The Stigma of Owning a Dog-Aggressive Dog

I have a dog who is dog-aggressive. Note that I’m not saying simply aggressive, because aggression toward dogs and aggression toward humans are two completely separate traits, and one does not make the other more likely. He is lovely with people and especially kids, and when greeted he tends to put his ears down and push his head into whoever might be willing to scratch it. But dogs…nope. He’s had too many bad experiences, and he’s not giving them the benefit of the doubt any longer.

Harrison loves our niece.

I did everything I had learned from the dog trainer I worked for at the time. I adopted Harrison, a medium-large mixed breed (probably Lab, Pit and some sort of hound), as a young pup, trained him and brought him to dog runs so that he could begin socializing immediately. He learned how to interact and play with other dogs, and did splendidly with every one he met, even showing submission by licking their faces and rolling onto his back. Then one day an unneutered Viszla came into the run and postured beside him, raised its scruff and went after him. He defended himself, and after a split second of witnessing the sphere of furious fur that they created, the Viszla’s owners and I separated them. Both dogs had injuries, a puncture on the Viszla’s leg and a tear in the tip of Harri’s ear. I rushed him to the vet, where the wound was treated and sutured.

If you saw the red flag at the end of that story, then you’re a dog behavior pro, but at that time I was still learning. I cried at the sight of Harri’s bloody ear, scooped him up and left the dog run immediately…essentially, I coddled him and confirmed that it had been a traumatic experience. What I was supposed to do went against every maternal instinct I had, which is the dilemma inherent in thinking of our dogs as our babies. I was supposed to remain calm and assertive and take him from the run slowly, making him walk on his own (this obviously would not be possible if he had sustained a serious leg injury). I would also ideally have made him acknowledge the Viszla peacefully before leaving, but I’ll admit, that pushes the boundaries of even my current ability to control my emotions, and I’ve only seen master trainers do it. At the very least, I should have set the example for my dog, just as a great mom keeps a poker face when her child falls and scrapes his leg, to teach him to be strong and not sweat the small stuff.

The first car ride home.

But I made a mistake, and I can’t undo it. A week after that incident, my dogs and I walked to a grassy knoll near our apartment for a brief potty and found a ginormous, unneutered Rhodesian Ridgeback standing there, off-leash. Harrison began shivering, scared out of his wits, and bristled to compensate. The Ridgeback circled us while his owner sauntered over, and I was reading him the riot act when a young Bulldog came running up to us, also off-leash. The adolescent pup who was, once again, male and unneutered, could sense my dogs’ nervousness and disadvantage, being on leashes while he was not, and he began antagonizing them, albeit playfully (puppies need guidance in their interactions with other dogs since they haven’t yet learned boundaries and don’t recognize cues that say “I don’t want to play”). Harrison was now stressed to his breaking point, and since I was also fearful, he defended us all by reaching down and grabbing the easiest target, which was the Bulldog. He bit the dog’s scruff, pushed it to the ground and held it there for what seemed to me to be an eternity because I was desperately trying every trick I’d ever heard of to make a dog release its jaw grip. I threw my body on his and inflicted pain and discomfort in as many ways as I could think to, but ultimately I had to step back in defeat and let him release of his own accord. He finally did, and the Bulldog’s female owner was beside herself, crying and saying things in Portuguese that I couldn’t understand. I could see that he wasn’t badly wounded…Bulldogs were bred to bait bulls, with flexible, plentiful folds of skin around the neck that could be impaled by a horn without killing them. But I couldn’t explain that to her, so I motioned for her to follow me to the vet clinic a block away, and she did.

With his sister Mila in Astoria Park.

It still angers me to describe what happened there. I was so distraught at having seen my beloved, gentle buddy become so vicious that I wasn’t thinking straight, and I did not weigh the causes and stand up for us. After all, Harrison was leashed, and the Bulldog wasn’t, the proof of which was even in my hand since I had grabbed his leash from the grass where his owner had dropped it. But I learned the unfortunate fact that large dogs are perceived as aggressive and are always blamed for fights, no matter who was the actual instigator. I went above and beyond, holding the Bulldog owner’s hand in the examining room as the vet shot me looks of hatred and asked accusatory questions about Harri’s vaccine history (of course his rabies was up-to-date). Then came the worst luck.

The Bulldog mom’s boyfriend was a cop, and not a nice one. He was the machismo kind, with more thought going on in his biceps than in his brain, and he jumped on the opportunity to bully me into paying for the entire bill. I balked for a few moments, saying I was willing to pay for half since our dogs had both gotten into a fight and it wasn’t my fault that Harrison was stronger, but then he asked how he was with children, and just at that moment, some friends of his pulled up in an NYPD squad car and he went out to talk to them. My heart pounded and I began imagining my dog being taken in and put to sleep, so when he returned, I submitted and said I would pay the entire bill. My hand shook as I signed the receipt, and the only person who cared to listen to me as I swore my dog was great with kids was the woman behind the desk. She was watching the shake-down, and she insisted I take a copy of the medical records, for my protection. I didn’t notice until later that they proved the dog had been grossly neglected; I had paid for him to be treated for an allergy, which had been ignored for so long that he had large, bloody lesions all over his body. They hadn’t become visible until his neck was shaved to treat the very small puncture from Harrison’s bite, and the vet had acted as though they were caused by my dog, so that I would pay. She had done something incredibly unethical because she was so convinced that I was the bad guy. Having been a veterinary technician, I recognized the meds she had prescribed, listed on the bill, as those that could only treat allergies. But it was too late to refuse to pay.

