How not to handle a crisis in rescue

December 16, 2016

*warning* Article contains an image of an injured child

It breaks my heart when I hear about kids getting bitten. I’ve got two little girls of my own of the classic ‘dog bite victim’ age and I can imagine how physically and psychologically traumatic a dog bite injury would be to them. They’re not old enough to really understand, or protect themselves, so it would leave them distressed for I imagine years. Not to mention any physical injuries.

A dog who bites a child is your worse-case-scenario for any rescue, and yet we’re always vulnerable because kids sometimes do stuff which ends in a dog biting them. Neither dogs, nor kids - nor dogs and kids together - can ever be truly trusted to always do the right thing. And parents unfortunately can't always see the warning signs of an impending incident - so these situations can happen right in front of parents who thought they were supervising effectively.

But of course most dogs are fine with kids and are tolerant enough to deal with the missteps of new owners and their kids. Which is why we’ve worked hard to move rescue groups and shelters away from the universal bans which kept families with small children from adopting. These more adoption-friendly policies have saved lives - probably into the hundreds of thousands of pets. Almost always, the family is happy with their decision to choose a rescue dog.

Unfortunately in the case of Denny, this is not how it played out.

Denny reportedly bit the child in his new family after about two weeks in his new home, when some food was left on a coffee table. Sadly this resulted in the child needing facial surgery.

I am so sorry for the child who was bitten and for the family who adopted Denny. I do not know what sort of counselling they were given by the rescue when they adopted, but obviously food can be a classic trigger for all dogs, not just rescue dogs.

The bite, while obviously enormously traumatic for the family and child, especially due to its location, seems to be the result of a single lunge and snap. On the Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale, that would put the bite at probably between a level two and a level three bite.

Level 1. Obnoxious or aggressive behavior but no skin-contact by teeth.

Level 2. Skin-contact by teeth but no skin-puncture. However, may be skin nicks (less than one tenth of an inch deep) and slight bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of teeth against skin, but no vertical punctures.

Level 3. One to four punctures from a single bite with no puncture deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Maybe lacerations in a single direction, caused by victim pulling hand away, owner pulling dog away, or gravity (little dog jumps, bites and drops to floor).

(Level 4 is a hard bite to the end of the canine tooth, and probably not what is seen here (warning graphic image of a child’s wound).

According to Dunbar,

Levels 1 and 2 comprise well over 99% of dog incidents. The dog is certainly not dangerous and more likely to be fearful, rambunctious, or out of control. Wonderful prognosis. Quickly resolve the problem with basic training (control)

Level 3: Prognosis is fair to good, provided that you have owner compliance…. Rigorous bite-inhibition exercises are essential.

A follow up consultation with an animal behaviourist after the incident found the dog to have “significant anxiety issues that were heightened around personal space and food”. Denny is not an aggressive dog. He’s an anxious dog who was unfortunately set up to fail, in that he was left in proximity to food and a small child in the early days of his integration into a new home.

This situation is a lesson and a reminder to ALL rescuer to coach and support new owners - especially those with small children -  in the weeks after adoption to ensure that everyone is being kept safe.

But what happened next is the real lesson for rescuers.

The rescue group who adopted out Denny - Australian Working Dog Rescue (AWDRI) - was contacted by the distraught mother whose child was now in the hospital.

The appropriate reaction is obvious. A grovelling apology to the family. Emergency transport for Denny to temporary accommodation at a kennels until he could be properly assessed. More apologies. A discussion about medical bills and insurance claims. More apologies. Send flowers. Maybe the offer of a free puppy should the family decide they want a dog in the future. Even more apologies.

But that’s not what happened. Instead AWDRI threatened the family with legal action. Then said the family was in breach of contract and could neither ‘get rid of’ Denny nor take him to the pound. AWDRI was hostile and rude when the owner pleaded for help, stating they would potentially “lose access” to their child should the case go to the courts.

I mean WTAF?

And the result of this asshattery is of course, obvious. A distraught owner who is now also furious. She’s taken her story to the media who, given the traumatic nature of the child’s injuries lapped it up.

So two weeks before Christmas, we have this.

Today Tonight featured a story which confirms every parents worse nightmare about rescue pet adoption. Which is a PR disaster for rescue dogs and the groups working so hard to save their lives. The story even featured Denny's PetRescue profile, further harming rescue...

By simple arrogance, and taking and inarguably insane position during this incident, AWDRI has obliterated probably thousands of homes for rescue dogs, both now and for years into the future. They have brought rescue into the terrible disrepute we had always strived to avoid. This ‘worse case scenario’ will unfortunately be used by those who desire to damage the community rescue movement.

Worse, by bullying this family, rather than working with them to get Duffy to safety, they have almost certainly signed his death warrant. An apology still has not been been issued on any of AWDRI's channels.

No one seems to be calling out this behaviour as completely unacceptable. AWDRI still has a PetRescue account and is still rehoming dogs. 

But this head-in-the-sand approach has never worked. The confidence people had in rescue groups being a safe place for a new pet, has been irreparably damaged. Like greyhounds and the purebred dog fraternity - if the rescue movement isn’t willing to expel our bad eggs, we’ll be regulated by outsiders and legislation whether we like it or not.

Carey Edwards should be stood down from AWDRI and distanced from rescue entirely. He’s damaged the reputation of rescue dogs immeasurably and has made everyone’s else in rescue’s job much much harder at the worst time of year. If he needs emotional or psychological support, then I hope he gets it, but he must not be allowed to interact with any member of the public and should certainly not be at AWDRI’s helm.

We need balanced, clever and reasonable people fronting rescue groups and leading the way to a safe future for pets. We simply cannot treat the public this way and expect to still have a viable model - rescue need to push back against those who damage our important work.

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