I watched helplessly as my two-year-old brother was mauled by the family dog

Having grappled with it throughout my child’s early years, I realised my fear of dogs isn’t only a manifestation of this early trauma – it’s a rational response to the attitudes of dog owners

Tess Finch Lees
Monday 17 October 2016 11:10
Irresponsible dog owners are not taking responsibility for keeping children safe in public places, Tess Finch Lees says
Irresponsible dog owners are not taking responsibility for keeping children safe in public places, Tess Finch Lees says

Archie Darby, just four months old, was mauled to death by a dog last week; his 22-month-old brother Daniel is still fighting for his life. In August, three-year-old Dexter Neal was killed in a savage attack by an American Pitbull. A neighbour reported hearing “agonising screams” through the wall.

There have been 18 deaths from dog attacks in the past four years alone and many of the victims were children. The traditional hand-wringing, furrowed-browed, empty rhetoric about dangerous dogs has failed to prevent these atrocities. At what point will the headlines and soundbites become tangible steps to protect our children from further attacks?

When I was three, I watched on helplessly as my two-year-old brother was attacked by a dog. It was a beloved docile family pet, a border collie. He just snapped. The vet said a tumour was the most likely reason for the uncharacteristic behaviour and warned that dogs are “never completely safe” around children.

Every time I hear news of another child being mauled by a dog, it triggers that trauma. Becoming a mother myself exposed the extent of my anxiety about dogs and, as a therapist, I know that irrational fears can be passed from one generation to another as children, in turn, become prisoners to them. I have struggled to reconcile my maternal instincts – the desire to scoop my toddler up and walk the other way when approached by dogs in the park – and not wanting to inflict my “neurosis” on him.

Time and again, dog owners would reassure me that their pet was harmless and I would respond by apologetically explaining the source of my anxiety. Most dog owners were sympathetic and put their dogs on a lead when they saw us coming, but it’s the irresponsible owners who are the blight of common public places.

Like the one who was nowhere to be seen when their large Labrador came bounding towards us, jumped at my two-year-old and knocked him flat on his back. When the owner finally caught up, her response to my bawling toddler was, “There’s no need to cry, he wouldn’t hurt you”. She failed to grasp that her dog had hurt him. “How would you feel”, I replied, “if a giant bear pounced on you, knocking you to the ground”?

Every time I lowered my guard, it seemed something else would happen. Like the time my husband was bitten on the ankle by a small yakking dog whose owner had only just said that he “wouldn’t hurt a fly”. It turned out the dog had bitten several people and its’ owner was belligerently delusional.

And there was the time when I was pinned against a tree by two dogs barking menacingly. Paralysed by fear, I feigned calm while clinging for dear life to my toddler. There was no owner in sight. When he finally arrived, I asked him to control his dogs. He cited the fact that they hadn’t actually bitten us, as evidence that they were “harmless”.

For irresponsible dog owners, allowing animals to terrorise and intimidate others using shared public spaces is fine as long as no blood is actually drawn.

It’s hard to have a rational conversation with dog owners who are hostile to idea that small children should be allowed “off a leash” but their animals are not. But if parents let their toddlers wander around sniffing peoples’ groins and defecating on beaches and parks, pretending not to notice, we’d be reported to social services.

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Most dogs don’t attack. Some do. Almost everyone I know can recount an incidence of low level aggression involving a dog, be it the biting of another dog in the park or turning on an excitable child. Only the most serious cases are reported in the media.

Having grappled with it throughout my child’s early years, I realise that my anxiety around dogs and small children isn’t only a manifestation of an early trauma. It was also informed by my maternal instinct to protect my child from danger in the face of the complacency of others.

My fear of dogs, I realised, was not irrational at all. A docile family pet did attack my brother and other unexpected attacks do happen. As we know from the needless death of baby Archie this week, they can be fatal.

How many more babies must die before we review the Dangerous Dog Act and expect pet owners to behave in a respectful and responsible way?

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