Thursday, October 11, 2007

Okay, did everyone think about it?

Last I heard, Javier still hasn't made contact with the owner of the Airedale that attacked Ralphie, though he's still hoping he can. It's unfortunate that after the attack, when the apologetic owner offered his personal information, nobody had any means of writing it down--and honestly, in the aftermath of such a horrifying incident, it's understandable that people let it go (as an afterthought, it might also have worked to tell him what vet clinic Ralphie was going to, so he could contact Javier through them, or just pay the bill directly). The owner hasn't returned to the run, as far as anyone knows. He and the Airedale were not regulars, and after this, it's unlikely they'll become regulars. Apparently, they don't live all that near the run, anyway.

However overwrought people can be after such an attack, the best possible course of action to follow is to

1)Keep tempers under control, what's done is done.

2)Avoid saying anything bad about anybody's dog, because we all KNOW that is the one button on a dog owner you NEVER want to push, and


Most of us have all kinds of high-tech equipment on us; cellphones, pagers, notebook and laptop computers, palm pilots, etc. And yet, it seems like almost every story I hear about one dog hurting another at a run ends with "And we didn't get the owner's information, so we had to pay the vet bill ourselves." Variations on that theme abound.

To be sure, sometimes the people in question just aren't going to want to pay, and won't give their information. Here's an idea--if anybody has a digital camera, or cameraphone, take photos, video--if they're going to be assholes about it, tell them we'll post images of them and their dogs at the run, and on this blog. If you can't take a picture, try to remember as much as you can about the offending parties, and email'll put it up. We can forgive mistakes, but not an unwillingness to atone for them.

As my own poor contribution to solving this problem, I went out and purchased a 99 cent CD case, and put a pen and some post-it pads in it. Hung it on the tree in the center of the run, inside the benches, a few days back. Hopefully it'll stay there a while. I'm sure there has got to be a better system, and anyone who thinks they can improve on it should feel free to do so--or you can simply replenish the supplies if you notice them getting low, and happen to have a spare pen and/or pad. And of course, the pen & paper can be used for more pleasant things, like writing down contact info for people and dogs you DO want to see again sometime.

While we don't want to turn The Rocky Run into some kind of private club, and we don't want the kind of Run Nazis who sometimes plague more established runs elsewhere in the city ("My dog doesn't like your dog, so wait until we leave to come in"--yes, this actually happens), we do want anyone who isn't willing to be responsible for their dogs' behavior to go elsewhere (preferably obedience class), and I can't think of a better way to deter them than to make it clear that ALL of us are going to insist they pay any vet bills their dog's behavior incurs.

We shouldn't yell, we shouldn't threaten, but we should firmly and collectively insist that restitution be made, and no excuses should be accepted. Sometimes both parties are at fault, of course. But in the worst cases--such as Ralphie's--it's no great task to assign blame. So it shouldn't be any great task to exchange information, in what is supposedly The Information Age.

One thing we are all going to have to consider at some point is whether we want part of The Rocky Run set aside for a small dog run. It isn't going to happen right away, and maybe we don't want it to happen, but after what happened to Ralphie, we'd be pretty insensitive not to at least consider it. Ideally, we could keep the run as it is, and add on a bit of space adjacent to it--with a separate entrance, otherwise what's the point? But that may not be an option. We all know the little dogs often love nothing more than to play with the big dogs, and most of the time they can do so without anyone getting hurt. Ralphie is going to be just fine--but suppose he hadn't been? Food for thought.

There will now follow a sermon--please forgive me, must be the influence of getting Max blessed at the cathedral last weekend--

Dog runs, once unknown in New York, now springing up all over the city, are one of the best things that have happened to our fair town in decades. Offleash hours, which have been informally and inconsistently available for 20-odd years, and only recently became a formal reality as their efficacy became something parks dept. officials wanted to take credit for, are another. As the number of dogs in the city has climbed, the incidents of dog bites have dropped. Most attacks that do occur don't happen at dog runs, or involve offleash dogs in parks either.

