We live in a neighborhood full of dogs, and my 4-year-old daughter loves to greet them all when we walk to the park.
Charlotte adores dogs, but she has a few favorite four-legged friends that she eagerly looks for along the way. There is Tuesday, the brown and white mixed breed; Smith and Wesson, the long-haired dachshunds; and Bushnell, the rescued pit bull. No matter the size or breed, my daughter wants to pet every dog we come across.
I never thought twice about this until one day when she got bit. It happened when we stopped to say hello to a small breed dog that was unfamiliar to us. Charlotte was eager to pet the dog, so we followed proper dog safety protocol and asked the owner's permission.
He said it would be fine, but I noticed the dog backed away, seeming tentative and nervous. Observing the dog's behavior made me change my mind about petting the dog, but before I could tell Charlotte not to stick her hand out, the dog jumped up and bit her on the thumb. She screamed and cried, but not just from the bite.
She told me she was just trying to be nice to the dog and she couldn't understand why a dog would bite her for no reason. It seemed that this dog had hurt her feelings as well.
I felt at fault for the whole situation. If only I had intervened sooner, then maybe this wouldn't have happened. As a dog owner myself, I didn't blame the dog or the owner because dogs' actions can be unpredictable. There are many reasons that dogs bite, but how do you make a child understand?
Once my daughter calmed down, I explained that some dogs get scared when kids and grownups try to pet them. I told her that even though most dogs are friendly, some aren't interested in getting pets and hugs.
Also, I rationalized that the dog could have thought she had food in her hand and was trying to get it from her.
From that day on, we implemented a new rule about dog safety in our family. Though we still ask the owner's permission before greeting a dog, my husband and I give our kids the final go-ahead. If we sense the dog doesn't want to be petted, then the kids know to just smile and wave at the dog.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million Americans are bitten each year, and half of those are children. Since dogs' behavior can be erratic, it's important to teach kids proper dog safety.
When in doubt, use your best judgment and err on the side of caution so that fewer kids end up as a statistic.
Danielle Hauser is a married mother of two who lives in the Westchase area.