Every year, Miles' birthday has marked great milestones (no intention of a pun). The first few years, I blissfully celebrated that Miles and I had survived yet another year of Welsh Terrier puppyhood! And as you may know I always have done fun things to celebrate and mark the occasion. This year, Miles' birthday marked two very different and significant milestones:
- One, that he is now without a doubt, for the first birthday ever, a full-on adult. I never really believed it would happen. It took five years!
- Two, that almost a year had passed since Miles' life was threatened.
Last year on July 4th, just days after his fourth birthday, Miles was attacked by a dog that struck without warning, with the full intention of swiftly killing him. His life was only saved because the other dog's owner and I were right beside the dogs when the attack occurred, and the other owner was able to instantly pull Miles out from under her dog.
The event itself was horrific. Not much more I can say about that... But a year later, I look back seeing so many bumps along the road to recovery, that the ordeal feels year-long.
I debated whether or not I should first write this, and second of all, share it. After some thought, I decided "yes" to both, because, I was sure the good of writing this would outweigh the bad. Even then, it took me two months to write this. I think the turning point was when I realized that for the first time in Miles' life, I hadn't celebrated his birthday. And that made me very unhappy, because deep down, I knew why. I couldn't really celebrate Miles' life this year, or the milestones made over this past year of his life, without facing his near death or his subsequent year-long recovery from that event. Facing that was the deciding factor in sharing this story.
When the Storm Clears...
Once a life has been secured after such a serious event, you'd think relief would wash over all like a sugary blissful syrup, but, instead, the release of "that one fear" becomes swiftly replaced with a multitude of nagging new fears. After the two months of detailed care, the rawness of the wounds began to finally fade into the background. At that point, Miles was finally able to venture back into normal life. Simultaneously upon our re-entry into daily life, troubling questions began to eat at me. These questions rattled around in my head like pennies inside a can.
"Will he ever be the same again?"...And the list went on. These weren't just unspoken questions quietly locked away in my own mind: People that know and love us also asked me the same questions often and repeatedly. Again, the pennies inside a can rattled, and even more loudly, with each and inquiry.
"Will he be always be frightened of other dogs?"
"Will he be able to attend crowed events packed with other dogs (aka agility!)?"
"Will he become reactive towards other dogs?"
The answer was simple: I didn't know.
Retrospect and Guilt
When Miles and I got back home last year in the middle of July and saw all of our friends, they were horrified by our story, and the stark and undeniable visuals that stood right in front of them: Miles' wounds were still, two weeks later, hugely swollen, and oozing blood.
"When the other dog leapt on top of Miles and ripped at his throat, I would have kicked her if I were you!" was the most common comment I received. Now, the people that expressed this opinion (and there were many) are all great lovers of dogs. Talk of kicking a dog is no small matter to them. But, it was inconceivable to them that I did not take action in a swift and aggressive manner to save the life of my best friend.
It is easy to imagine scenarios: but far more difficult to be in them. You never know how you will react to such an unexpected and terrifying situation. I had no idea what was coming. I had seen dog scuffles before, but only in that moment, did the truth about dog attacks become clear and set in my mind: if a dog wants to kill, it doesn't waste time. It dives in for the kill: no muss, no fuss, no frills, no performance. Nothing can prepare you for that sort of swift brutality, until you have witnessed it first hand. These days, when I see dogs get into scuffles (whether it is a fight or a one-sided attack) and people say "that dog was trying to kill him!" I see it on a sliding scale, and, so far, all of the scuffles I have since witnessed did not contain the intent to kill. Most attacks are more about fear than they are about a targeted intent to kill.
Having seen Miles meet so many dogs before with such positive experiences, and having witnessed how friendly and polite he was at the beginning of this seminal particular meeting, the split second the attack occurred, my body's response was to freeze in absolute horror.
Over and over and over again in my mind, after the attack, I fantasized that I could have saved Miles faster, or just, that I could have been a part of saving him. After all, it wasn't me that saved Miles. I will admit it, my friend's comments about what they would have done differently stung. For more nights that I can bear counting, I sat up awake in bed, begging reality for change. I pleaded, "Please, could I have stopped things instantly, and prevented Miles' 'I know I am about to die' screams?" (That sound will never leave my memory). On top of my nightly pleading, my mind instantly went to the reality of the situation: If the owner of the other dog had been a foot further away, Miles would have been killed. That is not a guess, that is not a question, that is not guilt speaking. That is a fact I could not and cannot not look away from. That fact didn't help with my feelings of powerlessness, frustration at myself, and ultimately, guilt over retrospect.
Getting strong enough to move past the event itself was one thing. Moving past retrospect was far more difficult. After all, the immediate moments (and then weeks) after the event were all about instincts and survival. But the mental anguish that comes after? That is a lot harder to not give in to. I had to really "buck up" (my mum's famous line) to realize that my friends were just upset at what had happened to Miles, and they too were fantasizing of how things could have been better, and I really had to not let it seep into my own upset about retrospect. They are also people who love Miles, and were pained to imagine his life being at risk, and especially, in such a violent and sudden manner. It wasn't me they were fighting against. It was the fact that it happened. You can't expect to be the only one who is going to have a strong reaction. I am lucky to have friends that care so much about Miles.
