In the space of four days, Australia has been gripped by three devastating dog attacks on children.
The first occurred on Saturday afternoon, when 12-month-old Kamillah was killed after the family’s rottweiler attacked her, according to NSW Police. At the time, she was being pushed in her pram on the way to her grandmother’s house in a neighbourhood in Inverell. The dog was seized by the local council and put down.
The next night, in Melbourne’s southeast, a 10-year-old girl was savaged in her own home by one of her family’s two South African boerboels.
She survived the attack only thanks to the neighbours who saved her life after her seven-year-old sister rushed outside for help. They found the dog – similar to a bull mastiff – going berserk, “frothing at the mouth”. The girl suffered serious injuries to her head, neck and groin, and has reportedly lost an ear. At the time of the attack, the girls were allegedly home alone while the mother was at the gym. The dog responsible – which is understood to have had prior complaints made against it by locals – has been euthanised.
Now, in Newcastle, three-year-old Tom Higgins has undergone surgery to reattach part of his ear after he was attacked by a Great Dane on Tuesday night. He had been riding his bicycle in his neighbourhood with his mother and sister when the dog lurched at him, biting his face, neck and upper back.
This sudden slew of attacks is shattering for the families involved. But sadly, they are not new.
There have been countless examples of incidents in the past few weeks, including a pitbull's attack on a man in his 50s in Sydney last month, leaving him covered in blood. A little over a week earlier, a five-year-old girl in Townsville suffered deep gashes to her face after she was mauled by a dog she had been playing with. And on Tuesday this week, two people were rushed to hospital in Mackay following separate dog attacks.
According to the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, around 13,000 people each year are rushed to hospital emergency departments in Australia for dog bite injuries. And more often than not, the victims are children, with kids three times more likely to suffer a bite requiring medical attention than adults. In fact, children are more likely to be hospitalised from a dog attack than from a car accident. And the damage can be long-lasting, often leaving facial scars and disfigurements.
Melbourne mother-of-four Monique Douglas, 42, is a parent who understands the sheer pain that comes with seeing your own child attacked by a dog.
At age five, just a week before she was due to start prep in January 2015, her daughter Alexis was pounced on by a dog, Ms Douglas told Mamamia.
Her older sister Maddie, then 16, had taken her to visit a friend. They were outside playing basketball when Alexis, who adored dogs, spotted a pitbull and wandered into the neighbour's garden to pat it.
Maddie then heard a terrifying scream pierce the air. She found her sister with blood pouring from her face, and immediately rang her parents. When Monique's husband Andrew reached Alexis, he told his wife not to look at their daughter. It was too distressing.
Alexis' next 24 hours were a whirlwind of hospital rooms, doctors, surgery and medication to fight off infection. She ended up with 50 stitches to her face where deep gashes covered her forehead, right temple and cheek.
Ms Douglas said for the next 12 months, their daughter had to wear silicone on her face for 23 hours a day and a compression mask at night to help reduce the scarring. The medical costs were in the thousands of dollars.
In the end, the owner of the unregistered pitbull was fined just $1500 in Frankston Magistrates Court - a decision that to this day disgusts Ms Douglas when compared to the life of permanent facial scarring Alexis has been sentenced to.
Upon hearing the news about the three separate dog attacks on children this week, Ms Douglas said she felt heartbroken for the families.
"I know what it was like with Alexis. All the time I think about that dog's teeth in her face and how bad that pain would have been, and how far and deep the wounds were," she said.
"These attacks bring back difficult memories for me and for my family."
Ms Douglas said she urged the public to not be so quick to judge the affected families because there was no way to truly understand the circumstances and the complexities of what is already such a traumatic situation.
"The amount of hate I copped on social media, from people saying 'I bet the parents out off smoking bongs in their backyard'. It was crazy," she said.
"They don't know anything about the situation."
She also had a message for other parents.
"Don't leave your kids alone with a dog. It doesn't matter how much you trust the dog, or whether people say their dog would never do something to a child, it's not true. It might be the nicest dog in the world but it just takes something little to make it turn and snap in seconds. I don't care what anyone says, every dog is capable," Ms Douglas said. "I can't stress it enough."
Ms Douglas said that she wouldn't even let Alexis play with their family dog, a blue heeler, unsupervised.
"I was looking at photos of kids in bed with dogs laying on their pillow and I'm like, are you mental? People don't get it until it happens to them," she said.
Ms Douglas' warning is, in fact, one that is echoed by animal behaviour experts.
Because while there is no single way of preventing an attack, the most important piece of advice is that children, particularly those aged under five, should never be left alone with dogs. Parents are also urged to teach kids not to play roughly, tease or corner dogs, and not to hug them around the neck. Children should also be told that feeding the dog is an "adults only" activity so they don't approach it while it's eating, and instructed never to disturb a sleeping canine.
Professor Paul McGreevy, a veterinary behaviourist at University of Sydney, also advised that bones and toys belonging to dogs shouldn't be left near where children play, and that the animals should be exercised at least once a day to avoid a build-up of frustration.
On the flip side, animal behaviourist Jo Righetti said people also needed to better to learn to understand dogs' body language and signs of stress or discomfort.
"People often claim that dogs attack unexpectedly, yet when we go back over the history of the incident, the dog has often been communicating their displeasure, fear or likely intentions," she said.
"For instance, if they are food-guarders and a child approaches to take food away - many owners mistakenly believe that this is the way to teach a dog to accept human presence during meal times - the dog may bite to keep their food.
"(Or) people often fail to understand that putting their dog into the backyard to prevent them potentially interacting with children in a dangerous way in the home, may then contribute to territorial behaviour. Then, when the child enters the backyard, the dog feels threatened and may attack."
LISTEN: When did we start treating dogs like our children? The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss. Post continues after audio.
For anyone planning on getting a dog, Dr Righetti said the best way to prevent attacks was to start young. She said pet dogs were "rarely sufficiently trained".
"Begin when the dog is very young, with a careful, controlled process of socialisation - from three weeks onwards. Dogs need to be continually exposed to a variety of situations throughout their life, in positive ways," Dr Righetti said.
And if things become difficult to manage or a dog is showing unwanted behaviour, seek help.
The one thing that experts agree on is introducing laws that crack down on specific breeds would not be effective in thwarting dog attacks. While there are certain restrictions on the ownership of certain breeds, such as pitbulls, the Australian Veterinary Association has cautioned against going any further.
"The Australian Veterinary Association is opposed to breed-based dog control measures because the evidence shows that they do not and cannot work," it states.
"All dogs, regardless of breed, are capable of biting and causing serious injury."
They also say banning certain high-risk breeds will only prompt owners to replace them with another large, powerful breed. Then you have the issue of unregistered dogs - as was the case in Alexis' attack.
Instead, the AVA is calling for a national database for reporting dog attacks to "truly understand the nature of the problem" and develop appropriate legislation. The database would also allow for a more effective identification and registration system using permanent microchips. The association adds that establishing a formal temperament testing plan is crucial, to be applied to all pet shops and animal shelters. Currently, the pet system is fractured, with differing guidelines across states and councils.
So while Australia is reeling from the most recent attacks, there are things we can do as a community to push for change. At the micro level, we need to give our children and our dogs the best possible education so they can live together safely. And on a wider level, the Federal Government needs to take control. Because under the right guidance, a relationship between a dog and a child can be one of the most beautiful things.
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