Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What's wrong with this picture? EVERYTHING.

The Rocky Run is, nearly all of the time, a very friendly place. Most of the dogs who play there just want to get along and have fun, most of their people are polite, mature, and responsible. Obviously none of us are perfect, and any owner can make a mistake, fail to spot crucial warning signs--and as I mention in the introductory piece on the right side of the front page of this blog, even a good dog can have a bad day.

But there has not been one incident of a dog attacking a human inside the run that I know of, and there have only been a handful of serious attacks on other dogs. And even one is one too many--let me run down most of the fights I've seen or heard about, since I started bringing Max there.

Neo the Pit Bull, who doesn't seem to even understand the concept of trying to hurt another dog, was badly mauled by a Rottweiler, some months back. He made no effort to retaliate, though he certainly could have. He needed stitches afterwards, and was away from the run for several weeks. He now acts like it never happened, remaining the same cheerful happy-go-lucky madcap he was before. The other dog's owners did little or nothing to stop the fight, and did not give Neo's owner their personal information, so he could send them the vet bill. Far as anyone I've talked to knows, they'd never come to the run before, they haven't been seen there since, and nobody has any problem with that.

I've recently seen two pit bulls get into a fight at the run--an avoidable fight, I might add--they were both being very dominant, and one was on a leash inside the run while the other pit smelled him, and that just isn't a good idea--leashes create fights more often than they prevent them. Their tails were curled high over their backs, their posture was stiff and tense, and we all should have seen it coming, but as is often the case, there was no growling or aggressive barking before the fight actually started, and it started almost immediately after the two sniffed each other over.

It lasted less than a minute, and once we pulled them apart, they were more than willing to let it go. One dog was taken out of the run, just to make sure. Both sustained minor skin abrasions, no vet needed--the dogs were using a fraction of their potential biteforce, because this wasn't a blood feud, just an argument over who was the boss of whom. One of the pits (the one on the leash) was not a regular, though he'd been there before. The dogs never came close to biting the people separating them, myself included. I thought then, as I do now, that they were glad to be pulled off each other, relieved the fight was over, though perfectly willing to defend their honor again, if need be. Michael Vick would have killed these dogs.

I've heard that some time ago, a pit bull named Santana got into a fight with another dog at the run, and he was much more serious about it. He got his jaws locked on the other combatant, and held on stubbornly, while Santana's owner sustained wounds to his hands while trying to pry his dog's mouth open (none of the other people breaking up the fight were hurt). Santana wasn't playing, he wasn't trying to establish dominance, or prevent another dog from dominating him--his blood was up, his prey drive was fully engaged, and he was trying to kill the other dog. He did not want to be stopped. That's as bad as it gets, and the kind of nightmare scenario we all hope will never happen--and that we'll know what to do if it does.

I haven't met Santana, and while he might be a perfectly nice dog most of the time (at least with the people and dogs he knows and trusts), I'd go to some pains to keep Max away from him. Dogs capable of that level of aggression should never be brought into dog runs and introduced to strange dogs, and letting them sniff other dogs while either or both is onleash is an even worse idea. It's not their fault--we bred it into them. Most pit bulls and pit mixes aren't anywhere near that aggressive, but quite a few are. Personally, I love me some friendly happy pits, but you can balance a love for the breed's better qualities with a recognition that temperamentally speaking, pits vary a lot, from individual to individual. There are a lot of people out there deliberately trying to breed them to be more aggressive towards other dogs, as has been much discussed in the media, quite recently. We should respect their power and energy level, but "Pit Bull" doesn't automatically mean "Vicious Dog", and blind fear is never a good plan. Neither is waiting for something bad to happen before taking action.

By the same token, just because the strange dog coming into the run doesn't belong to any of the breeds regularly singled out in the media as dangerous, that doesn't mean he or she can't pose a threat to your dog. And there is one scenario potentially even more horrifying than a fight to the death between two evenly matched contestants--and that's what happened a few days ago. To the very last dog it should have happened to.


