Pinta the Rottweiler and I were on our evening walk when she stopped suddenly, stiffening at the sight of another dog ahead on the sidewalk. I had time for two thoughts —Look out! and Nah, it’ll be okay— before 70 pounds of lunging muscle jerked the leash from 0 to 60, yanking my ring finger sideways. Oh damn, I thought when I caught my breath and looked down at its weird new angle. This is not good.
That turned out to be an understatement. Who knew that a joint could splinter? Two years, one complex surgical procedure, two casts and many months of physical therapy later, the finger (on my dominant hand, naturally) flexes just enough that I can type; I will never make a fist again. I would feel even stupider—I’ve owned big, strong dogs for 17 years, and knew better than to wrap the leash around my fingers as I did—if stories of others felled by their dogs hadn’t started coming my way. There was the emailed photo of a friend’s bloody face after her huge Akita mix tangled her in the leash and she went down. Another showed me a finger even more crooked than my own. I read about the French pro soccer player who missed a big game because he’d twisted his ankle while walking his dog, and the South African cricket goalie sidelined with a wrenched knee after an altercation featuring two Jack Russells.
What I’ve dubbed the “DRI,” or Dog-Related Injury, seems to be everywhere. We who love our dogs like to brag about how they keep us social, active and fit. What we don’t like to admit is that while those dogs (usually) don’t bite the hands that feed them, they have been known to break them.
How often do our sweet co-pilots trip us, knock us over, dislocate our shoulders and break our wrists, slam us in the knees, and head-butt us? Interestingly, no public agency seems to think it’s worth tracking the prevalence of DRIs, but orthopedists, ER docs, researchers and even professional dog trainers know the answer: a lot. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control released an analysis of five years of emergency room injury data. In their report, some 86,000 fall injuries were associated with pets, mostly dogs, annually. (The injuries affected all age groups, but older patients were more likely to break a bone.)
Another study, done in 2010 in England, looked at traumaand fracture-clinic patients in a rural general hospital and found that a significant percentage of the injuries had involved the patients’ dogs. A majority had fallen, but two caught their fingers in their dog’s collar, one fell into a hole the dog had dug in the garden, and one had been pushing her reluctant dog out of the house into the rain when the dog suddenly moved and she tumbled down the front steps.
In 2005, in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, a Philadelphia physician with persistent elbow pain reported “discovering” a new condition, “Hogan’s elbow.” He traced his problem to walking Hogan, his unruly black Lab. Mark S. Cohen, MD, a hand and elbow surgeon at Rush University Medical Center and Midwest Orthopedics at Rush in Chicago, notes that he and his colleagues see DRIs that include severe finger and wrist fractures, dislocations, and ruptured tendons “all the time.”
DRIs can also be caused by less predictable events. In 2011, tabloids reported that Martha Stewart needed nine stitches to repair her upper lip after she leaned down to whisper goodbye to her sleeping French Bulldog, who bolted awake and knocked her in the face. Betty Pinkartz Donnelson was done in by a 12-pound Terrier, who came flying across the room when he spotted her on the couch putting on her shoes and thought that meant a walk was in the offing. “His head hit the base of my little finger at just the right angle, and I heard this loud pop,” she says. “I ran some errands and it kept swelling and hurting more. I had a spiral fracture and ended up with a metal plate, six screws and months of physical therapy. Two years later, I still can’t carry a suitcase in that hand.”
Most of the time, though, a DRI is evidence of human error. “People get hurt walking a dog who’s never been trained, and whom they’re not capable of handling,” says Michael Chill of Los Angeles–based Animal Services Dog Training and Behavior. “They come to me after they develop carpal tunnel syndrome from yanking too hard on the leash for years.”
We also get hurt because we get lazy, careless, fail (like me) to pay attention to our dog’s signals or are so obsessed with our phones that we text even when that means holding onto 50 pounds of raw energy with one hand. We ignore advice about the dangers of retractable leashes, when a casual Google search reveals pictures of nightmarish leash burns and even tales of amputation. (One woman whose leash cord got pulled tight when her large Lab bolted was horrified to spot part of a human finger lying nearby, and even more horrified when she realized it was her own.)
