A Dog Trainer’s Life

Stuff often happens as a regular part of a dog trainer’s day. Generally, we simply deal with it and move on. We never think about sharing the experience because we believe that we could or should have done better. However, there are situations when there is a benefit to sucking it up and sharing so as to help others avoid a similar experience.  This is one of those stories . . . 

The Adventure Begins …

My students, Suzie a 4-year-old, pit bull mix, and her owner, Bea (not their real names) are at session #7 of 8, and our second session on the street and public trail walking.

Bea has worked hard and is ecstatic at Suzie’s progress to date. As a result of her consistent work, Suzie’s leash walking has transformed from chaos to calm. Bea can hardly believe the change and says it is like a dream come true.

On this day, although it is raining, we are heading to the trail. It’s midday during the week, and at this time of day, the trail is usually unoccupied, even in good weather.

We enter the trail winding through the damp woods, with Suzie dragging her long line. Tree roots blackened by the dampness, are sticking up from the ground, covered by the wet leaves and making the footing treacherous. As we carefully cross the second wooden footbridge, Bea reveals to me that she has a deteriorating knee and ankle and is challenged when walking on rough (and slippery) terrain.

Suddenly, Out of Nowhere …

We continue gingerly along the slippery trail, and an elderly man with his Duck Toller-type dog suddenly appears close behind us. Although we did not hear him approach, he is close enough that he startles me. Bea was in front with Suzie and I called out to her that we had a dog approaching. I calmly instructed her to pick up the long line and KEEP MOVING to a wider place so that she can step far off the trail to let the man and his dog pass.

 Bea acknowledges that she heard me, and I stop, turn to face the man, and politely ask him to stop. I explain that we have a nervous dog that needs space and request that he waits with his dog while we cross the bridge to a spot where we can step off the trail.

 He looks at me says nothing, and keeps moving forward on the bridge as if he didn’t hear me. I quickly think that perhaps he has a hearing impairment.  I hold my hand up so that he can see that I want him to stop. Again, I politely repeat my request for him to wait until the other dog has moved to a safe place off the trail. In spite of my crystal clear request, he continues to move forward.

Scrambling for Safety

Worried that Bea may slip and lose her grip on Suzie’s line, I turn and slip-slide my way across the bridge.  I can hear the man and his dog closing in behind me. My inner voice is screaming “DANGER, DANGER, DANGER!” Again, I loudly repeat, “Please stay there until we can get this dog out of your way!” Although my request was clear, he keeps moving forward.

 On the other side of the bridge, Bea is off to the side of the trail on a slope, fumbling with the long line. No sooner than I tell her to step on the line to prevent Suzie from lunging, the man and his dog are there … at the bottom of the hill … in front of us. Suddenly, Suzie launches with specific intent and attacks the Duck Toller full-on.

Like A Movie Playing in Slo-Mo

What happens next was like a movie playing in slow motion … Bea slip-slides down the slope, screaming at Suzie while continually punching the button on her e-collar transmitter. The man is not moving and appears mesmerized watching the dogs roll around on the ground and I am at the top of the hill.

In a nanosecond, I realize that:

  1. Bea is aggravating Suzie’s heightened state by adding e-collar stimulation.
  2. Suzie is not aware that she is wearing a muzzle and is in full attack mode with the intent to kill.
  3. The owner of the other dog is standing to the side watching as if waiting for the dogs to stop rolling on the ground – which clearly is NOT going to happen.

 What Happened Next …

It was surreal – I grab the end of Suzie’s long line and drag her away from the fracas, and the Duck Toller comes with her!!  OMG!!! They are wrapped together in a black nylon line, with one end attached to the Duck Toller’s flat buckle collar!

 Without looking up, I repeatedly holler to the man to “let go of your leash!” and simultaneously instruct Bea to grab the black line to untangle the dogs. Like a trooper, she grabs the line and says that she can’t move it.  Both dogs continue writhing and snapping, wrapping the line tighter and tighter around them! 

I look up and see the man standing to the side, lamely holding up the bulky handle of a $%#^& retractable leash!!! Even if he lets go, the dogs are so tightly bound that the bulky handle will not slip through. In addition, if released the ‘flex’ in the tool could catapult the bulky handle toward the dogs, creating more chaos and serious injury. GRRRRR!!!! The words that spewed from my mouth at that time, are not for print.

