Monday, March 17, 2014


Every year in the United States there are infants and toddlers killed by dogs.  Sometimes these are unexpected tragedies.  But after taking a few reports of such incidents, a pattern emerges.  It is not surprising since households that "innocently" mishandle pets and children bring them into a kind of shared vortex.

The pattern is this.  An adult or near-adult likes to tussle with the family dog, often getting them to play tug o'war and toss around a stuffed animal, maybe one that is used by babies in the family so that it has the baby’s smell on it.  The dog gets praised, gets excited, and maybe gets carried away, shaking the toy into bits.  In the future, the dog fails to see that the baby is not a stuffed toy and someday treats it the same way, maybe when the child is thought to be safe in a playpen or sleeping -- with adults in the house but not the room.

But there is another version of the same game.  An adult, often at bedtime when children (let's say little boys) are in underwear or pajamas, begins to play with the child physically -- tussling, hugging, maybe tickling, rolling around on the floor.  Often the child is excited, loving the attention as well as the stimulation -- esp. if the adult is not familiar, like a visiting relative or a boyfriend.  Usually it’s males who like to play this way, maybe because it doesn’t seem like “sissy” behavior, but sometimes the male also becomes excited.

When the child is finally put into the bedroom to sleep, an adult with no boundaries may come to the bed to act out his sexual fantasies as he (usually he) would have done with an adult female or male partner.  He knows the child cannot prevent the act and figures the child can be intimidated into secrecy or that he is enough desired/needed by the mother that his actions will be ignored, denied, or blamed on the child.  Maybe he's the only adult home.  Some women who do not welcome sex don’t object when it’s deflected somewhere else and think of their sons as an extension that can't get pregnant or otherwise be a rival.  Or maybe everyone is too drunk or high to care.  A. B. Guthrie Jr. had a “thing” about how men with frigid wives don’t displace the sex, but rather the frustration -- by whipping their sons.

The next step can be that the child becomes upset, the adult tries to suppress the upset with punishment, partly to exorcise his own guilt and shame, and the punishment spirals out of control so that it is the child who is thrown, smashed, beaten to death.  More often the child manages to shut down enough to be left alone but carries life-long damage.  Call it PTSD if you care to, but it not quite the same thing as a nineteen-year-old boy being in the midst of combat.

Abuse of a child leads to his or her dissociation, which is almost like petit mal epilepsy, a brain storm that can shatter identity.  Nothing dramatic like whole personalities with names  -- no “Three Faces of X” and so on, but “states of mind” that are more protective under the circumstances.  The remarks one gets while in such a state are things like “you’re not yourself,” or “you’re two people.”  The person can seem to be sleepwalking.  Preoccupied.  Daydreaming.  Or as one counselor said to me,  “You suddenly act as though I’m speaking Chinese.”  (I had withdrawn to process a new idea.  She taught me to say,  "Wait a minute.  I'm still thinking.)

One can tell how parents treat their children by watching how they treat their dogs, how they choose their dogs.  Men often involve dogs in their efforts to settle their sons, or maybe the sons reach out for dogs in order to have another being to share the dynamic of domination.  One man came into the shelter to adopt a dog and chose a rather aggressive German shepherd though we counseled against it.  In fact, now the rules have changed so that such a dog couldn’t be adopted even if were only to be a junk yard guard dog.  This dog was for a delinquent and mentally challenged son.  

The next day the man called in a rage to report that the dog had bitten his son, when “all the boy did” was to kick the dog.  The law requires that an officer must quarantine the dog in case of rabies.  The man reported that THIS dog would not be quarantined and it would not bite anyone ever again either.  He had gone out with an axe and chopped it up.  So now my task was to go get the pieces, or at least the head, so we could test it for rabies.  The only person home was a little girl who showed me where they had “buried” the dog, except that it had only been thrown into the brush and a wheelbarrow of dirt dumped over it.  The dog’s ear was sticking out, so it was easy to know where to pull.

This was less grisly than another officer’s case: a man had freaked on drugs and chopped up his whole family including the Pekinese.  Its head was under the sofa.  The more difficult problem was that the toddler had the same color hair as the Peke so the AC officer and the cop had to sort them out.  Evidently the dog had been in close proximity to the child, maybe held or maybe trying to guard him.

The case that made my reputation was at a high school, a kid siccing his golden retriever on other kids.  One had already been bitten.  I, former school mar'm, marched onto the scene, took the collar of the dog, and was not about to let go, even when a big boy held me from behind while the dog owner choked me.  They were strong boys. The matter was resolved when the dog's collar broke, but my throat hurt for a few days.

Weeks later I was nearby and saw the dog without the boy.  I heaved the dog into the truck, locked it, and was on my way when the kid showed up and threw himself on the windshield, pounding as hard as he could.  I kept driving -- slowly --  and he slid off, thankfully not going under the wheels.  I had pressed charges when the boy choked me, but the ticket had not been served because no one would open the door.  The boy and his father came to get the dog but couldn’t take it without accepting the ticket and paying fees.  Luckily the boy really wanted that dog.

Once in juvie court, the judge had the boy’s files in front of her, two piles each five inches thick.  Nothing happened to him.  The father attended but not the mother -- I’m not sure there was a mother.  No one would look at me -- I was a “dog catcher” who took a “boy’s dog!”  Love, violence, authority, aggression, gender (a female officer), sentimentality.  How does one sort it all out?

When I first moved back to Valier, I went to one of the many community events.  Two women next to me were talking about a male relative who had become drunk at a recent family picnic.  There had been a bonfire and the man got the notion of jumping over it.  He managed this successfully, and then scooped up his small son and began to jump over the fire with the kid in his arms.  Even with the extra weight, he didn’t fall in the fire.  The two women were admiring this feat.  

Unable to resist (that school mar'm thing), I turned to them and said,  “What you are talking about is child endangerment.  Maybe a felony.”  I didn’t ask their names because I had no intention of making a formal complaint -- it wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyhow.  I just figured maybe I’d raise their consciousness.  They froze, staring, hastily cleared out, and never looked at me again.  Their consciousness had a wall around it, air-tight, danger-proof.  If this boy was being subjected to other dangers in his bed at night, they knew nothing about it.  It was more than a policy -- it was a reflex.

We don’t solve underlying dynamics.  We just wall out everything from suspicions about the neighbors to international conflicts.  The graffiti on the wall says, "Stigma," "Mind your own business," and "These are MY children and dog."

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