The Childhood Memory I Wish I Could Forget
When we were kids, we had a beautiful, gentle dog named Spits. He was our first dog having only had cats prior. Spits was a really good-natured, goofy boy. Leggy. He galloped when he ran. He smiled all the time. He had a really long tongue. My sister and I adored this dog. When I'd get home from school, from outings, from wherever, I always remember that the first thing I would do was find him and say hello and give him a pat. He'd lean his head into me, looking at me with that big smile and tongue hanging to the side.
On one particular day I'd been out with my grandparents. I remember we'd gone to the mall in Ventura. When I got home, my sister was sitting on the couch with an ice cube, and my dog was nowhere to be found. I finally asked where he was and my mom told me he'd bitten my sister and that he's not coming home. My sister then broke into hysterical crying and said she thought he was purring but then he bit her face.
I will never forget my sister's sobs, tears and melting ice pooling at her chin. We are both very sensitive and this was felt to the core.
I was beside myself. In fact I don't know that I'd ever been so distressed in my early life. "I will never see my dog again? I want to see him. Let me at least say goodbye. Where is he? How could this happen? You thought he was purring?!" Thinking about it now, it still really hurts and the tears are rolling as I type. We were young, maybe 6 max. But it's seared into my memory, that awful day. I haven't thought about it in many years. Like a lot of painful experiences, you sometimes stuff them down. Try to forget.
A couple days ago, my sister called me to talk about it. She'd seen something online that triggered her memory of it and she was again beside herself crying because all these years she's carried that weight around. Feeling responsible. Seared into her memory too. She says she remembers it vividly like it was yesterday. We're in our forties. This was at least 35 years ago. She still felt responsible. She still worried about his fate. She still carries the guilt.
We talked about the experience from her perspective, something we've never done before. A child's view. On the surface, it was clear what had happened. She was laying on him, petting him, and looking into his eyes. He was growling for a long time. She said at least a minute and a half. She continued engaging with him, and he snapped at her, bit her superficially on the lip and ran away. But let's look at this in finer detail.
As children, we'd grown up with cats. Cats purr. For a young child, it's not a big leap to assume the growling he was doing was purring given her experience with pets being primarily cats and that's precisely what she thought. She thought he was purring. She was certain he was enjoying the interaction and continued with it because she loved him. My sister and I are both animal lovers to the core. We both work in the pet industry. We both advocate heavily for them and that advocacy was certainly in part shaped by this one incident.
Because Spits was such a good boy, he tried his hardest to tell her in a peaceful way that he wanted space but she couldn't understand. He tried vocalizations by way of growling for a long time. Those vocalizations expressed his feelings in a peaceful way. This is their language. When, after an eternity in his mind he couldn't get relief, he finally escalated to a bite which was superficial in nature. In fact, it was so inhibited, the ice she'd had on her lip did more damage than the bite itself when it got stuck to her lip as she cried.
Let's be real. He could have crushed her skull. Stop thinking dogs aren't capable of this, they most certainly are. Instead of using force, he used his voice. What a good boy. When that didn't work, he used a gentle nip and ran off. What a good boy. Do I sound crazy? Calling a biting a dog a good boy? I'm not. He was gentle in all of the interactions. He didn't have to be. He was certainly capable of much worse. He chose to be gentle. He was a good boy. It wasn't good enough I guess because he was gone and we were distraught.
Listen, I've had worse injuries scraping my arms on dog crates while moving them around. He lost everything for this. What a tragedy. Can we stop acting like dogs are demons for this? In his case, he just needed an advocate and they both needed supervision. Sure there are times where dogs and kids shouldn't be in the same household. This wasn't one of them.
I asked her where our parents were. They were in the kitchen. She was unsupervised. I asked where did they take him? She doesn't know. "Away." Neither of us know his fate for certain but given how quickly he was gone, the shelter is most likely. If he was taken to the shelter, it's doubtful he made it out alive. He was a wonderful dog, he did everything right, but dogs with bite histories, no matter how un-at-fault and un-damaging the bite, cannot from a liability perspective be re-homed. Honestly, I don't know that I can handle the truth of what happened to him. I don't want to know.
