Dog biting in a mondo cane

Do dog attacks and prejudice go hand-in-hand (or tooth in tooth)? May depend on the pack you come from.

The scars are still visible where the big black dog attacked me 20 years ago. If you have a good eye, you can count the tooth marks of the bite showing how he grabbed my leg in his jaw and pulled the flesh of my calf away from the bone.

The surgeon did a good job, though. The indentation from the lost tissue is slight and the individual stitches are not discernable. I don’t walk with a limp either.

My sister, too, was once attacked by a dog. She was three years old and had unwittingly disturbed the normally-friendly neighborhood collie. He had taken her face in his jaws and clamped down. She lost a lot of blood and came close to losing an eye. Her scars today are limited to an imperceptible dotted line below her right eye and a few indentations beneath her jaw.

Yet both my sister and I love dogs and have owned them for years. My sister’s most recent pet was a crossbreed of skittish disposition that adored her. They exercised together, watched TV together, slept together, and were devoted to each other. She was heartbroken when he died.

My current canine companion is a small min-pin mix. Jade is a slight and sociable gal that shamelessly begs for kisses — and cookies — from everyone she meets. Because of her stature, few people are afraid of her. (There are a few, but not many). However, before she came along, I had a Weimaraner, a large grey hunting dog. Although Homer was a sweet and gentle giant, some folks feared him because of his imposing size and his musculature. Strangers would back away, telling me they were afraid because they had been attacked by dogs in the past. I would look at them uncomprehendingly. Duh?

Walking with Homer through the streets of my town, I used to note peoples’ reactions — as obvious as the scars on my leg. I always pulled him to a tight leash when I saw a woman with a stroller, figuring a mother might be worried about my dog’s reaction to a pair of chubby arms. But some mothers would steer their strollers close so their toddlers could stroke Homer’s fur as they passed by. These were the mothers crooning, “Look at the beautiful dog,” and reaching out to pet Homer themselves.

Other women holding children by the hand jerked their small charges away, the mothers’ faces drawn and tense. The child in question might wriggle in protest, but the mom would be fearfully adamant.

A well-dressed lady of a certain age; I might think her apprehensive and would pull my dog away. Instead she would approach with outstretched arms, sighing, “Oh how beautiful,” while stroking Homer’s noble head.

An elegantly attired man might stiffen as we walked by. I would be tempted to loosen my hold on Homer’s collar so my dog would “accidentally” brush the man’s jacket. I would resist the impulse but smile to myself as the man eyeballed us nervously.

I think of these encounters often these days, every time we pass a group of dark-skinned young men on the street. More than a handful of North Africans live in my town, drawn by the prospect of jobs not available in their home countries. We have a mosque nearby; couscous is available in some supermarkets, and women in flowing Arab dress can be seen shopping the main streets, children in tow.

Some long-time residents in our town draw back when they see these “immigrants” or “foreigners”: those are the kindest words used to describe the newcomers.

But my mind doesn’t make an automatic connection between “Muslim” or “Middle Easterner” and “terrorist” the way my mind doesn’t equate all dogs with my attacker. My parents brought me up to believe that dogs were good, with a few exceptions. One should be careful, one should ask before petting a strange dog, but one shouldn’t be afraid of a dog just BECAUSE it is a dog.

I am thrilled when people on the street want to pet Jade straightaway, sensing her innate goodness without having to ask. I am honored when people ask if they can pet her, and do so enthusiastically when I give them the “okay”. I respect the people who excuse themselves and shy away nervously because, well, they weren’t brought up the way I was, in a home full of animal-lovers.

But I am angered by the people who impose on their children their own prejudices, who jerk their children away without thinking of the consequences — of the irrational fear they are instilling in their offspring. Isn’t the role of a parent to make the child a better person than the parent? That takes information, inquiry, and sometimes courage. Parents are not the only ones; we all need courage to face life. Small spurts of courage for the mundane frustrations of daily life and massive doses for the monstrosities. We cannot be naïve. We have always to be prepared for the dog that attacks without apparent provocation (although there are always signs. We are not always astute enough to read them correctly). The black dog went for my leg. He could have gone for my throat. The collie could have blinded my sister.

Yet what of all the dogs who have given us so much love? They don’t leave scars; they leave auras of affection. Had my sister and I succumbed to the prejudices of conventional experience, we never would have known the joys dog ownership can bring. Had my family succumbed to the prejudices of ethnic stereotyping, we would not have the pleasure of our Iranian, Egyptian, Russian, Moroccan, and Serbian friends.

Anyway, if you should meet me while I am walking with my dog, don’t be afraid. Jade doesn’t bite and neither do I, unless attacked. Shall we assume the same about you?