In the mindlessness of the moment, we forget basic rules like never intrude on squabbling dogs. Dan Mayfield says his two Salukis “love to box, standing up on their rear legs, snarling and pushing each other around with their front paws. So one day they’re doing this, and I think it’s getting to be too much for the 10-year-old and stick my hand in to stop them, and the three-year-old bites me, hard, right through the web of my thumb.”
And sometimes, because we get lulled by the dull, sweet zen of daily walks on the same streets at the same time, we mistake an animal who craves predictability for one who is always predictable.
“One of my clients was walking her two dogs when both suddenly lunged after a squirrel that had come down from a tree,” says trainer Michael Chill. “Each dog ran to a different side and my client, caught in the middle, hit the tree and broke her nose.”
Sharon Jensen, who ran regularly with her Golden Retriever, Clancy—“always on a leash and always on my left, because I’m a good pet owner”—did fine until the day the two were sprinting and Clancy abruptly decided to swerve right. “He cut in front of me and I went head over heels over him,” recalls Jensen. “I got tangled in the leash, fell on my right side, badly sprained my ankle, scraped my knees, wrecked my wrist. This was in the days before iPhones, so I limped all the way home.”
Michelle Bekey’s beloved Great Dane mix, Ava, was 80 pounds and nine months old when, she says, “with no warning, he decided to dive at something behind me and yanked my arm and shoulder backwards. It felt like someone had put a cattle prod at the base of my neck. I found out later I’d torn two disks.”
Carole Pearson runs the rescue Dawg Squad and is no fool about big dogs, many of whom she’s owned and fostered over the years, but even she was a victim of her expectations. “When I had Jack, my original Rottie, who weighed 130 pounds, and Gus, an 80-pound Chow, I took them over to my mother’s house every day when I went to work, and fell into a routine of opening the car door and getting their leashes while they were getting out,” she says. “It was fine. Until one morning, they saw a cat. My mom lived at the top of a hill and they went downhill after it. I was wearing a long black dress, black boots and nylons, and when I took off after them, my mom said I looked like the flying nun. Half a block away, I fell, wrecked my clothes, gashed my knees and an elbow, and bruised a rib. There was a school across the street and some teachers ran out to help me—at which point, Jack, who thought they were hurting me, came back and stood over me, growling. I was screaming ‘Everybody get away if you don’t want to get bit!’ My mother laughed about it the rest of her life.”
Another common human mistake: forgetting that a new animal will probably act differently than a familiar one. Cathy Scott had trained her two dogs to sit and wait at the front door when it was time to go out. No one passed that message to June, a Lab/Pit mix someone dumped in Scott’s yard, and whom she’d agreed to foster. “I was getting ready to take all three dogs to the park, and had June’s leash wrapped in my fingers because I wasn’t expecting movement,” she recalls. “My dogs stayed still when the door opened, but June leaped, and I could hear my forefinger snap.” She adds, “I was going to the park to meet friends who wanted to network June, so we still went. When we got home, I iced my broken finger and finally went to the doctor.”
Another woman, too embarrassed to be identified, recalls taking a new, young Chow/Golden mix rescue for a walk at 10 at night. “Not the smartest thing I ever did. He saw something and went after it, and I went flying, dislocated my thumb and fell on my face so hard I lost a front tooth and broke my jaw. I was bleeding and my husband insisted we go to the ER, where they questioned the two of us separately about what had happened. I realized they thought my husband had hit me. After 20 minutes, they finally accepted that it had been the dog.”
The sad irony of a DRI is that the damage often outlasts the beloved animal who caused it. Clancy, the Golden who sent Sharon Jensen sprawling, passed away years ago, but that fall was the beginning of a long orthopedic journey, she says. “I would’ve had problems with my hips eventually, but the accident messed them up earlier. It really had lifetime consequences. Clancy will have my heart forever—and his behavior has my bones.”