When Man’s Best Friends Attacks: The Psychological Effect of Dog Bites
When someone else’s dog attacks, the psychological toll can be as significant as the physical injuries and financial damages. Dog bites are dangerous and prone to infection, and being attacked by a dog is terrifying. Many victims suffer considerable psychological effects that should not be ignored. If this is the difficult situation you find yourself in, don’t wait to consult with an experienced New Jersey dog bite lawyer.
Dog Bites Are Not Uncommon
To begin, it’s important to note that dog attacks are far more common than you may realize. If you’ve been attacked, you are not alone. Consider the statistics shared by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA):
- Each year in this nation, dogs bite more than 4.5 million people, and of these, more than 800,000 require medical attention.
- About 20 percent of all dog bite victims require medical care.
- Of all the dog bite victims, at least half are children – who are far more likely to be seriously impacted, both physically and psychologically.
If you or your child has been attacked by a dog, taking the matter seriously is always the best policy.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dog Bites: Symptoms and Treatment Options
In addition to wounds and other dog bite injuries, many victims suffer mental trauma, including PTSD.
The Mayo Clinic defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Being attacked by a dog is a prime example of a terrifying event. While many people have temporary difficulties after going through a frightening experience, others face far more challenging aftereffects. When any of the following apply to the symptoms associated with the terrifying event in question – such as a dog attack – it points to PTSD:
- The symptoms do not lessen over time – or get progressively worse.
- The symptoms are long-term.
- The symptoms interfere with your day-to-day functioning.
The symptoms of PTSD are generally grouped into four basic categories. It’s important to note, however, that the signs and symptoms can evolve over time and can switch back and forth between improving and worsening – with little rhyme or reason.
Memories that Intrude on Your Thoughts
The following are examples of intrusive memories:
- Having flashbacks of the dog attack, which amounts to reliving it over and over again
- Having disruptive nightmares – or night terrors – about the dog attack
- Having unwanted but recurring distressing memories about the dog attack
- Having a severe physical or emotional reaction to something that reminds you of the dog attack
Adverse Cognitive and Emotional Consequences
The following symptoms tend to signal negative consequences in relation to mood and thought processes:
- A newly acquired sense of hopelessness about the future
- Problems with your memory, such as forgetting primary elements of the dog attack
- A negative outlook about yourself, the world, or others
- Newly acquired difficulties maintaining close relationships, forging close relationships, or both
- A general sense of detachment from those who were once close to you, including family and friends
- A sense of emotional numbness
- Difficulty experiencing happiness and other positive emotions
Side Effects that Are Indicative of Avoidance
All the following are signs that you may be attempting to avoid thinking about the dog attack:
- Steering clear of the people, activities, and places that remind you of the dog attack
- Refusing to talk about the dog attack and changing the subject when it comes up
Shifts in both Emotional and Physical Reactions
If you experience changes in the way you react to physical or emotional stimuli, they’re called arousal symptoms, which can include all the following:
- Feeling as if you’re always in protection mode – or are always on guard
- Being startled or frightened easily
- Having newly acquired sleep disturbances
- Engaging in behaviors that are self-destructive, such as driving too fast or drinking too much
- Feeling overwhelming shame or guilt
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Experiencing increased irritability, anger, or aggression
The Mayo Clinic advises victims of traumatic events like dog attacks to take their symptoms seriously, which includes consulting with a medical or mental healthcare provider if any of the following apply:
- The disturbing feelings and thoughts you experience last more than a month.
- The symptoms you experience are severe.
- You feel like you’re having trouble getting your life back on track.
PTSD has a nasty way of sneaking up on victims and getting progressively worse over the course of time, which makes seeking the help you need sooner rather than later always in your best interest.
In order to diagnose PTSD, doctors generally begin with thorough physical exams to ensure that there isn’t an underlying medical condition causing the symptoms in question. Other diagnostic tools include:
- A psychological evaluation that explores your symptoms and the dog attack that preceded them
- Use of DSM-5 – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – to help pinpoint your diagnosis
Treatment for PTSD is designed to help you regain a sense of control over your life in the wake of a traumatic event like being attacked by a dog. While the primary mode of treatment is psychotherapy, there are also medications that can help. The basics of psychotherapy include all the following:
- Helping to reframe your thoughts about yourself, the world at large, and others in a more positive light
- Teaching you the skills you need to effectively address the symptoms you’re experiencing and to cope with them as they arise
- Treating additional problems that tend to accompany PTSD, including increased anxiety, depression, drinking to excess, and beyond
The bottom line is that PTSD can be very isolating, but you don’t have to face the problem alone.
Types of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy for PTSD breaks down into three basic categories that include:
- Cognitive Therapy – Cognitive therapy is a form of talk therapy that helps those suffering from PTSD recognize the thinking patterns that are holding them back.
