I recently discovered that 13,000 people a year present to emergency departments around Australia with dog bite injuries. Until now, that figure would have surprised me but I would have read it, or heard it, and continued on with my day.
Now that my daughter is one of those 13,000 my reaction is far more visceral. My stomach clenches as it conjures up images of my beautiful daughter, hands clutching her mouth as blood pours from her face, completely soaking her clothes and mine, as we try to staunch the bleeding and assess the damage.
Now when I hear that thousands of people are victims of dog attacks, I empathise with them all. I know the nightmares that they have, the desperate pain they suffer, the fear of dogs they meet in the streets, off leads because their owners believe that "they wouldn't hurt a fly".
The dog that attacked my daughter was one of these gentle dogs. A beautiful, well-loved kelpie, she'd had a hard start in life but had been adopted by my friends and settled into a happy existence on their farm. On many occasions, she had played with groups of children; fetching sticks, frolicking, even letting them pull her tail, all without event. In fact, she's the kind of dog that shies away from people.
So it was a great surprise when this dog, without provocation or any warning signs at all, attacked Rose's face, biting her and causing gaping wounds to her mouth and lips and serious scratches to the skin around her eyes. I was standing right next to Rose when it happened, as were the owners of the dog.
There was no reason for the attack, a question I have asked myself over and over and over again. This was a dreadful lesson for us to learn – the hard way. Sometimes, there is NO reason. A dog behaves like a dog. It is an animal and, unfortunately, it has the capacity to really harm a small person.
Rose was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, where she had reconstructive surgery to repair her injuries. Despite first-rate treatment at the Royal Children's Hospital, Rose will be forever scarred and her lips do not function as they used to.
When an ambulance is called because of a dog bite to a child, the 'system' kicks in and rangers attend the property and seize the dog. However, not every dog that attacks a child is immediately euthanised. There is a formal process and a dog can be impounded for a month until a decision about its fate is made by a magistrate. If a dog is declared dangerous or menacing owners are bound by a set of requirements and restrictions set out in the Domestic Animals Act 1994. Specifically, they must alert others to the dangerous nature of the dog and have complete control over it in public spaces.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect victims and witnesses of traumatic events for a long time. My mind replays the scene so often. I wish I had moved sideways or said something different. I wish I'd put the dog outside, or left the house even one minute earlier.
What I've learned from this experience is that we must remember that dogs are dogs. They don't understand the consequences of their actions. We, the humans, must take the precautions necessary to keep our kids safe.
That means we must:
1. Ensure that children are always supervised around dogs.
2. NEVER let them put their face close enough to kiss a dog.
3. Remember that feeding dogs is an 'adult only' activity.
4. Let sleeping dogs lie.
Ever since Rose was born, people have made a point of commenting on her stunning appearance. She has piercing green eyes, olive skin and golden hair. Because of this loveliness, I have been vigilant about praising her for her intelligence and kindness, not wishing for her to grow up thinking that her looks are more important than her personality.
What I hope she remembers is all the times I told her she was clever, determined, thoughtful and generous, because she needs to know that now. She needs to know that this is what is really important in life. A person's face and body are just the sheath for their personality. It's what you do in the world that counts.
When the plastic surgeon worked on her face, I didn't care if he was handsome, I just wanted him to be the best. When the anaesthetist put the mask on her face, I couldn't have cared less about his big muscles or his high cheekbones. I just wanted my baby to come out of this operation alive and well. I'm so grateful that she did.