Minutes Seem Like Hours

With the adrenalized strength of a mother lifting a car off her baby, I hoist both dogs up for Bea to unhook the clip from the collar of the Duck Toller.  All of this while both dogs continue to writhe, growl and snap – one fighting for its life, and the other fighting to take a life.

The line of the retractable leash has become wrapped around Suzie’s snout. Tension from the leash has pulled the muzzle off her lower jaw and is pressing into the bridge of her nose, just below her eyes. The muzzle is barely attached to her head and will be off with one quick twist.

As Bea unhooks the clip, the Duck Toller falls to the ground and the tangled leash slips away from both dogs. Once free of the leash and added weight of the Toller, Suzie begins screeching and writhing like a fish out of water.  The muzzle is wedged into her lower jaw, and she cannot close her mouth.

And Just Like That … It’s Over

 The Duck Toller scrambles back to his dazed owner and the two of them move out of sight. With the other dog safely out of the way, I gently lower Suzie to the ground, while keeping steady tension on the long line. At the same time, I hold her away from my body, to prevent her from re-directing on me.  Her jaw is pried open by the muzzle and she continues to writhe and scream in a panic. Bea swiftly removes the wedged muzzle and Suzie immediately relaxes.

I shout out to check on the other dog. The man responds that all is ok, and they are safely on their way.

Bea and I check Suzie for injuries and reset the muzzle. She has a slight scratch under her eye – which likely happened when the Duck Toller was trapped against her face in the chaos. Suzie gives a brief, full-body shake, with a look that says “well,… that was that.” We head out of the woods to get off the trail.

 Bea’s confidence is shaken, and she is in a state of semi-shock. I remind her that this could have turned out much worse.  

How To Avoid a Repeat

To help lower her heart rate, we reflect on the events that led up to the ‘moment’ and recognize three factors that if followed, may have changed the outcome –

  1. Plan for Safety First

When walking with your dog either on or off leash –

  • Always be prepared for the unexpected at every step.  Recognize that all dogs have the potential to bite or fight.
  • Keep a long line (not a retractable leash) attached to your dog’s collar if in doubt about their capacity to respond as you want in an off-leash environment.
  •  Know your audience and their strengths and limitations. For example, it would have been helpful to know that Bea was nervous because of the wet trail. 
  • Play your action plan over in your head repeatedly, so that you can automatically ACT before bad stuff happens. I had Suzie’s long line in my hand within seconds – although it seemed like hours.
  1. Be an Advocate for your Dog

Stand your ground to protect your dog’s (and/or client’s) safety. Hindsight is 20-20. My mistake was not standing my ground to block the forward movement of the man and his dog. 

  1. Know Your Tools, and theirs too!

Be aware of dog-walking tools that others are using. A retractable leash is usually a sign that the owner will not or chooses not to have control over their dog. The consequence of careless use of these dangerous tools can be devastating. In this experience one or both dogs could have been seriously injured, or worse.

 Training Tools – The good, and not so good

Retractable leashes are good tools for dogs with poor recall in unfenced yards or in the dark. NEVER use a retractable leash on a street walk or hiking trail. They are useless to establish effective communication between you and your dog.

The e-collar is not a magic wand. Proper use of an e-collar is extremely effective to reinforce desired behavior. If a dog is already committed to a fight, e-collar stimulation will only make things worse!!

Muzzles are tools to keep dogs safe. When a dog is wearing a muzzle, the owner will be more relaxed. The dog will learn that tough decisions are not theirs to make, and uncontrolled impulse behavior is futile.

Click here to check out this video clip to learn more about the benefits of muzzles. 

The Bottom Line 

The outcome of this true story could have been much worse. The attack was secondary to the fact that the retractable leash caused the ultimate chaos as both dogs became wrapped up together. Without the interference from the retractable leash, all would have ended quickly once Suzie was pulled away.

Leave your retractable leash at home. Use it in your yard in the dark and if you have a dog that does not come when called. Do NOT walk your dog with a retractable leash on the street or on the trail. Your dog’s life could depend on it.

Sharing picture – because Beagle Puppies are the best therapy 🙂




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