Confessions of an Ignorant Dog Owner

I want to share with all of you an experience that I once had, years ago. I’m not sure if I am sharing this for the sake of full disclosure, to rid myself of some guilt, or to educate others, but I do know that I feel it is important to share. SO here goes…

Some of you may know that I got Tonka when I was just finishing high school, which I did a year early, and so I was only 17 years old. However, I took this responsibility very seriously. Having temporarily retired from my competitive horseback riding career, training and socializing Tonk became my hobby, and so it filled many of my waking hours. Yeah, there is probably a psychology lesson in there somewhere, but let’s just say that I put every ounce of heart and sweat into his upbringing.

Baby Tonk

Baby Tonk

When I went on to college, it was no surprise that he went with me. He was everyone’s favorite pup. He was the type of dog that could calm even the most reactive of dogs, and do it well. It took a lot to ruffle his coat.

Helping me study

Helping me study

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience... but the same was not true for Tonk =/

The amazing farm where I had an equally amazing experience… but the same was not true for Tonk =/

A few years later, when Tonka was 3 or 4 years old, I took a summer internship on a horse farm in VA. It was a dream job, even though the hours were exhausting. Best of all, I could take my pup with me (as if I would accept a job otherwise!) The only downside? The owner, who I deeply respected and admired, bred Labs. That was all fine and dandy, but his male lab, Chase, was quite a handful. Of course being intact and overflowing with hormones, Chase had little respect for anyone, and nothing in the way of manners. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and it didn’t really matter who tried to stand in his way. Unfortunately, Chase took a quick disliking to Tonka. Tonka would try to avoid him, but if I was standing between the two, he never hesitated to defend me. I did my best to keep the dogs separated, but Chase’s owner seemed intent that the dogs would eventually work it out themselves. Of course, that never happened. Over the course of the summer, Chase attacked Tonka three separate times, and did the same with two other dogs. Once, when one of the other dog’s owners interfered with the attack, she suffered a nasty bite herself, for which I took her to the emergency room an hour away in the middle of the night. These weren’t just your run of the mill dog fights… they were serious aggression issues. Tonka still has white scars on his face that tell the story.

This was Luke, one of Tonk's friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

This was Luke, one of Tonk’s friends on the farm, and one of the first pitties I knew personally!

That summer seemed to instill in Tonka a mild yet lasting distrust of other dogs, particularly males. Of course I couldn’t blame him. At the same time, I felt such immense guilt for not being better able to protect my dog from Chase and his ignorant owner. However, the man was thrice my age, and was responsible for my wages, job, and living arrangements. To say it was a delicate situation is to put it mildly.

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever...

Getting to work with your dog was pretty much the best thing ever…

When we returned to State College that fall, I made it my mission to improve Tonka’s socialization in order to bring him back to where he had been previously. At the time, I thought that the best way to do this was to visit the dog park. For a while, this worked wonders. Tonka loved going to the park and interacting with the other dogs and owners, most of whom we knew by name. For a long time, we did not experience any issues. However, in a college town, you can expect that not everyone who frequented the park was a responsible dog owner.

Dog park dog

Dog park dog

On one sunny afternoon after I was finished with class for the day, Tonka and I were playing fetch in an empty corner of the dog park. He was totally relaxed and focused on the task at hand, enjoying some one-on-one time with his mama. Usually the center of the pack, he was content to play with me while the other dogs wrestled and played probably 100+ feet away from us. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, a male boxer who had just entered the park, ran past the other dogs and people, and literally came flying straight at my dog (like, so fast he was truly a blur), straight into his side, with such force that Tonka was instantly knocked to the ground. This dog, for no obvious reason, began attacking Tonk. Without any conscious thought, I ran over to the dogs and started kicking the boxer that was still on top of Tonka. I still don’t know what prompted me to do that, but I can guarantee that it was a gut reaction to a traumatic situation. I know that I was not kicking him with full force, or at all to try to hurt him, but enough so as to dislodge him without getting bitten in the process. I also know that it only took one or two kicks to redirect his attention… I was not repeatedly kicking a dog in the stomach. A few seconds later (although this all felt like an hour!) a young man, about my age, came and retrieved his dog by the collar. He seemed like a nice person, but he was irate at me for kicking his dog. He yelled something about his dog having fear issues, and how could I kick someone else’s dog? No apology or even acknowledgement of the fact that his dog had just attacked mine without any provocation. He quickly left the park. I was so shaken up that I don’t think I even said anything to him, either in apology or defense. I went to retrieve Tonka, who seemed to escape with a few minor injuries, at least of the physical variety. Some other dog owners came up to me to report that this was not the first time they had seen this boxer attack another dog, but nothing could really calm me. That was the last time I visited a dog park with Tonka, until this experience years later, with Gaige. (Long-time readers will remember that we had a less dramatic, but similar, experience with her.)

