Volume 14, Issue 6 ~ February 9 - February 15, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Breaking the First Commandment —
of Journalism and Dog Training

When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.

—Frank M. O’Brien

Since the above words were written in 1918 by O’Brien in his The Story of The (New York) Sun they have been drilled into fledgling reporters everywhere. If it’s not out of the ordinary, it’s not news.

But near Annapolis recently a dog bite (or rather nip) became news. Not only has it been a big story on the news pages, it has generated a flood of letters to the editor. Every dog has its day, but Jacquelyn, a toy poodle, had her week — though she wasn’t fitt’n to bask in her time in the sun.

The dog was running up thousands of dollars in bills in treatment at animal hospitals for injuries she received when a jogger gave her a couple of kicks as she tried to chew on his heels.

The reference book The Top of Everything, by Russell Ash (1999 edition) lists poodles as the second smartest of all dogs, behind border collies. Jacquelyn must be an exception.

At only four pounds (as reported in the press) how smart is a dog to attack a man 50 times her weight — and without provocation unless one considers the victim provoked her simply by jogging by.

When he was threatened, he did what any normal human being would do in such circumstances. He tried to defend himself. He gave the poodle a couple of kicks.

As far as we know, he survived without a scratch as well as without facing charges of animal cruelty. Meanwhile, the canine’s owner Janice Tippett of Edgewater, escaped charges of not having her mutt on a leash or under control. The only loser in this episode is Jacqueline, who is being nursed back to health by her mistress.

After Jacqueline is cured of her injuries, perhaps a few lessons in Canine Etiquette 101 at an obedience school with Tippett at her side are in order. As with many dog-bites-human episodes, the blame can be placed on the dog’s owner for having a dog not under control. Or perhaps for not training the pet sufficiently to keep it from chasing innocent people or vehicles.

The First Commandment

There’s not an iota of anti-dog feeling within this writer. I’ve owned many a dog, some purebreds, some not very pure. When at seven years old I got the first mutt of my very own, it came with responsibility. That was understood. I had to feed it, brush it, play with and train it.

Back then, I recall no leash laws, and seeing we lived in the country, Princess was allowed to run free. But the training edict came from my mother — and her notion of training went beyond teaching my dog to shake hands, roll over, stand on her hind legs or beg for chow, which was leftovers from the table. In the Great Depression, few families could afford commercial dog food.

Above all, Mother insisted that Princess — and other dogs that followed — be taught to come when called, no exceptions. If a dog was not to be tied, it had to come when called. There weren’t any joggers around in the country back then, but there were kids on bicycles, also many pedestrians, from neighbors to the occasional tramp with all his possessions in a sack hanging from a pole over his shoulders. Mother didn’t want Princess nipping at their heels.

It wasn’t until many years later that I fully realized how wise Mother was. She wasn’t just safeguarding pedestrians; she was also looking out for the safety of our dogs. A stern Princess, come! when obeyed could prevent a catastrophe to the pet, which I discovered when driving to Alaska in the early ’50s.

We were camping one evening by the side of the Alaska (Alcan) Highway in the wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory when my golden retriever noted a pair of timber wolves about a hundred yards up the road. Artemis took off after them. I screamed Artemis come! a few times. She stopped and came back, though obviously she was not too happy about it.

Her return saved her life. It is a trick of timber wolves to try to get a dog involved in a chase, then cut it off, and presto: an easy meal.


Had Jacqueline the poodle been taught to come when called, she would not be hurting, and a jogger would not be vilified in letters to the editor. It’s easy to lay the blame on him for overreacting. But let’s take a closer look.

We can assume the jogger’s reactions were spontaneous; he was trying to protect himself. Big or small, a dog — even a cat — can inflict painful, serious injury on a person big or small. A dog nipping at heels could also make a tooth-flesh connection, leading to worse bites.

Some years back, a Good Samaritan neighbor picked up a cat to get it out of harm’s way. But she had her dog with her. The frightened cat bolted and bit her. Treatment was expensive and painful; the neighbor’s arm was in a sling for more than a week.

Several years ago, I was holding the cat of a relative. When another cat came on the scene, the cat I was holding bit me on the hand in trying to get away. I ended up in an emergency room, was prescribed a pill that cost nearly $100 plus the treatment fee, lost a day — and had a mighty sore hand for several days.

It could be the same with dogs, even four-pounders. Sharp teeth of pets are not the cleanest; germs abound.

My Verdict: Self-Defense

So what’s a guy supposed to do when a dog is nipping at his heels? Swat at it in self-protection and put a hand in jeopardy? Try to outrun it and energize the mutt’s chase? I’m not for kicking dogs, and I’ve never done it, but what can one do when suddenly in the place of that jogger?

It’s too late to buy pepper spray or any other dog repellent; the only effective defense at hand is the foot. The jogger kicked twice, not an unnatural reaction if the poodle didn’t end the chase on the first kick.

It’s regrettable Jacqueline was seriously injured. Perhaps she learned a lesson — though with many dogs there are no guarantees.

Methinks her owner, instead of concern that the jogger isn’t chipping in for Jacqueline’s medical costs, should be thankful the dog’s target wasn’t a youngster on a bicycle who took a bad dump on the road and ended up with severe injuries. The law is clear; dogs, big and small, must be under control. Enough said.

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