Flashback Friday: Cave Canem

Content Warning: This post is about dog attacks, a subject which may be difficult for some readers. I will not go into anything resembling graphic detail, but if this post hurts more than it informs, please err on the side of caution. There’s too much good content in the world to spend time on something that won’t be edifying.

Original Post Date: 6/9/2009

Tonight’s lecture was a hard one. The room was utterly silent, save the presenters’ voices, the shifting of dogs in harnesses, and the occasional sniffle or intake of breath from re-trains who have experienced this kind of trauma. The topic was what to do if/when another dog attacks your dog guide.

More and more businesses are declaring themselves “dog-friendly,” and it is currently far too easy to fake a service dog or emotional support dog credentials because there are no identification requirements for either class of animal in most public spaces. Service dog users are a very niche population, dog guide users being a smaller niche within that, and it has proven challenging to find any records or statistics about violence against working dogs. However, I have seen more and more anecdotes popping up all over the internet. I do not doubt the claims of rising dog-on-service-dog attacks.

A dog attack can seem to appear out of nowhere. With only your ears and your dog’s behavior to tell you waht’s going on, everything may seem normal until your dog is snarling and lunging to defend itself against another snarling, lunging dog. Whether it’s a stray, an off-leash pet, or a poorly controlled (read ‘uncontrolled”) pet, the results are the same. Lots of noise, lots of motion, and no safe way to distinguish between the animals.

There is a high likelihood of human injury in these cases. The safest course is for the handler to drop the leash and harness, allowing the dog guide to defend herself and disentangling the blind handler from the fray. The handler’s hands are now free to pull out a phone and call 9-1-1.

“Hello, I’m blind and a dog is attacking me and my guide dog! Please help!”

Unfortunately, dispatchers will most likely not send aid if you simply report your service dog is in danger. You should always include yourself in the message. After all, your dog is your eyes, she is a part of you, and thus even if you aren’t being bitten directly, you are being attacked.

DO NOT attempt to separate the dogs yourself!

If a bystander attempts to intervene, ask them to call 9-1-1 so they don’t try to separate the dogs and get injured, themselves.

Even the most well-trained, sweet-natured dog can mistakenly bite the wrong hand to devastating effect when defending herself against an assailant. Though your first instinct may be to protect your dog at all costs, or to get help from anyone available to do so, unprofessional assistance will almost assuredly only add to the blood spilled, not prevent it.

How To Help

A dog attack can be both physically and psychologically traumatizing to a service dog, as well as to the human. There grows a certain distrust of one’s general environment because the threat could pounce from anywhere, and this creates hyper vigilance in both members of the team. Many service dogs are forced into early retirement because of this hyper vigilance, or devastating injuries.

If you witness a dog attacking a working team, please don’t contribute to the Bystander Effect. Get involved. You have no idea what an impact that can have. Please start by approaching the blind person, identifying yourself, and asking to escort them to safety away from the snarling mass. Then call 9-1-1 and say a blind person and her service dog are being attacked by another dog. Be sure to give specific location information; the blind person may be able to provide this, but may have become disoriented in the attack.

Other Ways You Can Help

Report stray animals to Animal control

Always keep your pets on leashes when you go out.

Invest in proper behavioral training and socialization for your dog.

Identify your dog’s presence to any working team you see. “Hi there, love your dog. Got my own pit-mix coming up on your right. He’s friendly but we’ll give you a wide berth. Have a nice day!”

Warn any working team you see of loose dogs you may have spotted along your path. “Hi there, your dog’s gorgeous! Wanted to let you know there’s someone with their dog off-leash up ahead in the park. Seems pretty well-behaved, but thought I’d let you know. Have a nice day!”

Using a dog-oriented compliment to begin the conversation makes it easier for the blind person, who can’t see you politely making eye contact, to realize you’re speaking to them.

Prada and I never experienced an attack, or even an encounter with a stray. We did run into someone walking their dog off-leash in a public park. When my then-fiancé asked the gentleman to leash his dog, the man cursed at us. Fortunately, his pet was better-behaved!

Greta and I have had several encounters with strays. Apparently our neighborhood is very well-known to our local Animal control because of the number of loose and stray dogs. I’ve learned to identify the jingle of tags and click of un-clipped nails on pavement. Dogs with those auditory markers will generally retreat when commanded to, in my experience.

Once a dog dove out a front door just as it was closing and raced across its yard toward us. I dropped leash and harness, heart springing to my throat, only to find the dog and Greta engaged in a very enthusiastic butt-sniffing circle. What a relief!

A bystander helped me separate the dogs after ensuring neither were aggressive, and the dog was retrieved by his owner, who never acknowledged my presence.

Greta and I experienced only one violent encounter, and it ended much more favorably than I expected. A stray dog came racing out from behind an abandoned house, and I released Greta to her own devices, slapping my pockets in a desperate search for the phone I’d left at home. The two dogs wrestled, then raced off behind the house, leaving me alone and shouting on the sidewalk.

In between desperate cries for greta to return — because there was nothing else I could do — I heard the sound of people walking along the sidewalk across the street. I called out to them and received no response, even though i could hear them talking to each other. I have never felt so alone in my life.

Greta returned less than a minute later, tail flagging high and head thrust upward like a conquering queen. I ran my hands over her whole body in search of injuries, found a few places wet with the other dog’s saliva, but no damage. We returned home, Greta very pleased with herself for having run off the miscreant and me seething with fear turned into frustration. I filed a report with animal control, but they were unable to find the culprit. We have not walked that way since.

Things could have been so much worse. Things have been much worse — even fatal — for other working teams. Please consider contacting your city and state representatives and asking them to make violence against service dogs a felony offense. In far too many jurisdictions this danger goes unaddressed, and those who have the power to reduce dog attacks by controlling their dogs do not face sufficient penalty to incentivize better behavior from themselves and their dogs.

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