At the time I blamed my sister about the loss of my dog. I was heartbroken. I thought it was her fault. I was young too (we're twins) and so my thinking was simplistic. But it was not her fault. It was not Spits's fault either. He was a good dog.
When those in a position of responsibility take good nature for granted, bad things can and do happen. There were no signs prior to this day that this would ever occur. None. But we don't ever truly know what a dog is going through in the moment. He may have been in pain. Maybe arthritis was kicking in. Maybe her being on his body was uncomfortable, it doesn't matter. He was clear that he was not ok. And it fell on the deaf ears of an innocent child. Parents were not present to interpret and to keep them both safe. But my parents while responsible are not abnormal. Parents the world over get busy, get comfortable, lose sight of risk. They were complacent.
Early in my career I often commented on YouTube videos, posts and pictures of interactions either going horribly wrong or where the distressed dog seemed to amuse the masses. I tried with all I could muster to educate. It never did a damn bit of good. I found myself being ridiculed. I was called the fun police a lot, told to lighten up. Told that "they're fine, nothing happened." "It's cute." "You're a Debbie downer." ad nauseum. But in those videos and pictures, I was seeing dogs in distress, hearing dogs growling, and watching parents giggle away while shooting video of their precious baby in harm's way, and ignoring the distress the dog was already under. I was reading in comments how funny all this was. For my own sanity, I finally just started blocking everything of this nature and everyone who thought it was funny. A practice I mostly adhere to even now. Dogs in distress and children in harm's way is not funny. You're being irresponsible.
In my business, I doubled down on body language education. Educating before it becomes a problem often prevents people from normalizing warning signals. They can't unsee it. They now know and are aware and instead of getting complacent recognize it as a problem to seek relief for. It's all about prevention. I knew that I hated seeing all this stuff, advocated very hard for the dog and child, and was and still am really hardcore about the importance of understanding body language. I didn't recognize why until yesterday, as my sister and I talked, that I was so driven on this topic. It was too painful to think about.
Parents, I'm sharing this story to let you know from yet another angle the importance of supervision. Maybe this story will stick. The dog isn't at fault. The child is not at fault. You really have to stay diligent. It is your responsibility to keep them safe. Dogs and young children are not equipped to do this on their own. One moment can change everything.
35 years! That's how long my sister has been feeling the guilt of this. 35 years! A wonderful childhood companion most likely paid with his life for a completely preventable event.
Distress is not funny. You're the parent, the guardian, the caregiver. Whatever label you'd like. This is your job. This shouldn't have happened. Thousands of times a year there are horrible incidents with dogs and kids that shouldn't have happened. That have long lasting psychological impacts on the child and result in death of the dog. There are full websites dedicated to blaming dogs. You know who is never held responsible? The parents. It's sickening. If I sound bitter, it's because I am. I'm hurt. My sister and I shouldn't be carrying around this pain. Do you want your child living with that trauma? It hurts my heart that I never got to say goodbye. It hurts that my sister is crying about this over 3 decades later. It hurts my heart that my dog lost all he knew, and probably his life.
So please, let's not participate in normalizing distress in dogs. Let's do work on our roles in prevention, and please for the love of all things holy, let's stop good dogs from dying at the hands of our poor decisions.
My sister and I talked for a long time about that day. I apologized profusely for giving her grief about it as kids, we lamented about Spits, and we're still, 35+ years later, grieving his loss. Thank you Charlotte for giving me permission to share this story. Our hope is that it prevents someone else from living it.
To Spits, you loved us and we loved you and I'm so sorry. You were a very good boy. To my sister, it's not your fault. It was never your fault. I'm so sorry for ever thinking it was. To parents everywhere, please take this to heart. You are responsible for keeping them safe.