5 On Your Side

Beware of dog: Canine cues often precede bites, attacks

Posted May 15
Updated May 16

— Her son’s injuries were horrific.

"I still have times when I think, 'What did he go through? What did he feel?' How I wasn't there. I wasn't there for him. I can't imagine what it was like to have your face ripped off," mother Brittany Well said.

Wells and her son, Ryder, were visiting family in Raleigh in 2015. At the time, Ryder was just shy of his second birthday.

He’d been around the family's dogs the day before. The day he was mauled, Ryder slipped through a doggie door and into the family’s backyard, where the two Rottweilers were kept.

“Looked around the house, didn't see him,” Wells recalled. “Looked outside and didn't see him at first, then I did a double take and that's when I saw him.”

The dogs got to Ryder before she could.

"He lost the complete left side of his face. He lost the muscle, the tissue. He's missing jawbone," Wells said of her son's injuries. “His arm was broken. His jaw was broken in two places. His right lung went down."

Ryder Wells in the hospital

Wells is sharing her story as a way to warn other parents, hoping it spares them her family’s pain.

She wants others to know and understand that dog attacks can happen in an instant.

"We trust our pets as if they're humans, but at the end of the day, a dog is a dog, Wells said. “No matter what breed, a dog is a dog."

Veterinarian Dr. Margaret Gruen agrees.

"What's important for people to know is that any dog could bite given the right circumstances," Gruen said.

Gruen studies dog behavior at Duke University's Canine Cognition Center. While the attack on Ryder was clearly extraordinary, Gruen says many attacks have common threads.

For example, 77 percent of dog bites involved familiar dogs, according to the Humane Society.

Before attacking, most dogs often give cues that they've had enough. Some of the signs, such as barking and growling, are obvious. But the more subtle ones often go unnoticed.

"Getting that squinty-eyed look, furrowed brow, we'll see them start to lick their lips, or they may yawn," Gruen said. "Yawning is a sign of conflict or anxiety in dogs. We may see them start to shrink away or try to move away. (They may show) a more tucked body posture."

When no one helps, that’s when dogs “…have to step it up, speak a little louder,” Gruen says. "We start to see active avoidance, or a growl, and then eventually they may bite because no one had heard any of those earlier signs and moved them away or gotten them out of that situation.”

To help spot cues, 5 On Your Side asked Gruen to assess random dog photos found online.

5 On Your Side: Know how to spot a nervous dog

"You can see this dog showing a low body posture," Gruen said. "We see the whites of his eyes, we see his ears down and back. So, this is a really nervous dog."

5 On Your Side: Know how to spot a nervous dog

"It's another example of a dog being potentially uncomfortable," Gruen said. "It's stiff legged, it doesn't have the freedom of motion of its limbs."

5 On Your Side: Know how to spot a nervous dog

"This is another one that you could caption with, 'Please, get me out of here,'" Gruen said. "We see the whale eye, we see the tight closed mouth, the ears again, back and down."

Compare those frightened dogs above with the ones below, which Gruen says appear happy and relaxed.

5 On Your Side: Tips to spot a happy dog

Dr. Brenda Stevens, a veterinarian and professor at North Carolina State University, said human excitement can quickly trigger a dog attack.

"I would say just like you have a fuse, and you can snap, so can any dog in certain sets of circumstances," Stevens said.

Stevens says being completely still can reduce the threat.

CDC: Preventing dog bites

Wake County offers dog safety tips

Another lesson for a common bite scenario is simply knowing how to approach a dog. Do not approach head-on and let a dog sniff your hand.

"You would want to come alongside this dog, and from collar to rump, that would be your initiation," Stevens said.

As for Ryder, it's not clear what prompted the gruesome attack that's already required him to undergo more than 40 surgeries, many of them reconstructive. He'll undergo many more as he gets older. His mom says what matters now is that, despite all he's been through, Ryder is an active, happy 3-year-old.

Ryder Wells

Wells says she hopes her son's agonizing story can serve as a lesson to others about their dogs.

"That's his face, and that is what happened, and that is the reality of it," Wells said. "I get some people like, 'I don't want to see that.'

"Maybe you should see the graphic picture of my son clinging to life with no face and torn to pieces. If that is what it takes to make you open your eyes about your pets or your animals, then that's what it takes."


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  • Iris Hindle May 16, 8:58 a.m.
    user avatar

    I have a pit mix and a rotti/hound mix; both rescues. The pit mix I have had since she was 3 weeks old and she has her Good Canine Citzenship training. The rotti/hound mix was not socialized properly by former owners and can be timid around strangers. Do I tell people they won't bite? No I don't because I know that it could happen in an instance. My dogs are properly leashed when I go out and I make sure anyone who comes to my home knows that. However, I have been out in public with my dogs when strangers approcah and insist on getting in my dogs' face when I repeatly asked them not to. On more than one occassion I have put myself between my dogs and the person who insist "all dogs like me"; I am not doing this to protect you from my dogs, but my dogs from you. Yes, I own two breeds that people consider "bad dogs" and yes I am a responsible dog owner. People who are know it alls are the real danger.

  • Henry Cooper May 16, 7:42 a.m.
    user avatar

    PARENTS are responsible for children, not friends, not neighbors, not teachers, not police, and not dogs. The parents willingly took him there and failed to be responsible for him.

  • Nancy Oberman May 16, 6:57 a.m.
    user avatar

    I have dogs, which I consider my children. They are not normally thought of as vicious dogs (hound mix, vizla mix, akita/St Bernard). BUT...we also have no children at the house, which means they are not used to children, therefore, I tell people at the get go, not a good idea to bring a small child; my house is not child proof..... it appears their house was not child proof either...I feel bad for the child, the parents, and the dog owners,, who all hold some culpability , but, most of all, the dogs, who were just being dogs....

  • Henry Cooper May 15, 10:56 p.m.
    user avatar

    Great Danes...

    Lab Mixes

    This is on the adults responsible for him. They were at a friend's house that had two Rotties in the back yard. The child crawled thru a doggie door to get to the backyard. She looked out an saw nothing and 5 mins later he was down in the back yard (prior story on this). 5 mins is forever.

    Mom (and/or dad) I am sure knew the Rotties were there. Wouldn't it be prudent to make sure your toddler who is not around these dogs everyday is safe? I don't want to hear that you cant watch them all the time. I know that and is why you make sure the due diligence is done so you don't have to. Was this a dog door with one of those slide covers to close the dogs out (not the flap). That is like a toy/fort window for a boy toddler and the dogs are like toys in how kids may pull on them or try to ride them.

  • Jim Frei May 15, 10:23 p.m.
    user avatar

    Sure, any dog might bite, but its the pit bulls and rottweilers that maul and kill people. No one needs to own these breeds.

  • Kiara Babel May 15, 8:33 p.m.
    user avatar

    I hear people calling dogs family members and their children, and wells is right, a dog is a dog, it's a animal that acts on instinct. My friend was attack by two dogs and suffered severe injuries while just doing his job on someone's property and the attack was unprovoked, and the owners told him that the dogs wouldn't bite. Well their home owners paid a large claim. She thought her children wouldn't bite.

  • Rodney Hill May 15, 6:59 p.m.
    user avatar

    WRAL, you don't have a stock picture of a dog without having to blur out someones face... Come on now... ;)