Harri has lots of friends. It’s all about trust, and he’s been pals with these guys for a long time.

I didn’t involve my husband, who had been sleeping at home throughout this, but in hindsight, it would have been an ideal time to put my feminist pride aside and let him go head-to-empty-head with the jerk of a cop. It’s not the payment of the full bill that haunts me, it’s knowing I let my dog be labeled as dangerous, if only by way of neighborhood gossip, when we were actually the victims. The experience was so frightening that I carry it with me even now, and I’m certain Harrison can feel that.

We immediately began working with a trainer who specializes in behavior modification and aggression. We learned how to be the leaders of our pack, ensuring our dogs would look to us for proper behavior cues. We also discovered that our female dog, Mila, a Husky mix who’s a couple years older than Harrison, was actually more dominant than he was and had been giving him signals when she felt dogs needed to be handled. Basically, she was being the alpha and making him be the muscle. The trainer told us he felt Harrison was only a 4 on his aggression-measuring scale that ranged from 1 to 10, and that Mila’s dominance and my nervousness were the only reasons it was that high, since Harri was naturally a friendly and peace-loving dog.

We have fostered countless little animals, and Harri has been gentle and loving with each one.

Once we were able to eliminate Mila’s influence, and I learned to walk with confidence, we started seeing huge changes. We stood up straight, with heads high and shoulders back (that sounds like lyrics to a song about believing in yourself, but it’s no joke, posture is essential to conveying to your dog that you are in charge). When leashed dogs approached, we made our dogs sit at our heels and wait calmly for them to pass, and over time it became possible to walk past them with no change in routine and no leash tension. It’s now been four years since the incident with the Bulldog, and we’ve practiced good habits so consistently that they’re second nature, and our dogs wouldn’t dream of pulling us or lashing out at others. We frequently receive compliments on their behavior, and I felt so proud when a neighbor told us recently that he thinks we have the most obedient dogs in Astoria.

Still, we don’t get a happy ending. Nearly every time I take my dogs out, I encounter a situation in which another dog owner is being irresponsible and I’m forced to take a step back in my dogs’ training in order to restore a safe balance. Off-leash dogs are a huge problem in my neighborhood. Some people might find that statement comical or uptight, but those people do not own a dog who will defend himself and his family from any dog who comes within biting distance. The law says all dogs must be kept on a leash that is at least 6 feet long (this of course does not apply to designated off-leash areas during designated times), but since violators are rarely ticketed, many people ignore it. I know my dog and I would be protected by that law if something were to happen again, especially since I’ve done everything in my power to make sure he is under control (he wears a bright orange warning leash that says NO DOGS, and I carry a muzzle attached to it), but that gives me little comfort since I love dogs and can’t stand to see them hurt.

I can’t count how many times I’ve had to strangle Harrison at my hip to pull his head away from a Chihuahua or Pekingese circling and goading him as I chastised the owner. Every time this happens, I’m cementing his aggression and undoing our years of hard work at training, because when I lose my cool and pull him back, Harri perceives that there is a threat. That’s why it’s so deeply hurtful and unfair when people ask judgmental pseudo-questions about why he isn’t friendly, why he isn’t wearing a muzzle and why I would want to have a dog like that, and this all as their unrestrained dog harasses him and he sits perfectly still, whining in fear. I must admit, when I encounter that level of ignorance and lack of empathy, my response is usually “Well you’re dangerously stupid and no one has had you put to sleep yet.” It’s incredible to me that we enjoy and expect pure and unconditional love from dogs and yet hold them to such higher standards than ourselves. I’m usually a friendly, sociable person, but when someone suggests I should confine my dog’s mouth or have him euthanized so that they can avoid bending down to attach a leash to theirs, I become possessed.

What should be a relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors with my fur buddies is always fraught with at least a little tension, because I have to be on the lookout for risky situations. I even started carrying pepper spray intended for protection against aggressive dogs, partially as a way to make Harri release if he were ever to bite a dog again (which he hasn’t) but mostly because it’s the only legal defense spray that one can buy in New York City, and I am fully prepared to spray it in the eyes of anyone who thinks they’re going to hurt my dog if he protects himself against their off-leash dog.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to get my spray out quickly enough when my pups and I were attacked four months ago by a large Pit Bull that had gotten out of his collar. He lives down the block from us, and I had watched his female owner struggle desperately with him for a couple years. I usually crossed the street, but on this early morning I chose to be calm and assertive and instill the same in my dogs as we passed him, assuming his owner could settle him. She couldn’t. She had a large, loose collar on him, and he wriggled free and turned to race toward us, baring his teeth and growling. I had only enough time to shove my boy past the open gate of a fence behind us, since the dog was barreling toward him, but it darted between my legs and tried to grab Harrison’s face as he yelped.

