On the last day of their recent vacation at the Jersey Shore, a family from Somerset County decided to watch the sunrise at Wildwood’s beach before hitting the road. That great idea turned tragic when their 11-year-old son approached a stranger’s dog to pet it and was bitten severely in the face.
Friends of the family have started a couple of fundraisers online at GoFundMe (search for “boy attacked by dog in Wildwood”). There the family said the dog bit him so hard that “his nose was gone,” and now he needs a series of operations to reconstruct his nose. As of earlier this week, the main fundraiser had raised $17,430 of its $150,000 goal.
Dog bites are common in America — about 4.7 million a year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly a fifth of those are serious enough to require medical care. In more than half the cases, the people are bit at home by dogs that are familiar to them.
The CDC offers four words of wisdom repeatedly in its advice on preventing dog bites — “Any dog can bite.” While it’s true that breeds with strong jaws such as pit bulls and Rottweilers typically do more damage when they bite and are responsible for the majority of dog-bite fatalities, any dog can inflict a painful and damaging bite. Nearly a fifth of bites become infected, and possibilities include not just rare and serious rabies, but also tetanus (for deep bites) and MRSA, a staph infection resistant to some antibiotics.
Police said the dog in Wildwood was a pit-bull mix. A couple of charges were filed against its owner, a local man.
The man and his dog were walking on the beach and when they approached the family, the boy asked for permission to pet the dog, police said. He approached the dog, which then leaped forward and bit him in the face.
People of all ages like dogs and want to interact with man’s best friend, especially children who probably haven’t experienced the risk inherent in any close contact with a dog. The overwhelming majority of interactions between dogs and people are positive — playful, healthy, stress-relieving, says the CDC.
Maybe that’s why its recommendations on avoiding dog bites seem conflicted. The CDC says “don’t approach an unfamiliar dog,” yet it also urges, “Always ask if it is OK to pet someone else’s dog before reaching out to pet the dog.”
Well, whatever the owner thinks and says, the dog and the person who wants to pet it remain unfamiliar to each other. The CDC also suggests not petting a dog “without allowing it to see and sniff you first.” That might help, but maybe not.
There is no way to be sure that a dog won’t interpret some movement, posture, accessories or even smell as signaling a threat to its owner. And many dogs by their nature meet possible threats with aggression. Even a dog that has never bit anyone might still, given the right circumstances, deliver a warning bite, or worse, even to a harmless child.
People often ask, when encountering someone walking a dog, “Is your dog friendly?” It’s understandable that people want to be friendly and give dogs a chance to be friendly too. But just as no person is friendly in every possible situation, the friendliness of dogs is highly variable and unpredictable.
The boy in Wildwood followed the CDC’s advice and asked if it was OK to pet the dog that then bit him.
Better advice, though it seems colder, is to never try to pet someone else’s dog. You want to pet a dog? Get your own and discover the whole complex relationship that comes with it.