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This neighborhood’s going to the dogs!

Out for my walk this morning, I decided to take a longer route, as I often do on Sundays. I started down a stretch of road that I don’t walk every day, and within thirty seconds, I saw the problem: two large dogs sniffing at the side of the road, apparently unaccompanied. I slowed and watched them, waiting to see if anyone was with them. They were alone, no human to be seen.

Then they saw me.

Here’s what I imagine was going on in the dog brain: Out here with my buddy, sniffing the road. Hey, is that Fido who came by here on his walk? Darn, I woulda liked to bark at him. Mm, squirrel. Where is it? I want to chase it. Out here with my buddy, alpha-dog inside in bed. Ooh, yeah, I smell that Flora came by this morning. Man, I’d love to get together with her when her alpha-dog didn’t have her by the leash. Wait: What’s that coming down the road? Someone else’s alpha-dog? Hey, Buddy, Look!

My family has had dogs—big dogs—all my life. So I get dogs, and I’m not unusually sensitive about them. The thing is, I also grew up in the Midwest where few people fenced or leashed their dogs, and I was a long-distance runner. So I know a lot about dogs whose alpha-dog/master isn’t around, and what they think of humans moving fast toward them. They think: Alpha-dog is inside in bed. I am now guardian of our property. I must defend against this fast-moving intruder!

Of course, as soon as the dog noticed me coming toward him at a fast pace, he started to growl. His growl attracted his buddy, who stood next to him and barked madly. Again I slowed to see if a human would come, but none did.

In my Midwestern running years, I carried mace. It was technically illegal in my state, but there was a loophole that allowed it to be shipped in front out-of-state. I found an ad in the back of Runner’s World Magazine. My parents thought it was a fine idea for me to carry it. Here in California, I am seldom threatened. The last serious time was when I was pregnant with my son. A dog (different dog) on this same stretch of road barked at me. It was a German Shepherd, but didn’t seem like it was too serious, so I walked on by. I misjudged. He rushed at me and caught the back of my shorts in his teeth. I screamed, a neighbor who was out in his yard yelled, and the dog retreated. No harm done, but that particular stretch of road does seem to be spooked with bad dog karma.

The growling dog looked like a Chow mix. I didn’t like the look of him. The ruckus they were making attracted all the other (fenced in) dogs in the neighborhood, and a mad barking started up. Not a single human looked out to see what was happening. I decided that this was not my battle to fight, and turned back to go the other way. The two dogs followed me at a distance, then lost interest as I left their territory.

Now, I know what some intense dog lovers are going to say: Those were perfectly nice dogs. They’d never bitten anyone. You were in no danger. The thing is, those intense dog lovers are fooling themselves. Dogs follow their instincts and their training. If you own a big dog, you know that it’s your job to become that dog’s alpha-dog, so that it responds to your commands. But when you’re not there? It’s not going to be the same dog, because it depends on your presence to follow those behavior patterns you’ve set up. A dog on the loose can always be a danger, especially to a fast-moving human coming into its territory.

Despite being raised around big dogs, my son went through a period of intense fear of dogs, as many young children do. I couldn’t count the number of times that an unleashed or long-leashed dog rushed him and the owner called out, “Don’t worry! He’s friendly!” The thing is, my kid was crying, screaming, and flailing his arms, not normal behavior for a child, as far as the dog knows. I worked with him each time we went for a walk, reminding him that when a dog rushed at us he should go completely still and quiet and he would be safer. But until my training kicked in and his fears were soothed, he was a danger to himself and to the dog, and any responsible owner should have seen that.

Some ago I wrote this article about the problem with kids and dogs in parks in Santa Cruz. All the parents I spoke to were reasonable. None of the pro-dog people returned my calls, so I can’t speak for how reasonable they are. But the fact is this: if you choose to bring an animal into your home, you choose to be responsible. And one responsibility you choose is to keep that animal from harming others or getting harmed because others fear its behavior.

No, I’ll never know whether that chow’s growl was serious. But if I’d had that can of mace in my hand, as I always did as a teen, I would have been willing to use it. So much easier, it seems, to keep your gate closed and your dogs off the street.

Posted in Culture.


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