- Exposure Therapy – Exposure therapy is behavioral therapy that helps those suffering from PTSD face down the memories and situations that frighten them, allowing them to learn coping mechanisms in the process. Exposure therapy can be especially beneficial for nightmares and flashbacks and is often used in conjunction with cognitive therapy.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – EMDR intertwines exposure therapy with guided eye movements that are designed to help those suffering from PTSD change their reactions to traumatic memories.
Any one of these – or any combination of these – may help you get a better handle on your PTSD symptoms, which can afford you the opportunity to move forward with greater purpose and hope.
The Impact of Dog Bites on Children: How to Help Your Child Cope with the Psychological Effects
As mentioned, children are the most likely to be negatively affected by a dog attack, and the consequences can be long-lasting. If your child was attacked by a dog – or saw someone else be viciously attacked by a dog – an assessment regarding whether or not trauma counseling is called for is in order. It is not uncommon for children to suffer emotional consequences in the wake of such events, which can include PTSD.
Even if your child doesn’t display clear emotional signs of a problem, problems can develop over time. Further, your child may be suppressing their symptoms as a coping mechanism. Early intervention is the surest means of warding off latent emotional consequences that can gain momentum over time and can lead to issues like the following:
- Serious sleep disturbances
- Behavioral issues that can interfere with school and relationships
- Social withdrawal
One of the most challenging aspects of PTSD is that it tends to isolate sufferers – whether they are adults or children – and to push those who are closest to them away, just when they’re needed the most.
Don’t Blame Your Child
Children count on adults to protect them from the dangers of the world, and this includes protecting them from dogs that turn aggressive. Most children have a natural fondness for dogs, which means they tend to lack the weariness of strange dogs that most adults have. If your child was attacked by someone else’s dog, the person to whom the dog belongs is responsible for the event – regardless of whether or not they knew their pet had aggressive tendencies.
By avoiding comments like the following, you help show your child that they are in no way to blame:
- I told you never to . . .
- If only you’d . . .
- Why didn’t you . . .
While your child is not to blame for the pet owner’s failure to protect them, teaching your child the warning signs of canine aggression is an excellent idea and could help protect them in the future.
The Signs of Aggression
The ASPCA shares the following signs of escalating aggression in dogs:
- Taking a stiff or rigid stance
- Barking that is guttural and threatening
- Lunging forward or charging
- Mouthing as a means of control rather than attack
- Muzzle punching
- Baring teeth
- Snarling, which combines growling with teeth baring
- Snapping, nipping, biting
- Biting repeatedly
- Biting and shaking
It’s important to recognize that dogs don’t necessarily proceed through these steps, and some dogs will go straight to attack mode. In other words, it’s important to remain vigilant whenever you believe a dog could pose a threat. Helping your child understand the signs of canine aggression can help empower them and provide them with greater control over the emotional consequences they experience.
Protecting Themselves from Canine Aggression
There are also protective measures we can take to help protect ourselves from dog attacks, and teaching these to your children can help protect them and help mitigate their anxiety regarding dogs, including:
- Back away calmly and slowly from a dog that is approaching you in a menacing manner.
- Do not turn your back on a dog that you suspect of being aggressive.
- Do not run away from a dog that you suspect of being aggressive.
- Put a barrier between yourself and the aggressive dog. Whatever is at hand will work, including a backpack, a bike, a jacket, or a stick.
- Use a loud, commanding voice to shout orders such as No!, Stop!, or Get Back!
- Use whatever you have at hand to protect yourself if the dog attacks. This can mean hitting the animal on the nose or head with a rock, stick, or bag.
- If the dog knocks you down, curl into a ball and use your arms to protect your head and neck, which are the most vulnerable areas of your body.
- Seek immediate medical attention after a dog attack – even if you don’t think you were seriously injured.
The Psychological Consequences Your Child Experiences
Because of their size in comparison to children, dogs generally bite them on their faces or above their shoulders. This sense of being overpowered by an animal that is larger than they are is compared to the fear adults who are attacked by bears experience, which can lead to shock, long-term anxiety, and overwhelming residual stress.
While adults recognize that talking about such experiences can be healing in and of itself, children do not. Children recognize that their trauma affects those who love them and tend to suppress it in response. Getting your child the help they need and encouraging them to openly share their feelings about the dog attack are the first steps on the path toward healing.
Signs that Your Child May Need Professional Help
If your child exhibits any of the following signs, it’s time to seek the professional guidance of a mental health professional with extensive experience working with children who’ve been traumatized:
- A decrease in academic success at school
- Less interest in social interactions
- Less interest in things they once enjoyed
- Ongoing resistance to talking about the dog attack
- Signs of dog phobia, such as obvious fear around dogs and avoidance of dogs and other animals
- Signs of new fears and anxieties
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
Getting your child the help they need early on can provide them with the tools they need to defeat the debilitating emotional consequences of a dog attack.
