As a professional pet sitter for over ten years, I fancy myself pretty talented in reading dogs' body language. I've learned through experience to be cautious around all dogs initially. I let the canine set the pace in terms of how quickly we get to know each other. While some stick their tongue in my nostril within the first five seconds of meeting me, some are slower to warm up. Just like people, there are extroverts and introverts.
Winter holiday season is a busy time for pet sitters, and this year was no exception for me. I had a couple of pooches staying with me, and several animals of all types I was visiting each day. On Christmas, I was looking forward to visiting Chico*, a sweet little pooch I've cared for for years (one of my favorites...don't tell the others). I was especially excited because Chico's mommy told me the news that they had adopted a brother for Chico. I would get to meet Banjo! My client let me know that Banjo was a little out of sorts since he'd become a recent addition to the family and hadn't quite gotten used to things, yet, so I knew going in to take things slow and give Banjo whatever time and space he needed.
When I arrived, I let Chico out of his crate and he greeted me warmly. We kissed and snuggled for a bit, and then I set out to focus on Banjo, who I thought I saw dart into the closet. He didn't bark or seem upset...just seemed to want his space.
I turned on the closet light and saw Banjo in the middle of the expansive space. He was lying down with his head down, looking submissive, but relaxed. He rolled a bit from side-to-side as if he was considering me as a possible play mate, but I could tell he was feeling shy and not totally comfortable. I ignored him and went back to Chico, sure to stay in Banjo's sight so he could get to know me from afar and see that Chico and I were buds.
After ignoring him for a bit. I talked to Banjo and let him know that everything was okay. I was sure to keep the opening to the closet clear so he wouldn't feel cornered and trapped. He remained where he was, never growling, alternating his ears from forward to back, letting me know he was feeling cautious, yet might be open to the possibility of becoming friends. I did not approach him, but continued to play with Chico so Banjo could see.
Chico decided he needed some water, so he left my side.
I kept my distance from Banjo (about eight feet) but reached my hand toward him, palm up, trying to take our budding friendship to the next level.
Banjo suddenly leaped into action, and within a fraction of a second, his sharp teeth were clamped onto my wrist. Only after he clamped on did he begin to growl. And he wouldn't let go. I pried him off and escaped to the other room while he retreated silently back into the closet.
I was scared and shocked. The bite was painful, but my heart hurt more. I paced around the kitchen, crying and confused, while Chico tried to comfort me. It happened so fast, and I'd taken all precautions. Banjo hadn't even warned me that he was in attack mode. As I wandered around thinking what to do, trying to stop the bleeding, Banjo charged me a second time. He jumped up and bit my thighs repeatedly. I yelled at him, and he finally retreated back to the closet, so I shut the master bedroom door behind him. Thankfully, I was wearing jeans so the injury to my legs was limited to some bruising.
My emotions escalated. I was now being actively pursued by a very distraught animal whom I was supposed to care for. Though my drive was to make sure the animals were okay, I realized that I needed to protect myself.
With Banjo contained, I called my client, Kathy. I didn't even pretend to have my shit together, but I tried to be as professional as possible through the tears. The situation was awful.
Kathy was apologetic. She said she knew Banjo was feeling uncomfortable but had no idea he'd react as he did. I apologized, as well. I'd never before come across a case I couldn't handle. Kathy asked me to leave immediately and to take Chico with me since he'd been to my house before. She'd have a friend who Banjo had met before come in to check on him.
I gathered Chico's things, made sure there was plenty of food and water for Banjo, opened the bedroom door cautiously, and left. I felt like a failure, though I knew I'd done everything by the book. My wrist began to throb as the adrenaline in my system wore off.
When I got home to our Christmas celebration, my husband and friend helped me clean my wound. They both advised me to go to the hospital to get stitches, but being the stubborn one that I am, I was determined not to spend Christmas in the ER. I noticed, too, that my thumb was numb. The bite was at the base of my thumb, so perhaps a nerve was hit.
It's been a little over two weeks since the incident. I feel okay in my heart and head after replaying the circumstances over and over. Though the wound is healing well (even without stitches...so there), my thumb is still without feeling. I'm hoping that will come back.
I'm through beating myself up over it. I did everything I could. I accept the situation, and I add it to my arsenal of experience.
Each day we learn. Even when we think we are experts in a field, there is always something to learn. I learned that though dogs produce predictable warning signs 99% of the time, attacks can occur without notice. Dogs are lovable, smart creatures, but, just like people, sometimes there is damage inside that you can't see. And sometimes that angst displays atypically.
Always expect the unexpected.
*Names have been changed.
Aggressive dog photo source: pets.webmd.com