I’ve broken up countless dog fights, and I knew not to put my hands in the middle, but when faced with the choice between being hurt myself or letting my beloved dog be mauled, I went with option A, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I reached in to block his attack and felt that familiar rush of cold hit my hand, but the pain of having huge incisors inside my flesh had no time to take hold because Mila grabbed the dog’s hind leg and literally ripped it open, making it let go of me. The dog screamed, recoiled and prepared for another attack, and that’s when his owner threw her body on top of him and held him down so that we could escape. My hand was gushing blood, in time with the pumping of my heart, and two sanitation workers who had seen it all happen jumped out of their garbage truck to hand me napkins and offered to take me to the hospital. I told them I was ok and needed to get my dogs home, that my husband would help me. The Pit’s owner begged them to get her dog’s collar from the curb and help her put it on him, swearing he wasn’t mean and wouldn’t bite them, and they looked at each other then back at her and said “no way.”

We took a picture of my hand right after the attack, for documentation’s sake. What this doesn’t show is a hole that went almost all the way through the base of my pinky.

The next four months were filled with two trips to the emergency room, several to my primary care physician, one to the radiography office and then three per week to a physical therapist. I was only able to take two days off from dog walking, and thankfully my husband, who found a substitute teacher for his music class, was able to fill in for me during that time. But my clients needed me, and I’m a tough sort of girl, so I returned when my entire forearm was still incredibly swollen from infection (I had almost gotten septicemia on the first evening after the attack; I had a fever of 103 and was hallucinating).

Not having the use of my right hand to walk dogs was beyond challenging, but I got through it. The wounds finally healed, with the help of three types of antibiotics and some lovely painkillers. I was excited when x-ray results showed I had no broken bones, but the relief was short lived, because it became evident fairly quickly that physical therapy wouldn’t be able to break up the scar tissue in my smallest finger and I would need surgery. My fifth digit is frozen at a 120-degree angle until I can figure out how to take myself out of commission long enough to have it repaired. And that may never be able to happen, since I would almost certainly lose my clients (due to no fault on their part, they have to be able to depend on me) and would not be able to afford to lose the work. I’m trying very, very hard not to seek legal recourse, since the owners of the Pit don’t carry an insurance policy that covers liability (spelling financial ruin) and their dog would likely be destroyed. They are a nice, young family, with a small daughter, and while they were certainly neglectful in not properly restraining and training their dog, I don’t feel the punishment would fit the crime if I were to press charges.

My finger is now deformed.

Harri doesn’t seem to be traumatized by the memory of the attack, perhaps because I was so Zen-like. I kept my vocal pitch low and mellow as I calmed the Pit’s owner and told her I would go to the hospital then give her an update, I walked my dogs home as if nothing had happened and I did my best June Cleaver impression as I said “Honey, my hand is gushing blood, I think you need to take me to the emergency room.” But my calm-in-crisis mode quickly gave way to “Wow, this sucks and is really painful, I think I’d like it to never happen again.” Dogs react to their pack leader’s energy, and now that I’m more fearful than ever, not just of what Harri could do to another dog but of what larger off-leash dogs could do to us, no amount of yoga could give me inner peace. I’ve recently seen three young Pits and a Rottweiler running amok in our neighborhood, as if the city is their dog run. If I confronted them, their owners would probably say “They’re friendly, they wouldn’t hurt you or your dogs,” but what these self-proclaimed dog experts don’t realize is that even friendly dogs are more likely to react aggressively when they are leashed and approached by dogs who are not. They feel helpless, and will compensate, just as Harri did years ago. What they’re doing isn’t just dangerous…it would be Dogmageddon if any of those dogs pushed mine, especially after the attack…but it’s extremely unfair to responsible dog owners. It’s pure laziness, and I have no respect for that.

With the odds stacked against us, the best I can do is try to project fearlessness and fool my dogs, but they know me better than I know myself. It’s such a shame, because Harri was becoming calmer and more trustworthy around other dogs, but now, thanks to the worst luck I’ve ever heard of and a mom with PTSD, I’m afraid he will always be a little “special.” I’ll never be able to take him to dog runs, I’ll never be able to dine with him at a sidewalk cafe without turning my head like an owl to scan our surroundings every few seconds and I’ll always have to explain why he can’t say hello to dogs pancaked to the sidewalk, begging to be greeted, as their owners listen to me with their heads cocked like the Victrola dogs, looking dismayed and confused. I can’t enjoy dog ownership the way that most people hope to, the way I so looked forward to when I adopted my dogs. But I am endlessly thankful to have two wonderful, beautifully behaved friends who dote on me and would save my life if I needed them to. If my payment for all the joy they’ve given me is a lifetime (oh yeah, they’re gonna live as long as me, no question) of being a tiger dog mom, that’s just fine.

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