Every year, 4.7 million Americans get bitten by dogs. I checked the number a couple of times, because it’s hard to believe. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the US Postal Service release the numbers as part of Bite Prevention Week, which is this week. 5,669 postal employees got bitten last year. That’s a painfully high number, but tiny in comparison to the number among the general public. It bears repeating: 4.7 million bites. 800,000 of them need medical attention.

On December 27, just as 2010 was coming to a close, I became one of that year’s statistics. Those are my pants in the picture.

I’d gone to talk to a family with multiple dog-control violations. After five years of tickets, fines, warnings – violations that had already cost two dogs their lives – a judge ordered the family to get a securely fenced yard or permanently surrender their two remaining dogs. They couldn’t afford a fence, so the dogs were chained in the back yard. I went to measure the property so we could build a free fence and save the dogs.

When I arrived, the Chihuahua mix named Chiquita growled and lunged at the end of her chain. The Dog Control officer told me Chiquita had a history of biting, so I stayed outside her reach. But the big pitbull mix named Payaso had no bite history: he was quiet and timid.  He crawled on his belly and hid behind his dog house, tail tucked under, ears and head held flat in a defensive posture. He was perhaps the most fearful dog I’d ever seen.

That happens when dogs are chained. A chained dog can’t run from something that scares him, so he becomes a fearful dog. He also can’t get to something that interests him, so he might become a mean dog. Trainers call it drive-building: continually seeing something they can’t reach – whether humans, cars, dogs – taunts the dogs so when they finally have a chance to reach one of those things they’re frenzied and uncontrollable.

I kept my voice and body language subdued as I photographed and measured the property. I wanted to be as calm and non-threatening as possible around these obviously fearful dogs. Then, inexplicably, Payaso’s human unclipped his collar and let him loose. I started to tell him to restrain the dog again, but I saw Payaso’s body language had instantly relaxed. He trotted playfully in circles, lifting his leg and marking several spots around the yard.

It seemed like a positive change, until it very suddenly wasn’t. When I raised my arm to point my camera at Chiquita, Payaso trotted in a wide loop, hopped in the air, and made a glancing nip at my raised forearm. It pinched hard, but he continued trotting, tail high, prancing around his yard. I mistook the nip for inappropriate play or attention-getting.

“No, no, no,” I said calmly. I lowered my arm and turned my back to the dog, signaling that he’d get no attention by jumping at me. Payaso turned his attention to sniffing a nearby wood pile. His human seemed unconcerned. Taking my cues from the two of them, I decided I could raise my arm and try the picture again. 

Payaso swung around again, leaping into the air and grabbing my arm more forcefully. This time he didn’t let go, and I struggled to stay on my feet while his weight bore down on me and my feet slid around on the muddy ground. In a flash, he released my arm and latched onto my calf, clamping down and shaking ferociously. I finally lost my footing, and as I fell Payaso latched onto the seat of my pants and clamped down again. He was thrashing his head side to side when I screamed NO and he instantly released me. He went back to prancing the yard, again looking deceptively relaxed and playful. His human stood dumbfouded a few feet away.

“What should I do?” he asked.

“Catch your dog! He’s trying to %$#@ kill me!” I said.

Of course, Payaso was having the most fun he’d had in months. He didn’t want to be caught, and his hapless human had removed his collar so there was nothing to grab. He eventually caught the dog so I could safely leave and drive myself to the urgent care center.

It was at the hospital that it occurred to me I’d become a statistic. I didn’t want the statistics to be what they were, especially when the hospital staff asked me the dog’s breed. What is Payaso’s mix, I thought? Can I say he’s part lab or just identify him generally as a terrier mix? But he was already registered with an identified breed: Pitbull.

From my perspective – and I do now have some close-up perspective – there’s only one thing that’s truly pertinent when a pitbull bites: generations of selective breeding have specifically shaped their bite behaviors and patterns. They use those Frisbee-sized jaws to clamp/hold or clamp/shake, so a pitbull bite often causes fewer skin punctures and tears than bites from other breeds. With bite injuries in three places, I only needed four sutures. The real damage was what the ER doctor warned me about and what proved to be painfully true: the clamping and shaking cause deep, extensive muscle bruising.

It’s like getting slammed in a door. A very big, strong door. During an earthquake.

But, of course, that’s not what everyone thinks of when a pitbull bites. They think about the breed statistics, the breed’s reputation, the breed-specific legislation popping up around the country. So December 27 was a sad day for me, not just because it would be weeks before I could comfortably sit and months before I could jog or even make quick movements with my calf or gluteal muscles. It was sad to see yet another reported dog bite added to the millions. It was even sadder to see another mark against Payaso’s breed.

But, aside from the nature of the crush injuries it delivered, this dog attack had nothing to do with the dog’s breed. It had everything to do with the irresponsible humans who spent five years neglecting and mistreating four different dogs, violating pages of laws and creating a public menace. Human errors had cost the lives of two dogs and now left Chiquita and Payaso’s lives in a precarious balance.

Imagine if drivers who recklessly hurt or killed someone were ordered to have their cars crushed, but they were free to get another car and drive it wherever they pleased. That’s essentially what our laws do with dog-bite cases. The dog is labeled dangerous; the dog dies. The person who created the dangerous dog is free to get another dog or two or six.

When I checked my options in Chiquita and Payaso’s case, I found myself caught in a crazy-making continuous loop. I wanted to spare the dogs and hold the family accountable. But no matter what question I asked, I got the same answer.

- Can the family be made to pay my medical bills? Maybe. But a judge would have to hear the case in dog court, and she’d order the dogs surrendered first. If they’re surrendered, they’ll be killed.

- Can the dogs be surrendered to a rescue group or a trainer? No. They’re dangerous. They’ll be killed.

- But the people created the dangerous dogs. Can’t they be barred from getting more dogs? It’s unlikely. That’s reserved for severe abuse/neglect cases, like large-scale animal collectors. These are dangerous dogs. They’ll be surrendered and killed.

 - So the judge wouldn’t even consider a decision that doesn’t include killing the dogs? Like ordering the family to take obedience training and quit ruining their dogs? You can propose any number of solutions, and the judge might consider them, but the first step will be surrendering the dogs. And if they’re surrendered we’ll kill them.

I’m happy to say the legal system offered one viable option: staying totally out of the legal system. I declined a court hearing and our dedicated, compassionate volunteers built a secure, roomy fenced yard for Chiquita and Payaso. The family signed an agreement that allows us to monitor them. It’s a lot more than any court could do.

Like many previously chained dogs, these two went from ferocious and fearful to friendly and playful when we turned them loose in their yard. Payaso didn’t even care when I raised the camera in front of him.

It’s heartening to see previously neurotic dogs get a second chance. But even more importantly, this arrangement held the humans accountable instead of scapegoating the dogs. We need more of that.

While we’re treating dog bites as a public safety issue – which it surely is – we need to remember it’s also a social justice issue. While any dog is capable of biting when placed in a frightening or threatening position, the majority of bites come out of irresponsible human behavior.

This isn’t news to veterinarians and trainers and shelter workers and dog rescuers – the people who try to clean up the messes left by irresponsible dog-rearing. A blog post from Total Dog Magazine lists the various and alarmingly common mistakes: improper feeding and care, lack of socialization, tethering, inappropriate punishment, lack of training.

A tiny, exceedingly rare number of dogs are just born mean. Most of them get that way because people ruined them. And these are costly mistakes: 4.7 million bites, 800,000 ER visits, thousands of surgeries to repair scarred faces and torn tendons, and countless dogs sacrificed to atone for their humans’ sins. It’s time to put the blame on the other end of the leash.