When you read the accounts of serious dog attacks, they nearly always involve dogs who have been abused, dogs who are protecting (as they see it) their people or property, dogs who have been deliberately conditioned to be hostile to people and/or other animals, including their own kind, frustrated unstable dogs who end up biting members of their own families at home, dogs who become dangerous because of little or no training, and little or no exercise and socialization. None of these attacks would be prevented by bringing back the old leash laws, and shutting down dog runs--quite the contrary.

Max just recently sustained the first wounds he has ever gotten from another dog--happily so minor as to be scarcely worth mentioning--both dogs were on the leash when they were introduced. Leashes can sometimes prevent an attack from happening, but they can just as easily provoke an attack that would otherwise never have happened.

When we first got Max, he was very uncertain with other dogs, and after some unfortunate encounters provoked by the insecurity and defensiveness created when poorly socialized dogs meet on the leash, he started becoming increasingly aggressive and territorial.

It was The Rocky Run, and the offleash hours crowd that meets down in Ft. Washington Park in the mornings, that helped him more than anything else--combined with some much-needed obedience training, and a lot of love, he quickly became the calm and confident (and endearingly klutzy) urban socialite he is now. He was always a great dog, but for those who have complimented his good behavior, and his tolerance, I must tell you--he didn't come in a box that way.

For so many of us, the ability to let our dogs offleash has been a blessing. But there has never been any such thing as an unmixed blessing.

It's great that we have these resources available to us now, but if we don't use them, or use them in the wrong way, we're planting the seeds that can lead to our losing them--not to mention some of our dogs. When somebody gets a dog for the first time, or brings their dog with them when they move to the city, or simply comes to realize that there are places they can take the dog they already have, it's unreasonable to expect that person and his or her dog to figure everything out at once. Mistakes can happen, and learning takes time, for humans and dogs alike. We are social animals both, but sociability is still largely a learned behavior, however inherent it may be to both our species. So we have to be patient with newbies--and we also have to consider the possibility that we may also still have a lot to learn about how to prevent fights and attacks before they happen, and how to behave on the rare occasions they occur.

It's the rarity of dogfights in runs that makes it hard to prepare for them--we tend to be relaxed and at ease most of the time, and we should be that way. After all, we don't want to go around in a constant state of nervousness, blunting our own enjoyment of our dogs' recreation, and conveying that tension to our dogs, whose ability to pick up on our emotions is well known. Fear is never the answer. Fear creates the very problems it anticipates. Fear prevents us from reacting properly, and in time. And our dogs pick up on fear, which make them fearful in turn, which makes our fears reality. So I'm not suggesting that we panic every time a dog we don't know enters the run, and approaches our dog.

But the fact is that the social dynamic in any dog run, or offleash recreation area changes, every time a new dog arrives--when our dogs are interacting, they aren't simply a collection of individually nice dogs; they become a collective organism, a sort of proto-pack.

Certain dogs love to play rough with each other, others are offended or frightened by such behavior--their very shyness can be provocative to more playful dogs, trigger a prey response, particularly when the shy dog is also much smaller. Play is basically channelled aggression, and dogs chasing and tussling with each other should be watched carefully--and joyfully, because as long as it doesn't get out of control, this is the very kind of behavior that teaches our dogs how not to go too far. But sometimes we need to tell them when they go too far.

If the same dogs played together every day, they'd learn all they needed to learn from each other, and develop a strong sense of hierarchy, which would make fights nonexistent--this is one thing that makes planned 'playdates' so desirable. But the numbers of people and dogs in our area, combined with the unpredictability of our schedules, make this an imperfectly realized ideal at the best of times, so we have to provide structure, set limits--and watch out for the dog who doesn't know where to draw the line, and (even worse) the owner who doesn't know there IS a line.

We aren't as good at reading our dogs' body language at they are at reading each other (and us), but we can watch for the more obvious warning signs--a tail curled high over the back when sniffing another dog, fur bristling at the ridge of the spine, stiffened posture, etc--but none of these are 100% reliable. And because such an amazing genetic variety of dogs live here, you will often see a dog whose tail is normally held high, or simply doesn't change position in response to the dog's emotional state. A dog with a wiry coat, or a very short coat, may not bristle the way other dogs do, even if he or she is feeling the same anger or defensiveness.

