Beware of dog: Canine cues often precede bites, attacks
Posted May 15
Updated May 16
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.”
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
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."