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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Theall

My Dog Bit Me in the Face

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Here’s what happened next.

My wife is fond of saying, “We raise terrible dogs. Don’t let us train your dogs. Ever.” She’s right, of course. There are no problem dogs, only problem dog owners. But that didn’t make my face hurt any less. To be fair, she didn’t say those words of wisdom while I was bleeding into the bathroom sink holding the shredded pieces of my lips together. She was ready to have our pup, a French bulldog named Harry Truman, put down, and I refused—immediately and without reservation—despite the fact that my mouth had started swelling, making intelligible speech difficult. I’m ashamed to admit that this was not our dog’s first offense.

Quick backstory: My wife had wanted a French bulldog, and because I showed up one day with a malamute/husky puppy in my car (I prefer large, very furry northern breeds), I convinced her she could still have the dog she wanted, too (she liked small, smooth-coated, lap dogs). Our relationship works because we understand and respect our differences, and we are fair and supportive about them. I enthusiastically found a rescue organization in Oklahoma that saved “unsellable” Frenchie pups from being destroyed. Harry had a hernia and subluxating knee but otherwise was in fine health. We fell in love with him, and you would too. For the most part, he’s a silly, clown of a dog, and a lap-loving cuddler. But sometimes, he gets triggered—a.k.a. loses his mind. It could be anything: a knock on the door, our malamute entering the room, someone calling out, “Hello!”, a geriatric golden retriever on a leash on the other side of the street, minding its own business. Our 25-pound dog turns into Cujo. But as you’ve already ascertained, the bad behavior didn’t happen all at once. The problem grew like weeds choking out a garden, slowly, insidiously; and though we did a little yard work now and then—we didn’t see the subtle changes until the flowers were all but dying.

When Harry bit our 11-year-old son, Logan, six years ago, Amy was out of town, and Logan and Harry were playing on the floor next to my desk at a rental house in the mountains. Logan was wiggling his foot and Harry was pawing at it and dancing around. When Logan stopped playing, Harry nibbled on Logan’s foot, and in reaction, Logan swatted him in the nose. In a split second, Harry leapt at Logan’s face, bulldog jaws locking on. My son ran from the room, hands to his mouth, with drops of blood trailing behind him on the carpet. He wouldn’t let me see the bite. I got towels and ice, and eventually, he allowed me to assess the injury, which appeared to be on the underside of his lip rather than on the outside of it and hadn’t pierced through the tissue. I called Amy and one of her sisters, who had raised four boys and several dogs, to get advice about seeking medical care. It was late at night, and we were in a remote part of the mountains in the middle of winter. I took photos. I texted them over. Logan didn’t want to go anywhere—and adamantly refused to have anyone messing with his lip. Our son suffers from extreme anxiety, and until very recently, was unable to tolerate dental work or flu shots. But I was the adult in the room, and I needed to decide. All parents know: seeing your kid in pain and crying will rip you apart. There’s just nothing worse. But I was also concerned about the wounds I couldn’t see. He was hurt by a pet he loved and trusted. No amount of consolation could salve that betrayal, especially when the dog still loved him.

The next morning, I took Logan to Urgent Care, and the nurse explained that normally, they were required to report dog bites to animal control. Logan’s face went ashen. She softened. Because it was a family pet, and the dog’s bite been a reaction to being swatted in the nose by Logan—she agreed to keep animal control out of the loop. We certainly didn’t want Harry’s fate taken out of our hands by strangers—and as she noted, boys Logan’s age were the majority of dog bite victims—frequent visitors to the ER. Later, as a family, we decided that Harry would be granted clemency—that he was a dog being a dog. Privately, my wife and I believed that if we gave Harry away or had him euthanized, Logan would feel responsible. He would forever carry the weight of having done something that caused the loss of our family pet. As for Logan, he forgave Harry, almost instantly, and life went back to normal.

Over the next six years, we altered our behavior and our lives around Harry. Anxiety and adrenaline became the constant companion of our family. And it created tension between me and my wife. Harry went after Tug, our malamute, because Tug was being weird and annoying—or in Amy’s words—an asshole. True, the dog flips his bowl over and barks to go in and out of the house when he has a dog door, but not a reason for Harry to try to kill him. Harry nipped at our friend’s child because the kids were running in the house. I argued that we should be able to run, jump, or yell in our own home without fear. Harry bit the Amazon delivery guy because I didn’t pick Harry up before opening the door. On and on, until…

On July 1 of 2022, we closed the bedroom door, with Harry on his bed, and turned out the lights. At 2am, in pitch black, Tug scratched on the door to be let in. Harry lost it—ready to lunge at him the minute I turned the knob—we’re talking ultra-aggressive snarling, spit flying, gnashing of teeth. So, to prevent a dog fight, I leaned over to pick Harry up. Out of his mind with a singular goal to attack, Harry tried to rip my face off—which worked, because I immediately let go of him. At first, I didn’t know he had bit me. I thought he slammed into my nose and mouth and perhaps knocked one of my teeth loose. Instinctually, I reached for my face, and that’s when the warm flow of blood dripped through my fingers.