If two dogs are going to fight, it may happen within seconds of the first sniff, or half an hour later. But in my experience, the worst incidents tend to happen very shortly after two dogs meet for the first time. And if two dogs like each other from the first, it's very unlikely there'll ever be a serious problem between them, though that doesn't mean there can't be the odd tiff. Point is, the first meeting is always the most important, and should be closely observed. And just because all parties hope it goes well, doesn't mean they shouldn't be poised to act if it doesn't. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Perfection isn't possible. A 100% safety record is an unreasonable goal to expect, for a children's playground, a high school athletics team, a bike-riding club, or a yoga class--nobody should place a higher safety standard on us and our dogs. To put it crudely, no matter how careful you are, sometimes **** just happens. But we should place the very highest standards on ourselves--teach ourselves to look for potential trouble, and prepare ourselves to deal with it. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, GET THE OTHER PERSON'S INFORMATION. Or, even less happily, provide yours if it was your dog doing the damage.

But you know, if you actually read all of this, I really doubt it will be.


Alice said...

Hi, Chris,
On a somewhat related note, I feel strongly that we should post a sign on the outside of the run, saying something like, "if your dog is not neutered or spayed, please do not come in if there are other dogs here." I'm tired of seeing unneutered males getting into fights, unneutered males attacking my dog when she's trying to play with the female that's being humped, and things like the Ocean-unspayed-Pit situation. Them getting stuck painfully in the position for 10 minutes and then coming out of it bloody and hurt is not good. If Ocean weren't neutered we'd have eight new dogs in the world with no homes.
I feel that particularly when innocent dogs are the subjects of attack, I as the owner should be able to reference a dog-run rule that's posted visibly, and ask them to leave.
What do you think?

Chris said...

Alice, reading over your comment again, I am horrified to think of Hannah being attacked by any dog. I must confess to being unfamiliar with this particular situation--this was a female in heat Hannah was playing with? This has happened a number of times?

I'm unfamiliar with any dog run currently in the city that forbids unneutered males and unspayed females from coming in. Obviously females in heat are never allowed, but we both know it's going to happen anyway, sometimes.

I didn't have the impression from Ocean's owner that his encounter with the female pit bull was that traumatic for either party. I would submit that the incident in question proves that regardless of what surgical procedures they undergo, our dogs are inherently sexual beings--neutered males go right on producing male hormones inside their bodies, though in smaller amounts.

Neutered males can be very territorial and protective of 'their' females in a run, Case in point--Jerry's Max, who I doubt would ever hurt another dog, but as Jerry will tell you (and probably has), dislikes most unneutered males, even if they're perfectly well-behaved. He was neutered long ago, but that didn't stop him from liking the girls. It didn't stop Ocean, either. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

I like the phrase Louis MacNiece used in "The Death of a Cat", when he referred to his much-mourned and apparently neutered male as 'incurably male'. Guys are guys, gals are gals, and there's nothing any vet can do about that.

There are many powerful arguments for spaying and neutering most dogs and cats, most of which don't concern dog runs, and we'll be getting to some of those in the very near future.

But again, while it's not my call to make, I would like to point out that the most any of the larger more established runs in the city will say is that they encourage people to neuter their males, and that females in heat are never allowed. If I'm wrong about this, please let me know. I don't even know if we're allowed to make a rule like that--we are on public land, after all. The run is a public resource, and there has to be widespread consensus about the rules governing them, or there's no hope of getting people to follow those rules. A lot of dog people want to breed their dogs. And as horrible as the pet overpopulation problem is, we do want dogs to breed sometimes.

IMO, while neutering is a surefire method of preventing a male from siring puppies, it is not at all a reliable means of preventing aggression. Some males become more aggressive when neutered, because it makes them insecure. Many others become calmer, and it certainly makes them less likely to chase females in heat, but even then, it probably does nothing more than take the edge off. The essential nature of the beast remains the same.

