by the attack. For example, the paranoia about dogs cannot begin to go away until the victim faces the cause of the fear.
Many of the fears, feelings and side affects of a dog attack can be overwhelming and just too much to handle by yourself. In this situation, talking through your problems with a family member or friend can be helpful. By talking about these feelings and fears, you can begin to see that the world before and after the attack is still the same, and the changes are inside your mind. This can be a step toward getting your life back to normal.
Unfortunately, in some cases this is not enough to fix the problem. This is especially true if the attack is severe or life-threatening. In these instances, it is so common for there to be bad side effects that there is a medical term used by doctors and mental health to describe the condition. It is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can happen to adults or children after a bad accident, seeing a terrible event and in many other stressful situations.
If you are someone who has PTSD, it is likely that you need the help of someone whose job is to help people with these problems. There are people, both doctors and psychologists, who can help you find out not only the reasons behind your problems, but also the best ways to cope with your feelings. These professionals are trained to help people who feel that their emotions and feelings are out of control. No one can predict when PTSD will occur, although some doctors believe it is more common in children than adults after a traumatic event.
In trying to understand why a dog bite occurred, some children try to make sense of the situation by thinking that the attack must have been punishment, and therefore the child either did something bad or must be a bad person. This kind of thought process leads to more bad feelings and can cause changes in the way the child behaves. These situations clearly require professional help.
The symptoms of PTSD may show up immediately after a dog attack or not until days, weeks or even months later. All people with PTSD are treated with a variety of tools by the doctor or psychologist that are designed to help the victim not only cope with the feelings and fear, but also realize it is not normal and it is not some kind of punishment. If a child suffers symptoms of PTSD after a dog attack, it is important to learn how to control and avoid the problems it causes in your life, and this is best accomplished by learning how your mind reacted to the attack and how it created these other issues and feelings.
Treatment of PTSD may be as short as a few weeks or as long as many years. Because all of us are different, each case is unique and will have its own time needed for success. Much of the treatment will consist of just talking to the doctor about what happened and how you feel about it. It can also involve playing games, doing artwork or other types of play. While all of this may seem like a strange form of medicine, it is all part of a highly developed science known as psychotherapy. It will help you learn to help yourself and get better.
Everyone has fears at some point in life. It is important to remember that fears and changes in behavior are a normal part of our growing up and are not always a bad thing. It is when these fears or changes begin to affect your life for the worse or prevent you from doing everyday activities that you need to be concerned and seek the help that you need.
When someone close to you is the victim of a dog attack, it is easy to react to the physical injuries. Appropriate attention, love and understanding are a necessary prescription that will work with medical treatment to help in the recovery from the physical wounds. Unfortunately, recognizing and identifying the mental and emotional scars is often a much more difficult task and this makes the healing process far more complex.
As a child begins to face the significance of the experience of a dog attack, those who are close to the victim need to remain alert to clues that there may be a problem coping with the event. These clues may be obvious or very subtle. Notice any changes in behavior, speech, play patterns, sleep habits or any unusual developments. Are there any new and heightened fears in the child, and do they repeat themselves in any kind of pattern? It may be helpful to keep a diary to record your observations.
Although changes in behavior may resolve themselves and go away without any outside help, often times this is not the case. Sometimes the fears and changes created by the dog attack can create entirely new manifestations, with new fears and phobias coming from the mere existence of the first ones. The changes create new anxieties, and the issues for the child begin to mount, which may create an entirely new set of problems. Parents and friends need to carefully distinguish between normal changes in behavior and those changes that are outside of or interfere with normal development.
The changes created in a child’s mind after a dog attack can really stray from the kinds of rational and logical anxieties that you may think would come from the attack. For example, it seems perfectly logical to understand if the child is now terrified of dogs, but more difficult to understand why the child suddenly begins to suck a thumb or stutter. What is important is that those who are close to the child need to remember that the changes and fears, while seemingly out of place or imaginary to everyone else, are very real to the child. Expect the unexpected when it comes to behavior changes, and realize those changes may not happen right away.
