Unless you live in a country that doesn’t recognize the concept of personal property, you own things. And almost all of us own things that can be dangerous. The majority of people own kitchen knives and toasters, which, if misused, can maim or even kill. Many of us own firearms, which can save a life or end one (or do both at the same time). Most of us own motor vehicles, which are giant projectiles that cause far more injuries and deaths than speeding bullets. And some folks own big, powerful dogs with sharp teeth that can tear the flesh and crush the bones of another animal or a human being.
I don’t believe the ownership of any of those things should be banned. I do believe that those who own dangerous things – whether inanimate or living – should be held to standards of responsibility. Back when I was teaching Use of Force Theory and Practice at the police academy, I told recruits (we called them “embryo cops”) that when society authorizes you to strap that gun onto your hip and use it to enforce the law, that authority comes with an awesome responsibility. The same is true for anyone, anywhere, who owns anything that can cause serious bodily injury or death.
We’re pretty haphazard about how we educate owners and regulate these dangerous things. To carry a handgun, I had to undergo training, take a written exam, demonstrate physical proficiency and pass a background check. To drive a car, I had to take driver’s ed, take a written test, and show a state trooper that I could properly control a vehicle. To own a lethal edged weapon with a sharp 10 inch blade that can sever a carotid artery in a split second, all you have to do is go to WalMart and plop down your money (or order it on Amazon and have it delivered to your front door). To own an animal that can rip you to pieces, all you have to do is go to the city pound, contact a breeder or find one in the “free” section of Craig’s List.
So what got me thinking about all this? A little over a year ago, we got a Japanese Chin puppy and I started walking her every day. Last October, we got a second Chin and Tom started walking with us. Over that time, I’ve lost more than 45 pounds, thanks to my canine “personal trainers.” I’ve also become intimately acquainted with all parts of my neighborhood (the Harborside subdivision). As president of the HOA, I’ve been able to keep an eye on what’s going on out there as we wind through the streets on our daily walks.
Last Sunday, because Tom was out of town on business, I was walking the dogs by myself. We followed our usual route: down our street to the end, up another street to the top of the hill, back down the street parallel to ours, up one more block and a left turn, past the community pool, down to the other side of the neighborhood, around a circle and back. As we came back toward the pool on our way home, all of a sudden a huge German Shepherd came flying out of a yard we’d just passed, coming at us from behind. My dogs are 6 and 9 pounds, respectively. This dog was probably 90 lbs. – almost as big as me. And it went straight for my dogs.
I picked up the little one, Rolly, and the shepherd went after my girl, Suki. I tried to scoop her up, too, and Rolly squirmed out of my arms in the process. The shepherd grabbed him, and had his head in its mouth. Rolly started screeching as if he were being killed, which is exactly what I thought was happening. I screamed at the big dog and started kicking at it. Suki was barking at it, and it let Rolly go and went after her again. I got Rolly back in my arms, and I let go of Suki’s leash so she could run from it.
The big dog started chasing her, and I was running after them with Rolly in my arms, yelling at her to run and stay out of the street (she did) and yelling at people who had come out in their yards to please catch her. A young girl did, finally, and a man grabbed the big dog. The whole thing probably only lasted less than five minutes, but it felt like it went on forever. I thought Rolly was dying, given the horrible sound he made when the big dog had him. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had in a decades. I was a police officer on the streets, and I was in a few very dangerous situations, but I don’t remember ever being as afraid as I was for my “babies” during those few minutes last weekend.
The dog’s owner had been out there for most of this time. She was yelling at her dog, but the dog was paying her no attention. After it was all over, she assured me that the dog was “only playing” and “would never hurt another dog.” That might even be true – it turned out Rolly was physically okay – but it certainly terrorized my dogs, and me.
Since that incident, I don’t walk down that street anymore. We stay on the other side of the neighborhood. And I carry my gun with me every time I go walking now; I had gotten lax about that. If I’d been armed that day, I might have shot that dog. I believed my pups’ lives were in imminent danger, and I was afraid for my own life, too. I had no idea if the dog would turn those big teeth on me when I kicked it to get it away from Rolly.
I figured it was important to “get back on the horse after falling off,” so we didn’t skip any walks. But for me, the walk is no longer the relaxing, fun time that it used to be. Now when I’m out there on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, I’m in the same mental state of awareness – what firearms and combat expert Col. Jeff Cooper called “condition orange” – that I used to be in as a cop, when I was dispatched to a domestic disturbance or a “man with a gun” call. I’m hyper-vigilant, constantly looking around me, sensitive to every sound and every movement that I see in my peripheral vision.
When we pass a fence where a deep-voiced dog is barking behind it, I cross to the other side of the street, and I’m on the lookout for any loose boards or unsecured gates or other ways it could get out and attack us. If I see an off-leash dog up ahead, I cut down a different street, turn around and go back the other way, and/or pick up both my dogs and carry them until we’re in a place that feels safer.
The worst part of all this is that I am now suspicious of every big dog I see. I have nothing against large breed dogs. I owned big dogs for most of my life. I had shepherds, chows, afghan hounds and even wolf hybrids. Never did any of my dogs ever run up to a stranger’s dog and “play” with it by putting its mouth around the other dog. I couldn’t help wondering this: Would that dog have tried to “play” the same way with a small child?
I don’t blame the German Shepherd for what happened. I blame the owner. We choose what pets we have. If you’re going to choose to own a massive dog that is physically capable of doing great harm, you have the responsibility to 1) keep it fenced securely so that it can’t get out when you don’t intend it to, 2) keep it on a leash when you do let it out, and 3) train it to obey your commands instantly when you tell it to stop.
You owe this not just to the little dogs and their owners, and the little children and their parents, whom your dog might encounter, but you also owe it to your own dog. You are putting its life in danger if you let it maul those who are smaller and weaker than it is. If your dog appears to be attacking somebody’s pet or child, that somebody just might shoot it, or hit it in the head with the nearest stick. And if that pet or child gets injured – because a 90 lb. dog can easily hurt a 6 lb. dog or a 20 lb. child even in play – the law may step in and put your dog down. And you may find yourself looking at a lawsuit or even, in some cases, criminal charges.
I accept the responsibility that goes with owning a deadly weapon. I treat it with absolute respect. I keep it under my control at all times. I make sure I know how to make it do what I want it to, and not have any accidents with it. I put in time to train with it. I don’t leave it lying around where it could hurt an innocent person (or animal). If you own a big dog, you own a deadly weapon, too. I want you to get training with it, get control over it, and keep it under your control (or securely locked up) at all times. I don’t want to have to be afraid to walk down certain streets in my neighborhood with my properly leashed dogs, because I can’t trust you to keep your dog away from mine.
If you can’t do that, then please give your dog to someone who understands the responsibility that goes with ownership of a large and powerful breed, and get a pet rabbit or some goldfish; you’ll never have to worry about them attacking anyone or anything.