This much I will say--it is ridiculous for anyone to think that a neutered male is any less a male. Whether that person thinks this would be a good thing or not. Max was neutered long before I ever met him--he's still my boy, and he always will be. I don't need him to have a big pair on him to feel proud of him--he's the only boy I've ever had, and yeah, I guess there is something more in that statement than just proud pet owner. His maleness is something I celebrate, is what I'm saying. As I celebrated my last dog's femaleness. I guess I'm saying I HATE the word "neutered", even though I'm in no way offended by the surgical procedure it refers to, as long as it's done for the right reasons.

If men want a symbol of their supposed potency, let them buy a motorcyle or a sports car, or suchlike. Do you ever get the feeling some lines of pit bull are being bred for overendowment as much as Vick's dogs were for aggression? How silly can you get?

But can I say, the worst argument I've ever seen for neutering is that canine testicles are unattractive. And some people do make that argument. And that's just as silly.

We have to concentrate on behavior, IMO. A dog that behaves badly is unwelcome until he or she can learn to behave well--which means the owner learning how to make that happen.

And I have to say, I doubt a sign outside would help you to convince anyone who was boorish enough to tolerate the behavior you describe from their dogs. And if that continues to happen, we need to start confronting those people. There sure as hell are signs up telling them that kind of behavior isn't allowed.

Alice said...

Hi, Chris,
Thanks for the long response. I see your point (public land, we're not law-makers, etc.). I love the Rocky Run 95% of the time, but on average it's also the most aggressive run I've been to of the NYC dog runs! (Of course the regulars are wonderful, it's the non-regulars who seem to invite trouble and aren't necessarily very tuned in to what's goin on.) It's also true that we're down there every night, so I guess our sample size of incidents is greater too.
Thanks again for writing.

Chris said...

One more thing (and yeah, I do run on sometimes--Irish, you know)--humping mainly isn't about sex with dogs. Neutered males hump other neutered males, spayed females hump other spayed females. It's how they express dominance, sometimes in a playful manner, sometimes not. It has to be watched, for sure.

I've been to most of the uptown dog runs with Max. It's really hard to say which one has the fewest bad incidents unless you visit all of them regularly, which of course nobody can. We're in a remote area, and we've got a very stable core group, but as more and more people find out about the run, it'll get harder to keep everybody on the same page.

No reason not to try.

Chris said...

I accidentally deleted the first of my two original responses to Alice, so restoring it now--, just so people can know what she's responding to. This was originally the second response on this thread--slightly edited--too slightly--

Quite honestly, on the subject of neutering, I don't know what to think. I think it's a very good thing in most cases, not so good in others, and it's unrealistic to expect every dog owner to neuter/spay his or her dog, even though EVERY dog owner should seriously consider it.

One of the first images I posted to this blog is of Max smiling happily next to Tank, the 200+ pound American Mastiff, whose friendliness and gentleness have been much remarked upon since he came among us. The American Mastiff is an exceedingly rare breed, and if Tank continues to show the right stuff, he should have his chance to add his calm friendly healthy genes to what I understand is a pretty small pool.

I wouldn't want to be the one to tell Tank's responsible caring owner that he and his dog aren't welcome.

We all know that some neutered males can be really snappy and aggressive--of course, it's sometimes the boys who still have all their toys who get their dander up. Two unneutered males can indeed be a major problem, if both are alpha--but face it, the real problem isn't the presence of testosterone, but the lack of discipline. That's what really needs to get 'fixed'.

All dogs are capable of aggression, regardless of gender and procreative ability, and one of the scarier attacks I've seen was one very large powerful female boxer/lab mix grabbing Mario's dog Emma and holding her down. No serious harm done, happily, but nobody looked happy after it happened.

If a male is not properly trained and socialized, being 'intact' certainly doesn't help matters, that's for sure. But neutering is no substitute for training and socialization, either.

