Let me tell you about my friend Jimmy the Dog.
Jimmy the Dog is actually a guy named Jim DeBellis. I’ve known him since we went to high school together. He’s always been a performer, someone rarely at a loss for words.
As it happens, Jim’s received national exposure this week by donning a dog suit in a series of short videos produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association to promote National Dog Bite Prevention Week. You can see the videos online at http://shawurl.com/16m0.
The videos feature Jim in a dog costume, doing dog things like chasing squirrels, gnawing on a bone or trying unsuccessfully to get at the mailman through a glass door … and also not-so-dog things, like karate or pitching a remake of the 1989 film “Turner and Hooch.”
“The AVMA has always been extremely strict on not putting people in dog suits, they don’t want to humanize it, they didn’t want it to be funny,” Jim told me. “They were always concerned with a human in a dog suit, [that] it wouldn’t go over well.
“But [this year] they came to the director and were like, ‘Hey, uh, we want a guy in a dog suit.’ “
They got the right guy to break the guy-in-a-dog-suit barrier. Jim hams it up and makes the videos fun to watch, but the subject matter – preventing dog bites – is serious.
There are almost 5 million dog bites in the U.S. each year, according to the AVMA’s dog bite prevention website, and more than half are children.
If you think about it, you probably know someone who has been bitten by a dog, probably in a situation that seemed innocent enough. The bite might have been severe enough that they had to seek medical treatment, and get insurance companies involved.
The Insurance Information Institute and insurer State Farm said that dog bites accounted for more than a third of homeowners insurance liability claim funds paid out in 2013. Settlements cost more than $483 million.
Unfortunately, we had our own dog-bite story in DeKalb this week, where a woman was bitten by a dog at the DeKalb Park District’s new dog park at Katz Park. Angela Rojas, who was at the park with her own dog when another dog bit her on her left arm, needed surgery, was hospitalized for days, and the dog’s owners left the scene.
It’s not a matter of making dogs out to be dangerous – I once had a lovably evil cat named Disco who did more damage to me than any dogs I’ve known. But the fact that dogs are such loyal, lovable companions makes us forget that they’re also animals with instincts, and when they feel threatened, their instinct sometimes tells them to bite.
Often the people who are bitten are dog lovers themselves. Someone sees a dog walking on a leash, or on the other side of a fence, thinks “dogs love me,” and their first reaction is to pet them.
The veterinary association says – and Jimmy the Dog agrees – that you should never pet a dog when:
• It’s not with its owner
• You don’t have the owner’s permission to pet the dog
• The dog is on the other side of a fence
• The dog is sleeping or eating
• If it’s playing with a toy
• If it’s growling or barking
• If it seems to be hiding or seeking time alone.
Dogs often bite because they feel threatened or afraid, said Victoria Stillwell, dog trainer and host of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog.”
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of cases that I’ve seen where dogs have been aggressive it’s because a dog has been inherently fearful, uncomfortable, insecure, unable to cope with the situation.” Stillwell said on a podcast on the AVMA’s web site.
Dog lovers aren’t the only ones who routinely have to worry about dog bites. The classic cartoon scene where the dog chases the mailman down the street? Yeah, still happens a lot, and postal workers don’t find it terribly funny.
The U.S. Postal Service said more than 5,800 mail carriers suffered dog bites in 2013. If a carrier is attacked while bringing the mail to your house, mail delivery can be cut off.
Dogs often perceive someone delivering the mail to the door as an intruder or a threat, especially if there are children around. As Jimmy the Dog says, “nobody threatens my bestest pal!”
Experts recommend taking your dog into another room when the mail carrier shows up, and say children should never collect the mail if their dog is outside.
As for Jimmy the Dog, he’s finished filming his week’s worth of videos, and even took a trip to Washington, D.C., for a news conference promoting dog bite awareness.
He might not have to hang up the dog suit just yet.
“The AVMA said they definitely want to use me again,” Jim said.
It’s always great to see guys from the old neighborhood making good. Who knows, maybe he’ll score a dog food commercial or something down the road.
No matter what Jim’s animal-acting future might hold, we should all heed the wisdom of Jimmy the Dog. Dog bites are not nearly as amusing as a grown man in a dog suit.
Memorial Day: For those who did their duty and gave their lives in service to America, we all should be grateful.
It’s because of their sacrifice that I have the freedom to write whatever I please in this column without fear of being thrown in jail, and others in countries around the world can as well.
Admittedly, Jimmy the Dog probably wouldn’t be a jailable column topic even in North Korea. But I’ll see what I can come up with next week.
• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.