I don’t know what to say about the traumatic events that day. Of course, I feel terribly about kicking his dog. To this day, I wish I could contact the owner in apology. I’m sure his dog is not a horrible pup, and now being a person with a dog that can sometimes be reactive, I have so much compassion for both the owner and the pooch. At the same time, I was there, effectively by myself, and was trying to make a decision to save my dog. Do I think his dog was trying to kill Tonka? No, I do not. But in a traumatic situation, I don’t think my brain could process that. Furthermore, the fact that the attack was targeted and completely unprovoked made me feel as though the dog’s actions could not be predicted. Had the owner been in range to assist me, maybe he could have jumped in instead of leaving me to fend for myself. I still do not know how I would react if I were to be put in the same situation… which is just one of the many reasons that I will never go to a dog park again.

As I said when I began, I don’t know exactly why I decided to write this post today. Maybe it is to free myself of some guilt… guilt for the way I handled the situation at the dog park, and most especially, guilt for the fact that I feel I have failed Tonka as far as standing up for him in stressful situations. Of course I now know better, but I wish I could have spared him some of these experiences. Perhaps by sharing this, it will help other dogs whose owners are as well-meaning yet uninformed as I once was.

20 thoughts on “Confessions of an Ignorant Dog Owner

  1. As doggy parents, we do the best we can! I think it would be more upsetting if you had done nothing to try and help Tonk. We all make mistakes, but the important part is that you learn from them (which I believe you have). Free yourself from the guilt……

  2. We’ve all been there – especially with our first dog. I know there are a lot of things I would have done differently with Tess now that I’ve had her for some time and with my experiences with Ed. But it’s all worked out and she’s somehow thrived anyway. We learn, promise to be better, and never let it happen again. Keep up the good work!

  3. I certainly feel you, and I can relate to the awful feeling of witnessing a dog fight and having to intervene (as you recall from my post about this weekend’s fight, which you commented on). For better or worse, we all learn from our mistakes!

    • I hope you know that my comment was just intended to help! We were so lucky to learn some of those tricks before our reactive girl came into the mix. You guys are wonderful fosters, and I think that trying some intro tricks in the manner I suggested will really help… your stress levels, if nothing else! Thanks for the input. I certainly recognize that I am ALWAYS a work in progress 😉

  4. Honestly? I would have done the exact same thing. There is a notorious lady in the town I live in with a pair of dogs (staffies actually though I don’t think badly of the breed just this pack) who started out with issues like that. Her dogs knocking other dogs over and pinning them down. Gradually it has worsened and two months ago they killed a puppy, literally tearing this tiny thing to shreds. Days later, my friend’s Jack Russell who is no push over was attacked and to this day goes catatonic whenever he sees other dogs. Then only a few weeks ago another friend’s Shih Tzu puppy, only five months old, was killed by them. There are various other attacks and no one will do anything, not even an order that they need to stay on a leash because they have not attacked a human, It’s only a matter of time and in a park . . . well I just pray its not a kid.

    You may feel guilty and it may make me sound terrible but I think you did the right thing. I do not encourage hitting an animal, that would be cruelty, but in cases like these everyone should have the right to protect their pet from another out of control animal.


    ps. apologies for the long comment, I just felt I should explain fully why I don’t think you did something wrong.

  5. We all have things to learn when we get our first dog, it happens we can’t expect to know everything. However, I don’t think you did anything wrong with the boxer situation. I feel like you stepped in and had to do what you needed to in order to protect your dog. It’s sad that it took physical force to get this dog off of yours but I’d hate to think what could have happened to Tonka if you hadn’t.