Realistically, we just can't expect people to accept that the run is closed to unneutered males. If Leo, the surpassingly gentle and calm yellow lab who fathered Kona's puppies isn't welcome, who is? Mind you, I don't think they bring Leo to the run much lately, because he's so relaxed, all he ever does is sniff the ground, and pee. He's like the Perry Como of dogs. Is that too outdated a pop cultural reference?

What we can all do is note that a male is unneutered, and then look for the danger signs. And we should look for them in all the other dogs as well, but no question--too many unneutered males can unbalance and disrupt any dog run. Would this be the case if most dogs were properly bred, socialized, and trained? Probably not, but we're a long way from that happy day.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the blog site!

Chester is my little guy, you know him well. He’s the Shiba Inu that seems to always be stealing Max's ball.

Anyhow, I had an interesting/frightening experience last night as I was at the dog run/park (around 7pm). As I was walking up, I noticed a new dog park goer along with his 2 pit bulls in the run. I thought nothing of it at first, but as I approached I could hear small sounds of growling. I assumed (never again) that since he was in the park it’s a somewhat same place for all of our animals to go. I then unleashed Chester and he ran into the park with excitement (like always) ready to play.

The guy then yelled for his dogs to return to him, and he proceeded to leash one of them up. He initiated small talk with me, telling how smart and well behaved his dogs were. A true sign of insecurity I thought. Anyhow, Chester just played and ran around with the “older” pit. The “younger pup” on the leash was whining and wanting to play too. I was a bit skeptical about him cause he seemed to demand control.

The man took his pup off the leash and the dog DARTED toward Chester. They began standing on both hind legs, and batting and swatting at each other. Then the pit started snarling and growling at Chester. The pit then attacked and bit Chester. Mind you Chester fought back. I turned to interfere with the intense brawl, and jumped down onto the pit. I then was able (THANK GOD) grab Chester and put him in the submissive position. The other owner just made his dog sit and stay. I WAS FURIOUS!!! Two seconds later the pit ran around the back of me and tried to bite Chester on the tail. I pushed the dog on his neck and gave him the “SHHHHHH” sound, and he ran away.

I was just so upset that this guy would bring in his 2 dogs knowing that one of them is insecure.

In the end, Chester just had MINOR scuffs on him. However, I did not. I have a HUGE lump on my leg for trampling on the pit. But all in all, we are fine. I just hope that people can become more aware of how their dogs are, and monitor their behavior. Our dog park is for SECURE friendly dogs.

Chris said...

I know several Chesters, but yours is the one I always think of first when I hear the name (well, him and Dennis Weaver on Gunsmoke).

Chester is very playful and competitive, and like many small dogs, doesn't really see any reason to kow-tow to larger dogs. That does create an extra element of risk, but most larger dogs are very tolerant of smaller dogs, because they don't feel threatened by them--they treat them as kid brothers or sisters, almost--pesky but fun.

This young pit sounds like he's very insecure about his status, and what Chester saw as play, he saw as a serious contest for dominance. Chester wouldn't knuckle under, and that probably aroused the larger dog's temper.

While the owner doesn't sound like a worst-case-scenario, he should have taken both his dogs out of the run, the moment the problem started. In his case, the problem wasn't so much that he wasn't exerting control over his dogs as that he was overestimating how much control he had.

You did exactly the right thing by letting this dog know you were not going to tolerate any further attacks on Chester. But as we all know, the real problem is always the people that come with the dogs.

Relieved to hear Chester wasn't badly hurt--that coat of his served him well, and since this was 'only' a dominance battle, the pit was not biting as hard as he could.

It could have been worse, but it shouldn't have happened at all. But we all keep learning as we go, dogs and humans alike. We want our dogs to have interesting lives, and we also want them to have long lives. It's a tough balance to strike, huh?

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the feedback. I still think about that evening at the park. I do need to get over it, because I dont want the energy to trickle down into my dog (I watch too much Ceasar Milan). I appreciate your words, and am looking forward to having Chester and Max play fetch. Well at least Max plays fetch, Chester plays chase.