I had a week of mixed emotions this week. Most of my week was spent in joy, but there was one incident which caused me fear and distress.
My sweet, eleven year old, dog, Cassie, and I were just returning from a lovely long walk. We had been walking in a neighbourhood where the developers had left many trees. There was a small wild area with a pond and waterhens and birds singing. We were able to soak up some of the peace from the area, and although we had walked quite a long way for two old bitches, we were heading home feeling joyful and content.
We were just in the home stretch, when, from behind, appeared a pit-bull type dog. I had met this dog before when it was a puppy, when it had come running out from its humans’ acreage property to greet us. On that occasion, it had a collar on and I was able to walk it home using Cassie’s lead on both dogs. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to walk it up their long driveway. The people said they would put it on a rope in the back yard. Whilst I hadn’t been happy about it being kept on a rope, perhaps it was better than being run over on our fairly busy road.
Twelve months later, and it now lived behind a high wire fence, and shared its yard with an even larger pit-bull type dog – until it found a way to escape.
As I saw the dog appear, I felt no fear. I started to say: “What are you doing out?” and “Go on home.” But before I could finish the sentence, it started getting rough with Cassie, mouthing her rump, neck and ears. I tried to get between Cassie and the dog, but had no luck. Cassie was pulling on the lead to get away, and we ended up spinning in circles trying to escape the dog. I tried with my one free hand to grab the dog, but without a collar, it was difficult. All the while, its behaviour seemed to be escalating – the more I tried to stop it, the more it started to growl and mouth. It was not being aggressive and drawing blood with its bites, but it was definitely using its teeth.
If we had been somewhere in the open, like on the beach, Cassie would have been able to look after herself much more easily, but attached to the lead as she was, she was relying on me to protect her, and I was failing miserably.
In the end, the spinning ball of dogs knocked me off my feet, so I was sitting on the footpath still trying to separate the dogs. At some stage I screamed, because I was feeling so overwhelmed. As I realised how loud that sounded, I continued to scream, thinking that it might attract the attention of the dog’s owner.
Although there was no reaction from the owner’s house, a resident from further up the street appeared, and just at that moment, I finally managed to separate the two dogs. The neighbour flagged down a passing motorist. By the time the neighbour and the motorist reached me, the dog was sitting, almost placidly, at my feet, with me holding it firmly by the scruff of its neck.
I was feeling completely traumatised, and Cassie wasn’t looking much better.
The motorist took the dog back to its house, and the neighbour walked me home.
Afterwards, I just felt like I was in shock, but I also felt silly. Surely my reaction to the dog had somehow made the situation worse, but no matter how I turned things over in my mind, I couldn’t understand how I could have done anything differently.
I couldn’t let Cassie off the lead: she has very little road sense, and could have been hit by a passing car. In hindsight, I wondered if I could have attached her lead to the fence, allowing me two hands to grab the other dog. Hindsight always works well. I also started to wonder, in hindsight, why I hadn’t tried to communicate telepathically as I had learned, but knew that my only successes with that had been when I had been in a peaceful meditative state, not when I was frantically trying to wrestle two dogs on the footpath.
When I overheard a woman on the train the next day explaining how she had lost a finger while trying to separate two dogs in a dog fight, I realised how lucky I had been that this dog was a friendly young dog, and not a dangerous aggressive one.
As I tried to find some lesson in the encounter, I remembered another two occasions during the past few years when Cassie and I had been accosted on the footpath by young pit-bull type dogs. On each occasion the dogs were not being really aggressive but would not leave Cassie alone and caused both of us distress. Although on both of those occasions the dogs wore collars, neither of them had any tags, so I never knew where they had come from.
At least on this occasion, I knew where the dog lived.
I started to wonder if the reason for this encounter had been more about the dog than about me. Perhaps I could make a difference in this dog’s life. Although I couldn’t go to the dog’s house (the ‘keep out’ sign and the two dogs convinced me that wasn’t a good idea), the next day I wrote a note and left it in their letterbox, and gave my phone number if they would like to call me.
I haven’t heard from them yet, but if I do, I will let them know that I still think that their dog is a lovely dog, but he needs to be kept secure, both for his benefit and ours. I would also try to let them know that spending his life shut in the back yard, even with a companion, is not sufficient for his needs.
I began to wonder if these dogs had made themselves known to me so that I could raise my voice in their defence, and the defence of those like them.
Pit-bulls have a reputation as aggressive and dangerous dogs. Originally pitted against bulls, hence their name, this type of dog was later bred for dog fights. Even though their gripping power and their ability to ignore pain can make an aggressive individual particularly dangerous, like any dog, they have the ability to become well-balanced loving family pets, as The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, would soon attest.
The Dog Whisperer often says that there are three things which are vital in achieving a well-balanced dog: exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order.
Exercise helps to drain the dog of energy, which otherwise can be redirected into bad behaviour. A walk on a leash with the dog’s human also helps to establish a rapport between the two. Discipline sets rules, boundaries, and limitations which establish the person as the pack leader, and affection provides the dog with the love which any social animal craves and can reinforce positive behaviour.
Unfortunately, I think many people fail to provide any of these vital ingredients. Many people think that their responsibility to their dog ends with feeding it. Some people buy a powerful breed like a pit-bull, put them in the back yard, and ignore them most of the time. The dog then has no release for its built-up energy and seeks a more fulfilling life on the other side of the fence.
If a dog has all of its needs met, it is unlikely to stray from home, even if the yard is not secured. However, just because a dog is happy to stay at home while its humans are home, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily do the same when it is home alone and bored.
I am not saying that I am the perfect dog owner. Cassie gets a lot of exercise and affection, but not so much discipline. Cassie knows the rules, boundaries and limitations, but I just let her ignore them a lot of the time. So, please do as I say, and not as I do.
I’m sure that if I were more calm and assertive, as Cesar Millan trains people to be, Cassie would be the perfect dog. As it is, she is pretty close.
If you have a dog, are you ensuring that its needs are met?
Are you helping to create a well-balanced family member, or a menace on the street? All dogs, no matter what the breed, deserve a chance at the former.