Overcoming Fear and Anxiety: Coping Strategies for Dog Bite Survivors
As mentioned, talk therapy is one of the most effective tools for overcoming the emotional consequences of a dog attack. A primary form of psychotherapy is cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which can take several helpful forms.
Tackling Negative Thoughts Head-On
After an event as terrifying as a dog attack, it’s natural to experience distorted or otherwise negative thoughts, and these can play an important role in any PTSD you experience. Common examples include – I caused the dog to attack me, and Every dog puts me at great risk. Neither of these, however, is true, and CPT can help you reframe these thoughts into statements that better reflect the reality of the situation. Shifting your negative thought processes in this way can help you reduce the level of fear and anxiety you experience as a result of the dog-bite trauma.
Integrating Traumatic Memories
CPT can help you process the traumatic experience and integrate the related memories of a dog attack – rather than living in fear of them or allowing them to take over your life. Often, this involves talking about your experience in an environment in which you feel safe and supported, exploring your related emotions, asking any lingering questions you have, and working through your unresolved feelings. This approach allows you to create a personal narrative, including the dog attack, that supports your recovery – in a manner that makes sense to you.
Addressing Behaviors that Are Designed to Avoid
CPT can also help you not only identify but also address any behaviors you’ve adopted to avoid thinking or talking about the dog attack, which are likely to get in the way of your recovery. Avoidance behaviors often include:
- Avoiding specific people that remind you of the incident
- Avoiding specific thoughts regarding the incident
- Avoiding specific places that remind you of the incident
- Avoiding specific situations that remind you of the incident
CPT can arm you with the tools you need to gradually confront your avoidance behaviors and ultimately move beyond them.
Learning Coping Mechanisms
CPT can provide you with a full set of coping skills that help you manage your problematic emotions, physical manifestations of anxiety, and other symptoms related to your dog-bite trauma. Common coping skills include:
- Stress reduction strategies
- Problem-solving skills
- Relaxation techniques
- Skills designed to help you regulate your emotions
The more tools at your disposal, the better your ability to manage triggers and improve your ability to cope and overall resilience.
Being Kind to Yourself
People who’ve experienced trauma, such as being attacked by a dog, tend to turn on themselves, but CPT can help you break this chain with increased compassion for yourself. CPT encourages you to treat yourself with the kindness that you deserve and to throw some self-care in for good measure. When you focus on your own emotional, psychological, and cognitive well-being, you set the stage for a healthier and happier future. Nurturing yourself is one of the most important steps toward overcoming trauma.
The Role of Therapy in Healing from Dog Bite Trauma: Finding the Right Professional Help
One of the most emotionally damaging aspects of dog attacks is that they often come out of nowhere – leaving the victim blindsided and terrified. This effect is much more significant for children because even a relatively small dog can be frighteningly large to them and can swiftly knock them off their feet. The feelings of helplessness that go along with such attacks help to ensure that they generate significant emotional responses that can lead to PTSD and other psychological setbacks.
The Role of Therapy
The role of therapy in the aftermath of a dog attack is to encourage the victim’s healing and to both validate and normalize their emotional responses, which are designed to help them regain a sense of control and to empower them moving forward. Once you’ve regained control of your fear and anxiety, it paves the way toward conquering any lingering fear of dogs and taking a less fearful approach to life in general.
A Good Therapist Does Not Blame the Victim
You did not cause the dog that attacked you to do so. Many owners of dogs that bite contend that the victims shouldn’t have done X, Y, or Z, which often include not looking at the dog, not walking near the dog, or not speaking in the dog’s presence. This flies in the face of the immense responsibility dog owners have to protect the public from their dogs. You can’t be expected to know a dog’s quirks, and you’re not responsible for failing to do so. The right therapist for you will not cast any blame your way.
A Good Therapist Offers Support
You’ve been attacked by a dog, and you need emotional support. Further, not every form of support is helpful in every situation or for every dog bite victim. As such, you’re looking for a therapist who has comprehensive therapeutic resources available – to help ensure you receive the brand of support that is most helpful to you.
A Good Therapist Will Help You Get Back Out There
The right therapist for you will help you process what you’ve been through to the point that you’re ready to get back out there and live your life to the fullest. This can mean walk-and-talk therapy, in which you take walks – or engage in other outdoor activities together – while addressing any lingering emotional reactions you may have.
When you find a therapist who listens to you, hears what you’re trying to say, and is invested in creating a therapeutic plan that suits you and your unique situation, you’ll be well on your way to getting the help you need.
An Experienced New Jersey Dog Bite Lawyer Can Help
David J. Cowhey is a trusted dog bite lawyer at the law firm of The New Jersey Dog Bite Lawyer, who focuses his impressive practice on helping dog bite victims like you fully recover financially for their physical, financial, and emotional losses. To learn more, please reach out to us through our online form or call us at (866) 259-4377 today.