I didn't cry. ASPCA commercials and St. Jude Children's Hospital PSAs make me cry, but not physical pain. I made an, Oh, oh, oh, whimpering sound, pathetic enough, running toward the bathroom sink. Amy—catching up to what happened—wanted to punt the dog across the room. She yelled at him to go on—to go away—and a few other choice words I can’t print here. His pea-brain had already moved on. He had zero understanding of what the fuss was about. Amy said, “That’s it, we have to put him down.” I said, “We’re not putting him down,” leaning over the sink, relieved my teeth were still there. I kept rinsing away blood, still unable to see the damage. Then my legs buckled—caused by adrenaline maybe and a drop in blood pressure—and I reeled toward the tile before Amy caught me. She led me to the bed, returning with ice and paper towels.

She looked at my face. “I think we need to go to the ER.”

“Just let me lay her for a minute,” I told her.

“You need stitches.”

“I don’t need stitches. I think it’ll be okay.”

When I was able to stand upright again, I went to the bathroom mirror. My lips were shredded, part of the upper lip hanging. I agreed to go to the ER.

On the way there, we argued about Harry. I told her to let me tell the doctors what happened, so they wouldn’t report Harry to animal control. I wanted us to keep our options open—I told her that Harry’s fate would be a family decision. But I had already decided that putting Harry down wasn’t an option. There were many reasons, including one at the top: If we put Harry down, we were in effect saying that I was more important than Logan. If we didn’t get rid of Harry when Logan got bit, why would we do it because of me? It was the kind of logic that made sense in a waiting room at 3am. So, the story we told at the ER was that our dogs got into a fight; I tried to break them apart; I got bit.

A nurse came in to clean out my wound. She was very Boulder…I can’t remember her name, so I’ll just call her Buttercup. Buttercup said, “I bet you’re mad at the dog. Are you angry with the dog?” She said it in a soothing, therapist voice, her hand gently on my arm. I actually laughed. “I’m not mad at the dog. The dog was being a dog. It’s an animal. When you decide to live with an animal, things happen.” Which brings me to another odd musing: Why do we humans get so much satisfaction and self-worth from successfully taming and training an animal to fit into our world? We humans are just weird.

The doctor came in, and Amy requested that he call a plastic surgeon to do the stitches. I just wanted it to be over, though I was aware I only have one face and that it might be wrecked for good. I’m not vain. I’ve owned the same eyeliner for two decades and don’t own a hairdryer. Still. It’s my face, and I’m fond of it. The ER doc said, “I can call the plastic surgeon, but I’ll tell you right now that I’ve sewn up more dog bites in the ER than he ever has or ever will. It’s what I do, and I’m good at it.” Sold.

The numbing shots hurt the worst. Imagine needles going into raw skin with sensitive nerve endings. Amy held my hand, watched the doc carefully, complimented him on his “art.” She was into it, truly—something I love about her—her authentic curiosity and appreciation for a person's talent or craft. Plus, I was glad I didn’t have a wife who would pass out during medical procedures. Ten stitches later, they released me to go home, telling me to ice my face, eat a luke-warm liquid diet, and not smile. I wasn’t smiling, and for once, I loved that I could hide behind a Covid mask if I needed to go out in public. I didn’t want to bump into anyone and have to explain that my own dog had hurt me. That said, I did have some one-liners ready should someone ask. They ranged in deadpan absurdity from "circus accident" and "rock concert" to "tractor racing" and "chocolate allergy."

Amy was scheduled to go out of town the next day, and I begged her to go. The worst had happened, and I didn’t need help doing anything. She apologized over and over, even though none of this was her fault. Still, she worried about me and Harry—about leaving us alone together. How could she ask me to care for a dog that had just attacked me? What she didn’t understand was that it was impossible for me to process my trauma over the incident with her—because Harry was essentially her dog, and she was caught in the middle of loving us both—feeling responsible and ashamed and desperate to rewind the clock and fix this. To that end, she said, “Why did you pick him up? Why didn’t you just let him go after Tug?” I got angry, “Don’t make this my fault. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I should be able to pick him up when I need to. Stop making excuses for him.” It smacked of victim shaming. But I knew she was just trying to figure out a way to make things work for all of us, and it just seemed hopeless. It would happen again. That much was certain. Even our son Logan—now 17—took one look at my face and then turned toward Amy and said, “Well, I guess you’re next.”