Ralphie is a Miniature Schnauzer--like all terriers, that breed can be very quarrelsome--there's one named Spike who lives in my building, who is ready to go for Max's throat anytime they run into each other on our block. Never mind that Max is easily five times Spike's size. Never mind that the one time they met each other at the run, offleash (and off-territory), Spike had no problems with Max being there, and sniffed him in a perfectly friendly manner. If the elevator door opens, and Spike is there in the lobby (with his Yorkie pal, who just happens to be named Maximus), my neighbor and I have to scramble to get some distance between them, ASAP. Max is very tolerant with small dogs, who can take all kinds of liberties with him, but he's not the pacifist Neo is, and would fight back if attacked (though he'd much rather not). So Schnauzers, lovely dogs though they are, can definitely be the aggressors in some cases, regardless of size.

But as with any breed, individual temperaments vary a lot. Ralphie isn't at all like Spike, a basically nice dog with a strong territorial impulse. Ralphie is sweet, and shy, and submissive. Ralphie doesn't want to fight anybody, and is ready to make friends with any dog or human who'll be nice to him, though he's always careful at first. He's got his natural tail and ears, he's small even for his breed, and to know him is to love him. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't. But unfortunately, he and his owner Javier did, recently.

And it wasn't a pit bull--it was an Airedale Terrier. A closely related breed to the Schnauzer, that isn't widely associated with dog run fights, but as Javier later found out, is known to sometimes be very aggressive with smaller dogs--in fact, it was originally bred by miners as a fighting dog. But this wasn't a fight.

Javier told me over the phone that the Airedale came right up to the gate as he was coming in with Ralphie. Ralphie was submissive, but that didn't help--the much larger terrier almost immediately began biting him, and biting hard. There was almost no advance warning, and of course with a breed whose tail is normally cropped short, and whose coat is thick and wiry, it can be harder to use tail position or an erect ruff as indicators of brewing aggression.

UPDATED: Javier later emailed me this more detailed account of the attack--

We had just entered the Dog walk and I was closing the gate when the Airedale approached. I paused as the Airedale approached to make sure there wouldn't be an issue. The two dogs sniffed each other, seemed Ok, then I finished closing the gate. When I closed the gate the Airedale began the initial confrontation.

As far as the owner of the Airedale initial reaction, whether there was delay on his part is impossible to say as the attack was probably no more than a few moments, 10-15 seconds if that and he arrived in time to assist during the more serious secondary attack. Please keep in mind that he was by the benches when the attack occurred and we entered through the gate by the traffic light.

Additionally I would like to mention the owner of the Airedale was concerned for Ralphie's well being at the time and was most apologetic.

In this case, the Airedale's owner may simply have been too far off to react in time to stop the first attack (which is a problem in itself, if the dog had any past history of aggression). In many other cases, people don't act at all. This kind of paralysis on the part of an aggressor dog's owner can have many potential causes, including a desire on the part of some to see their dog 'kick ass'. But in most cases, I believe it's simply a matter of shock--people don't want to believe their dog is capable of doing serious harm. Too much of the time, these people only act when the threatened dog's owner tries to protect him, at which point they yell "Hey, leave my dog alone!" Not. Acceptable.

Like I said, it wasn't a fight--Ralphie couldn't hope to defend himself, and with most dogs, wouldn't have needed to--this wasn't a dog who felt threatened, but rather a dog who had been very poorly socialized, and whose prey drive was probably stimulated by Ralphie's very helplessness.

Airedales have the largest and most powerful jaws of any wirecoated terrier breed. The bites were serious, and required stitches.

Mercifully, neither bite wound was life-threatening, but the vet told Javier that Ralphie's chest cavity was nearly punctured--if that had happened, he'd have needed surgery, and things would have gotten a lot dicier. Self-evidently, the Airedale wasn't holding back, was not restraining his bite force, as most dogs do, even when fighting each other in earnest--he was biting as hard as he could. Only it was a much smaller dog he was biting, and if there had been no humans to intervene on Ralphie's behalf--well, let's not think about that.


To be continued........


Alice said...

Hi, Chris,
Our AP Article came out today (See link in the NY Times )
Pretty exciting! Let me know if you still want to blog about it.

Chris said...

Great coverage, Alice--I just have to conclude the current topic, then I'll get in touch with you immediately.

Though if you've already got the AP and the Times, it might be argued Washington Tykes is not really adding all that much in the way of public consciousness. Even so, I'm happy to add my mote to the pile. ;)

Chris said...

Btw, could you send me your email addy?