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Of Children and Dogs

I just started reading The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. The book itself is very good, but there is one particular incident that really struck home with me, even though the time and place are so much different from my own life.

The setting is post-WWII British countryside, and the protagonist is a country doctor (think James Herriot for people). He has been invited to a soiree at Hundreds Hall, one of the remaining gentrified estates. The lady of the house has invited a few other landed families, even though the house itself is falling into disrepair because the family cannot afford its upkeep. One of the families, the "new kids on the block," so to speak, brought their daughter, Gillian, who is probably somewhere between 5 and 8.

The scene in question is a few hours into the gathering, during which everyone assembled has realized that this group of people are not particularly destined to become close friends.

Ever since her arrival she'd been keeping up a rather monotonous show of being frightened of Gyp [the family dog, and elderly black lab], ducking ostentatiously behind her mother's skirts whenever his friendly wanderings around the room took him near her. Just recently, though, she had changed her tack and begun to make small advances toward him. Mr. Morley's plucking at the harpsichord had, I think, begun to bother the dog; he had taken himself to one of the windows and had settled down behind a curtain. Pursuing him there now, Gillian drew up a footstool and began gingerly petting and stroking his head, chattering nonsense to him: 'Good dog. You'r a very good dog You're a brave dog'--and so on, like that. She was partly out of our view, being over by the window. Her mother, I noticed, kept turning round to her, as if nervous that Gyp might snap at her, and once she called, 'Gillie, be careful darling!'--making Caroline snort slightly, for Gyp had the gentlest temperament imaginable, the only risk was that the child would tire him wit her chatter and her constant dabbings at his head.

Only slightly later, Gyp does indeed lash out at Gillian, tearing her cheek badly. The doctor takes her downstairs to the kitchen (and hot water) and stitches her face up. The debacle ends with Gillian's family insisting that Gyp be destroyed, which the doctor eventually does.

When I was 8 or 9, my grandparents, my mother, and I went to dinner at the house of friends of the family. I've never really been afraid of dogs in the least, and probably invade their personal space far more than I should. As it turns out, the adults were all talking, and I was playing with the family's dog, a German Shepherd mix of some sort, elderly, but not old yet. Suddenly she snapped and bit me on the face, on my right cheek. On the way to the hospital, there were two fears I had: 1) that I'd have to have a shot (I still don't appreciate needles), and 2) that the dog would have to be put down.

I still have scars on my face from the incident, though not bad enough to have ever needed plastic surgery. But I did have bandages on my face for a while, and I did have stitches, and it was a dogbite to the face. Yet even then I knew that I was at fault, not the dog. I knew, even at 8 or 9, that the dog was simply defending itself after a while of being draped over by this strange child.

I'm still not afraid of dogs, and I do tell my story when people say that bites or even the fear of bites has led to their own fear of dogs. And even as a child, on my way to the emergency room, I was completely terrified that the family would lose their dog and that it would be my fault. My first instinct will always be to give the dog the benefit of the doubt; because we do not share a common language and because we have the upper hand, we are responsible for protecting those under our care, even those who are not human.