After Amy left, I drunk-dialed friends with Harry nestled in my lap. On those calls, I sounded as if I were describing domestic abuse, and in some ways, I was. He didn’t mean to do it. I could’ve been anyone. It wasn’t personal. He just lost his mind. There’s so much good to him. He’s not vicious. It was situational. I just want his behavior to change. I love him, despite the fact that my face may never look the same again. And finally, the truth: I wanted to teach our son, who was adopted, that you never gave up on family. Period. We signed up for this. We knew what Harry was capable of, and with twisted logic, we agreed to let it happen. But other people visiting our home hadn’t signed that waiver. If we didn’t want to protect ourselves from Harry, that was our business. But we couldn’t allow Harry to terrorize other people or pets. My friends listened. A couple people were adamant that we needed to put Harry down or “re-home” him. I scoffed about rehoming, because beyond missing Harry, we’d just be giving away a biting dog to another family—which was unconscionable.

Beyond my feelings about having been bit by my own dog—shame, embarrassment, self-blame, and fear—I was traumatized by the physical injury itself: The suddenness, the middle of the night visit to the ER, the shock of seeing my lip torn away, the sadness I felt looking at the swelling and lumps remaining. Were there things I should be doing to make the cuts heal right? I logged onto Facebook and quickly found the group:

(Thank God there is a support group online for EVERYTHING!) The site had more than 600 members, and they posted hopeful images of their wounds from day one to months or years later. They talked about scar gels and silicone strips and massaging tissue and avoiding sun exposure. My wife would be thrilled that I would finally agree to wear sunscreen daily. Very few posts included incidents involving the family dog, a complex emotional tangle I’d need to sort out on my own, but the group inspired hope that my physical wounds might heal.

While Amy was gone, she ordered a muzzle, which arrived overnight from Amazon and put me in a quandary. The delivery guy would get bit if I opened the door without picking up Harry first, which I refused to do for obvious reasons. I pointed to the “Beware of Dog” sign, and he left the package on the ground. It seemed cruel to have Harry wear the muzzle all the time, and yet, we had to do something to prevent him from harming others. I put it on him, tossing treats through the cage to try to make wearing it a positive experience. He cried and pawed at it and ran his face across the carpet looking miserable. I hated this for him. I took it off.

As soon as Amy returned, I left for Texas to visit my dad, who was in the hospital. When I returned from the trip, Harry was at Board and Train for a month with a company called “High Drive Dog Company.” I was skeptical that any real change would come from it, but I realized that trying to fix Harry and mend our household was something Amy needed to do—even if it cost her the equivalent of two months' mortgage. Though we share finances, she used her own money to pay for the classes and training. She didn't tell me at the time, but she felt like asking me to contribute would be cruel and unfair.

I could write an entire article profiling the truly gifted woman who runs High Drive, Carli Shivers. Cesar Millan has nothing on this woman. At a doggy play date, she stood in the middle of the dog yard, among a dozen or more breeds—from Mastiffs and Pitbulls to terriers and Aussies, able to communicate and command them in a way that reminded me of Chris Pratt training Velociraptors in Jurassic World. She turned in circles, calling each one out by name, correcting and rewarding, using an e-collar on some, meant to communicate not cause pain. I watched as a large Pyrenees approached Harry, and I tensed up waiting for Harry to go into full attack mode. He remained indifferent. It was a flat-out, honest-to-God miracle.

After Carli and her staff laid the groundwork for the reboot of Harry 2.0, Amy continued to take him to regular training sessions every Saturday, one-on-ones with Carli in our home or on the trails, and to overnight doggy day care. She committed herself to the task, and I allowed her to shoulder most of the responsibilities regarding Harry. To be fair, we needed more training than the dog—which isn’t the same thing as making excuses for his behavior. We are still wary of having Harry around other people and dogs, but our household feels peaceful in a way it hasn’t in years.

As for my face, most folks wouldn’t notice I was ever bit. My upper lip is numb and cold in places, and it sometimes tingles, stings, or itches. I drooled on my keyboard the other day while eating, and I’m aware that I could get frostbite much easier now, a real concern since I regularly go to polar regions. The irony isn’t lost on me. As a photojournalist, I spend my time photographing grizzlies and polar bears, animals that weigh hundreds of pounds and could easily kill me—yet it’s a small dog that’s turned my life upside down. As I type this, Harry is curled against my side snoring. He’s still a lovebug—but I never lose sight of the fact that he’s an animal with instinct, teeth, and locking jaws. I signed the waiver. It’s complicated, but at least for now, I’m good. Link to video reel:

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Jan 13, 2023

Michelle! What a quandry.

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