"Dog Fight" vs. "Dog Attack": the Terminology
Often, all acts of dog-on-dog violence are simply called "dog fights." When that term was continually (and with absolutely no bad intentions) applied to Miles' attack, it was extremely clear to me that something in the soup wasn't right. It became obvious to me that there is a serious difference between a "dog fight," and a "dog attack." And it isn't just our governmental (usually local) laws that reflect this general human linguistic oversight of the two distinctively different situations (laws regarding dog-on-dog attacks tend to be quite lax and unclear compared to laws regarding dog-on-human attacks) -- think about it this way -- has any human who has ever been attacked, seemingly unprovoked, titled the event a "fight"? Heck no! Would other people title the event a "fight?" Heck no! Even if the human did some small guesture that might have inadvertently been a trigger (nervous eye contact, an accidental hand guesture), we still would not refer to that event as a "fight" between the human and dog. When there is a clear victim, be it human or dog, let's title it accurately. Even if the laws regarding dog-on-human attacks tend to be much stricter than the laws on dog-on-dog attacks -- we can still do our part to give victimized dogs the same respect we give to victimized humans. Because really, there is nothing worse than going through a dog attack, where the attacked dog does nothing to provoke a "shoot to kill" response, and when attacked, does not fight back and simply tries to escape -- and hearing people refer to the event as a "dog fight." I hope I am very clear here: I know this is language default not an intentional thing. But having gone through this sort of experience, I am glad I can bring this inaccurate and harmful language default to people's attention, and maybe help change this outdated language.
The Invisible Scale
My biggest advice to people who have a dog that has been through dog attack and wish to reintroduce their dog to the world? Once the physical wounds have healed, the most important tool you have is an invisible scale that you now need to have in your mind at ALL times:
The Invisible Scale of Stress vs. Experience
This is the scale of keeping an eye on your dog's stress level, secretly anticipating potentially stressful experiences, while slowly re-introducing "normal" day-to-day experiences. If you are unsure of your ability to gauge and accomplish this, please by all means bring in the help of a respected dog trainer who is up on current theory and uses positive methods.
The second most important thing is to be a calm and stable force in selecting the experiences to which you re-introduce your buddy. I hid my own fears and anxieties from Miles. Hiding my own emotions was critical to Miles' mental recovery. I had to hide my worry, stay balanced, and move forward carefully, but, appear like it was no big deal - I had to, for Miles' sake, appear confident. Even when I wasn't. It is like brushing your teeth: brush too fast and too lightly, and plaque will accumulate. Brush too long and too vigorously, and your gums will bleed and swell. You've got to find a balance somewhere in between. Not only is it important to select good experiences to slowly reintroduce your dog to, but, you also must project a stable and calm manner to ensure these experiences are positive. Show your own stress, and you are just doubling the stress your poor dog will already be feeling in regards to the big wide world after such a traumatic event. Put out your own stress, and you will be saying to your buddy, "I am scared, I am not able to protect us... Be terrified!" Show him with your own calm demeanour that whatever you expose him to will be safe. Take it slow. And never forget to have that scale of stress vs. experience on your mind, at all times.
A Year Later...
Looking back, dropping everything to care for Miles' physical wounds came naturally to me. I dedicated my life and energy to that endeavour, and nothing could have stopped me. But the part that was really difficult for me was observing and managing his recovery after his wounds had healed. Every bone in my body pressured me to force things back to normal -- because nothing is scarier than the doubt that things will never be the same. That is instinct. Stronger than Miles' fears after the attack were my own fears, as his protector. We humans want to force things to be normal, we can't help it. That is in our nature. Just as other animals are scared of potential threats by nature -- trying to make situations okay and normal is in our nature. We want things to go well even if we aren't sure they will, and often, we will force things when they shouldn't be forced for the sake of appearances. The hardest part of Miles' recovery for me was accepting that every single day of the recovery process that maybe things would never be the same, but, that taking it slow was the right thing to do.
And clearly, it was. Miles may never be the same dog he was before the attack -- these days, he is far more cautious about big dogs, puppies, and about any sort of erratic behaviour from other living creatures. He no longer leaps forward to meet puppies, big dogs and hyper dogs. These days, he is tentative and always opts to plays it safe.
But for the most part, things have gone back to a pretty dang good kind of "normal."
....Well... that is... As normal as things can be for Miles and I.
We are two wild peas in a pod!
Thank you to everyone who showed us support during the last year. We couldn't have recovered as well as we did without all of your well-wishing!
If you wish to look back at all of our posts that relate to the attack (they will appear in the order of newest > oldest), click here.
August 30, 2014