If the fears are real to the child, fear and anxiety can feed on itself and the child can develop a “fear of the feelings of fear” that can be overwhelming. By helping the child realize the fears are a product of the attack, you can help the child begin to learn how to deal with the fear of being afraid, and all of the ramifications that come from it. This may help the child feel more secure and in control, even if it does not change the behavior immediately.
Never make fun of, criticize or ignore a child for the fears or behavior changes after a dog attack. This can have the opposite affect on the child from curing the problem. For example, if the child suddenly develops a fear that there are monsters in the bedroom, forcing him to go to sleep alone may make the child realize the error of this belief. However, the more likely outcome is that the fear will feed on itself and create even more changes in the child, such as sleep disorders or worse behavior. Finding the right answer is difficult, because there is not one single cure-all for these problems. Each of us is unique, and this means that every case is different, which is why finding a professional trained in therapy for children is so important.
As the recovery process begins, it is important that family and friends do not go overboard in helping the child. While it is natural to want to shower love and affection on the victim, this behavior can go too far and create its own set of problems. First, it can cause the child to become too dependent on you for things that are still within the ability of the child to do for himself/herself. Even worse, if the child does develop unusual behavior and is rewarded with lavish attention and things being done for him, there is a possibility that the child could think that the way to continue to receive the attention is to continue the behavior. The best course is to discuss this issue with a professional, and to the extent possible, allow the child to continue to do things for himself/herself.
Good reinforcement of behavior that overcomes a fear will help the child get over it or at least come to grips with it. If the child is afraid to walk up the street for fear of seeing a dog, then when he takes the first few steps, words of encouragement such as “You can do it!” may seem simple, but to the child it will mean the world.
Finally, remember that you too may be a victim in need of help. Dealing with the pain that someone you love is experiencing can create its own unique set of problems. Be aware of changes in your own personality and new fears in your life. Recognize these changes and how they may be affecting your relationship with not only the victim, but also other people in your life. By keeping a focus on any effect the event may have on you, there is a greater likelihood that you can remain a positive source of strength for the victim, and in doing so you will help everyone move past the event.
Dogs will bite people for many different reasons. Sometimes we make a mistake and do something that frightens or angers the dog. Other times the dog may be upset or reacting to something that has nothing to do with the victim, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a small number of cases the dog may be ill. Typically, the victim did not do anything to directly provoke the attack.
Common sense tells us that avoiding certain circumstances will reduce the chances of your being attacked by a dog. While it would be impossible to list every situation or behavior to avoid, the following are some examples of things you should NEVER do:
All of these things are easy to understand. Once you think about how to act around a dog, common sense will usually guide your actions. However, there are other things that can prevent dog attacks that are not quite so obvious. The most important of these lessons is how you approach a dog.
Always stay calm and never make sudden unexpected moves. If possible, let the dog approach you, and sniff your hand. Once you sense the dog is comfortable, you can think about petting the dog. How quickly you move to petting will depend on how well you know the dog and its disposition.
As noted above, you should never try to pet a strange dog. However, if the owner is present, then you may let the dog approach you. Let the dog sniff and touch you before slowly extending your hand. If the dog jumps, growls or bares its teeth, remain calm and still, firmly saying the word “No.” Do not scream or run away, as this may actually encourage the dog to attack, and there is little likelihood that you can outrun a dog. One expert suggests teaching young children that if a dog becomes aggressive, the child should play hide and seek and cover their face with their hands.
Most dog attacks occur in the home of the victim. In order to avoid being bitten by the family dog, it is important that the family teach the dog how to be social. This means introducing the dog to as many people as possible at as young an age as possible. If the dog learns how to be comfortable, then you reduce the chances of a dog bite. If a family is uncertain as to the best way to accomplish teaching the dog, an obedience school or program is a good alternative.
Monahan, Children and Trauma, Simon & Schuster, 1995
Center For Disease Control: Injury Fact Book
Weis, Friedman, Coben,
Incidence of Dog Bite Injuries Treated In Emergency Departments,
Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 279 No. 1, January 7, 1998
Humane Society of the United States,
Dog Bite Prevention Resources for Children, 2002
Interview with Dr. Jason Hort by Sue Quayle,
Dog Bites in Children, 1999
Kids Growth Weekly,
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders In Children, 2002
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