New York City dog runs are fascinating social experiments. You take the opinionated, long-time natives, stir in some unwitting newbies, and give them all dog-children. There’s the old woman with the even older Shih Tzu snarling toothlessly at any dog that comes near them; the perfectly groomed man on his Blackberry while his Shiba Inu fertilizes the asphalt right in front of him; the dog walker battling her Boston Terrier for the tennis ball he just confiscated from a Frenchie; and the frenetic Ridgeback owner cursing as she picks up after the Shiba. This scene usually ends comically, and everyone leaves with their respective squeaky toys and bitten tongues…but every once in a while, things go very, very wrong.
The first time I walked by a dog run, I was instantly nervous. I’d been a veterinary technician for six years during college, and knew all too well what happens when well-intending humans get their canine counterparts together in closed quarters. I’d helped suture the bite wounds on dogs who had come in for a vaccine and were encouraged to “say hi” in the waiting room. Dogs have completely different social rules and cues, and they have one more thing that raises the stakes – a set of sharp and powerful teeth.
But I was a dog walker, and my new doggie client liked to go to the run. I obliged, and the nervousness subsided. We would see occasional scuffles, but they usually ended quickly. A Jack Russell would mount a Pug, the Pug would take them as fightin’ words and there would suddenly be a furiously spinning, yipping tumbleweed until the mortified owners pulled them apart. No big deal, nobody scathed.
Then one day a dog walker I didn’t know came into the run with a large, shaggy mixed breed. It took an instant liking to a two-year-old male Chihuahua named Niko, and I remarked to a nearby dog owner that the large dog seemed to be transfixed by his new little pal. Then, in an instant, Niko was in the dog’s mouth, and there were blood-curdling screams. A Beagle owner had first-aid experience and tried giving Niko mouth-to-mouth, but there was no use, bones covering vital organs had been crushed. I held him inside another woman’s sweater while everyone decided what should be done next, some methodically and quietly and others yelling frantically as if trying to offset the horror we’d just witnessed. Niko’s owner, an older Spanish-speaking woman who loved bringing her two small dogs to the run every morning, began to falter and nearly fainted. Two people volunteered to accompany her to a nearby vet and help guide her through the process of handling his remains.
Incidents in dog runs don’t usually escalate to such a level, but when they do, it’s hard to step in and prevent harm from being done because a fight can happen in a flash. A trainer friend of mine believes the cause of Niko’s tragedy might have been predatory drift – if a small dog yipes, it can stimulate a large dog’s prey drive and make him think a Chihuahua is a squirrel or mouse for a brief but deadly moment. We’ll never know why the large dog grabbed Niko so suddenly and viciously, but it taught everyone involved that dog runs aren’t exclusively filled with wagging tails and warm fuzzy feelings. A month after that tragedy, a Boston Terrier pal of mine challenged another, usually very well-behaved dog for her red bouncy ball and lost an eye. It took quite a while for him to approach another dog without wincing, but luckily he’s resilient and still entirely adorable.
When I run into other dog owners and the subject of the run comes up, I’m careful to relay facts without imbuing them with too much of my own emotion and fear because I still believe runs are wonderful for obedient, friendly dogs and their attentive, responsible humans. I would hate to make those dogs miss out on the freedom, exercise and socialization runs can provide by making their owners paranoid. But there must be a proper balance between lightheartedness and caution, and the latter is only attainable through knowledge of what is unfortunately possible.
First and foremost, the run where these incidents occurred has one major flaw – there is no separate section for smaller dogs. Most runs include one, and while many owners still allow their diminutive pooches to run with the big dogs, separate enclosures are the safest areas for puppies and extremely small dogs to play. If there is no small-dog enclosure available and you feel safe letting your dog integrate, reading body language is hugely important.
Any dominant or tense posture could cause problems, and should be interrupted immediately. Mounting is an act of dominance, and not often appreciated by the receiver, so pulling the mounter off swiftly is just the right thing to do. But the stance that says “it’s go time” is much harder to spot. First there’s the intense and direct stare (“direct” refers to the eye contact, not the direction of the heads, as many dogs will angle their heads partially away to signal that they don’t WANT to fight, but will if pushed); then the tall posture (an attempt to appear larger and more imposing); then the stiff tail and bristled scruff (the tail will stick straight out, not tucked beneath nor wagging, and the fur on the neck will stand up in a triangular shape); then the furled lips (displaying the teeth)…then…a trip to the vet. Intervening at the very beginning of this exchange can diffuse the tension bomb, but it’s also necessary to restrain and redirect the dogs calmly because they react to what they feel from us.
Many owners yell and scream when they feel desperate to control their dogs, but this only escalates the danger. There is no entirely safe way to interrupt a brewing dog fight since even your own dog could accidentally injure you in his heightened state, but calmly grabbing his collar from the back before the scrapping starts will let him know you’re in control and should discourage escalation. If fighting has already started, you risk serious injury by putting your hands into the fray, so trainers recommend using a large nearby object like a garbage can lid and trying to lodge it between the dogs to create a barrier. If this doesn’t work, the advice varies as wildly as the fight itself – some say you should pick up the hind legs like a wheelbarrow, others say to grab at the ribcage, still others will tell you to blow in their ears. But I’ve witnessed fights in which all of these methods were used unsuccessfully, especially in cases of dogs locking onto others and refusing to release. Ultimately, timing is everything. If you don’t catch a fight before it begins, the outcome will likely be out of your hands.
Most dog owners who visit runs will never see a terrible fight. If knowledge of car accidents doesn’t prevent you from driving, then knowledge of dog fights shouldn’t prevent you from giving your dog the friendship and stimulation he can find in runs. Tragedy can be easily prevented with alertness, so keep your phone, newspaper or book in your pocket and keep both eyes on your dog at all times. Tell your talkative neighbor with the MinPin to catch you up on the juicy gossip via Twitter, not while two big Chows are introducing themselves to your Bulldog. And don’t be afraid to shame people who leave the gates open (Are you kidding!? Haven’t you seen enough lost-dog photos?). C’mon, you’re a New Yorker, you know how to call it like you see it.
We visited Kissena Park in Queens a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit. I think our dogs were sad for all the squirrels and birds who lost their homes in the hundreds of fallen trees…there was hardly anything to chase or bark at.