when animals attack!

Non-fiction, 12/10/08

Today I took Kirby for a walk, which started out along our usual route—out the front door and around the “State Streets” neighborhood, tracing a roughly square circuit. I decided to go a block further this time, so that we went down James Street and took a right onto Texas Street.

On Texas Street there is a green house with wire fencing surrounding its compact yard. Behind the wire were two pit bull terriers, medium-sized, that were barking ferociously at Kirby. When he saw them he started whimpering, which is what Kirby does when dogs bark at him from behind fences. When I saw them I was a little afraid, because I don’t really like pit bulls in general, and because these two looked almost bloodthirsty, the way they were jumping and snarling.

To my dismay, the pit bulls squeezed under the fencing, one after another, and ran straight toward Kirby, who stiffened visibly. I sensed there was something very wrong about this. After a moment of sniffing each other, the pit bulls began lunging at Kirby’s face, clamping their jaws on his cheeks and shaking vigorously, pulling him into a grassy ditch abutting the sidewalk. It looked like they were tearing Kirby’s face apart.

I was terrified. I began screaming for help, because I didn’t know what else to do. I realized I had never screamed for help before, and it was sort of embarrassing, especially since I wasn’t the one being mauled. But I didn’t know what else to do. Three women and an elderly man ran over from the nearby Deals Only parking lot, and all of us were yelling hysterically at the dogs. I wanted to pull Kirby away from the pit bulls, but they were clinging tenaciously to his face and I didn’t want to choke Kirby with his collar. The man suggested we start kicking the pit bulls. I began feeling sick to my stomach. Luckily, a mailwoman nearby saw the commotion and ran over, pulling out a can of pepper spray. She maced one of the pit bulls right in the eye, the can about 3 inches away from its face. It let go immediately. As this happened the owner appeared and called to his dogs, which ran to him and were taken into the green house. I think the entire episode lasted 20 seconds.

The man and women began yelling at the owner now, telling him that his dogs should be euthanized, that they were dangerous and could have just as easily attacked a person. The owner, for his part, looked deeply upset by the ordeal. He gave Kirby a thorough examination, brushing back the thick black fur, looking for injuries. He said he was an animal care specialist. I just wanted to get Kirby home and check him myself, without all these noisy people around. Kirby glanced uneasily at me, hurting and scared.

Pit bulls are not inherently aggressive dogs. They are certainly compact and muscular, and are bred for their strength. They also have very powerful jaws and don’t often let go of things they wish to hold on to. “They were originally bred as watchdogs, to guard livestock on farms,” said Angela Lenz, a dog behaviorist and owner of Tails-a-Wagging Doggie Daycare. “They’re very loyal, stubborn as hell, and extremely tolerant to pain. These reasons make them great family dogs—but these reasons also make them great for fighting.”

Pit bulls, like any breed of dog, must be taught from an early age that some things are OK to bite, while others are not. This is called bite-inhibition, and is imprinted on a puppy’s brain between its 4th and 18th week, Lenz said. Chew toys and play-biting are OK. People and other dogs are not. Also, dogs that aren’t properly socialized tend to be more aggressive and nippy. Socializing a dog means taking it to classes or parks to play with other dogs and people. This socializing must be done frequently and with considerable coaxing, until the dog begins to associate social settings with good behavior and a sense of confidence, rather than feelings of fear and anxiety.

Dogs wish only to please their owners, Lenz said. If biting and social ineptitude are never discouraged during those formative weeks, dogs will develop lifelong tendencies toward such behavior. It seems to come naturally to them. This is also why many adopted dogs have difficulty adjusting to new rules—they weren’t properly trained as pups. In the case of imprinted behavior, it appears an older dog really can’t learn new tricks. The combination of scant bite-inhibition training and poor social skills will often result in a nasty dog, no matter the breed.

The pit bull has been demonized by media, which focus primarily on the aggressive, non-socialized dogs that attack people and subsequently have to be put down. But there are lots of friendly pit bulls. I’ve met a few of them myself. And they are far from being the most aggressive breed—more people are bitten by cocker spaniels than pit bulls, Lenz said.

Lenz said owners are fully responsible for their dogs’ temperament. Dogs will never act out randomly; they behave according to how their master has trained them. Owners often don’t realize their dog is aggressive until something bad happens—a child is bitten or a neighbor’s pet is attacked, for instance. “Dogs are very good at telling us what they’re thinking,” she said. “We just suck at reading them sometimes.”

I’m sort of a misanthropist, so this knowledge comforts me in a way. I didn’t want to blame the dogs, just as I couldn’t bring myself to kick them; I wanted to blame the owner. For that shoddy fence. For his negligence. Maybe I wanted to kick him too, just a little bit.

Kirby seems to be doing alright. I’m so sorry, buddy.

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