  6. I can TOTALLY relate to this. I used to take Kaya to my local dog park a lot when she was a puppy because I wanted her to socialize with other dogs. I let her play in a lot of situations that were probably too intense for her because I thought she was “figuring it out on her own.” When she got more mature she developed a short fuse and got into a lot of fights when things got too hectic or another dog got in her face. Luckily, with a lot of training and help from Norman, she gets along great with other dogs and has a lot of patience now:)

    I learned to avoid that park during peak times and I considered it ok to go there when there was only a dog or 2. But again I learned my lesson the hard way! I was used to making sure Kaya was playing fetch and minding her own business which is what we were doing one day when an insanely hyper large (probably 80 pound) dog entered the park and started wrestling with Norman very rough. In less than a minute of play it turned into a full attack and Norman does not defend himself in these situations. It took me three tries by grabbing the dog by his scruff to get him off Norman. The entire time the dog’s owner was standing there, 5 feet away, yelling at me that I was a f-ing idiot and I was going to get bit and his dog wasn’t doing anything wrong. On my last attempt, the dog did bite my arm (and I ended up with a huge bruise) but I did manage to get a hold of the dog’s collar and told his owner to come get his dog as the dog continued to lunge and bark at Norman, who was sitting quietly in the dirt, confused and worried. He reluctantly came to get his dog, reminding me again that I was a f-ing idiot and pointed out that Norman did not have a mark on him. No, the dog did not break the skin but he was attacking my dog none-the-less and might have done some real damage if I didn’t step in. And Kaya was this close to jumping in to protect us which could have turned really ugly:/

    Needless to say, I’ve never stepped foot in that park again! We actually avoid any fenced in dog parks and it’s greatly decreased our bad experiences. And luckily Norman still loves new dog friends:)

    I’m still surprised at the number of people who bring unpredictable and temperamental dogs to dog parks and off leash places. They often don’t even warn me that their dog is unfriendly when they have ample time to say something. It is so unfair, not just to those with friendly dogs, but to those dogs who obviously feel the need to act out or protect themselves:(

    • Couldn’t agree more. Too bad we don’t live closer! Our sweet and polite pups could play together 🙂 I always wish there were other responsible dog owners near me, so that we could have puppy playdates

  7. I am so sorry this happened to you guys! I am, however, glad you shared it. Dog parks aren’t the best places. I used to go to one all of the time, but it was with a core group of friends that looked out for each other. We would leave if not so smart dog owners showed up.

    Now that I have learned more through my experiences as well as others, I probably wouldn’t go to a dog park again. I am so glad that you shared this because too many people think that dog parks are super safe places. Anything could happen in a matter of seconds. I am glad you and Tonk are okay!

    P.S. Don’t feel bad for how you handled it. I have no idea how I would react, but I would do anything for the safety of my pup!

  8. I think you absolutely did the right thing. You found the quickest, most effective way to stop a dog fight. My Jack Russell rules our roost. Twice I’ve had to jump in on a dog fight between her (16 lbs) and my 58 lb hound dog mix. I was bitten both times by our hound dog mix. I don’t blame him, he never broke the skin and he is MY dog. I choose to reach in. If it was not my dog and I was completely unaware of his normal behavior I would kick instead of reach in. Don’t feel quality. You made the best choice you could in heat of the moment.

  9. Don’t be so hard on yourself! I kid you not, an almost IDENTICAL thing happen to me and Buddy not too long after I got him. He had a bit of a hard time with intact males from the day I got him but I swore I was going to change that, and not knowing any better, assumed socializing him at the dog park was the best way to do it. It was only about a mile from my house so we went all the time and it was great…until this little Husky came in the park one day, and did literally the exact same thing that Boxer did to Tonka. Ran right into him and started attacking him! The owner was actually closer than I was so he broke the fight up, but I guarantee that I would have reacted the same way and probably kicked at the dog in an attempt to break up the fight while not hurting myself.

    I wish all the time that I could go back to day one with all of my dogs, even Maggie who I got so much later than the other two and after I had started really researching behavior and things like that, and do things differently. You learn something new each day though, and tomorrow you will be an even better dog owner than you were today. And I happen to think you are an EXCELLENT one already!

  10. I don’t think you should feel bad about kicking the boxer. In dog fighting situations the most important thing to do is to break up the fight, and be quick about it. As you said yourself, you didn’t kick with full force either, just enough to get him away. I tell you, if another dog is attacking my dogs, I will kick too! The force that will be used is depending on the attacking dog.

    My two dogs have been fighting as well, and while knowing they won’t bite me when I separate them, I am still getting them away from each other without planning how to do it. Last time they fought I managed to grab the skin right between the belly and the thigh of my border collie and pulled her away, and she was screaming in pain. I do not WANT to inflict pain to my dogs, but there is no time for planning. Pulling her away by her skin (as this was the first place I managed to get a hold of) is still better than her or my other dog getting serious injuries from fighting.

    AND – even though it was the boxer who took the heat from your kicking, it was his owner that was the irresponsible in this situation. If you have a dog that you believe will charge and attack other dogs, you don’t release him into a dog park! That is common sense!

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