A tan, 120-pound mastiff growled through the crack in the door, barely held back by a 12-year old boy. I was knocking at the door of this rural home to let the residents know I’d be working in the stream nearby. Even if the stream bed is technically public, nobody likes being surprised by a stranger in their backyard. As a 27-year-old female graduate student, I didn’t feel very intimidating, but the13-year-old boy was creeped out by me knocking. I told him I’d be taking some measurements in the stream and handed him a flyer about my research to give his parents. He said OK and slunked behind the door, but not before first letting his huge growling dog squeeze outside. As I turned to go, the mastiff immediately lunged and chomped down on the flesh of my ass. I yelped in pain and I looked back at the silent closed front door for help. But the boy was gone, and the dog seemed satisfied with his bite and also retreated, still growling. I walked quickly back to the car on the road where my field assistant was waiting, my heart pounding wildly.
By that time in my life, I was a full-fledged dog lover with two dogs of my own, Rooster and Arlo. I had adopted Rooster from a shelter, and he was the absolute best dog ever. Perhaps you’ve heard this before, but listen, this is the real thing. He was a 5ish-year-old corgi crossed with something big and black and fluffy. He had a barrel chest, ridiculously short legs, big fat paws, and thick, long, black fur. Rooster systematically turned cat people into dog people. His favorite pastimes were naps, eating, sleeping, naps, and stealing my sister’s entire birthday cake off the counter and eating it whole. He also dabbled in eating the poop of stray cats. The only time I ever saw him run was when we were on our way home from walks, just to get it over with. His favorite moves were the “slow walk” and the “groan-n-plop.” On hot days, he liked napping on his back on the cold floor with his belly out and four legs splayed.
As a dog owner, Rooster spoiled me. In exchange for long walks to help him lose weight, he never got sick or hurt. I brought him everywhere, he got along with other dogs and the rest of the entire animal kingdom, and virtually everyone loved him. I dragged Rooster along on adventures in the woods and he would break out his less common prance-trot. He encouraged me to slow down and notice things, while I kept him healthy. Rooster never needed a leash, he was just too slow, and he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Rooster is so great, I thought, the only thing better than Rooster is more Roosters. So, a few years later, I adopted Arlo. Spoiler alert: Arlo was not more Roosters.
I adopted Arlo for his good looks: he is a short, long dog and fills out our whole short family. Arlo is the whole short-dog package, a mix of basset hound and corgi and dachshund and who knows what else. Just before I adopted Arlo, he was picked up from the interstate, 6 months old and starving. Arlo had the energy of about 5 million Roosters. He tore around the yard in crazy circles for hours. He ate stuff, all the stuff, whether he was supposed to or not. He jumped, he ran, he played, he dug, he rolled, he destroyed, he did everything all the time, was always happy, and never got tired. But when he did get tired, he cuddled. Hard, like he was born for cuddling. Little spoon, big spoon, top spoon, bottom spoon, cocoon spoon, doesn’t matter, he’s a pro. To keep him entertained and active, I took him to a friend’s house full of doggy buddies during work hours, we hiked with friends’ dogs in the woods, we did obedience classes, and we went to the dog park.
And of course Rooster got along with him, because he’s Rooster. The hardest part was hiking slow enough for Rooster and fast enough for Arlo. To deal with this issue, naturally I took Arlo off the leash and let him zoom around in circles around me. Luckily, recall came easy for Arlo so if other dogs appeared, it was easy to grab Arlo and put him on a leash.
Over time, Rooster aged. He got even slower and went deaf around the same time Arlo hit the prime age of 3, when dogs start to think they’re hot shit. And boy did Arlo. Think the doggy version of skateboarding down handrails and drag racing like you’ll live forever. But he was also taking his family life more seriously, and he thought Rooster’s aging was starting to drag the pack down. When the communication broke down between Arlo and Rooster, Arlo thought he needed to do something about it. For example, Rooster was completely oblivious to “dog toys” even being a thing (100 percent preference for naps over toys). But occasionally he’d wander too close to one of Arlo’s toys, and Arlo got pissed. Rooster couldn’t hear Arlo’s cues, and all of a sudden I was breaking up terrifying fights between my helpless, unathletic, deaf, awkward, lazy, love-of-my-life first dog, and my young, spry, energetic, muscle-y teenager puppy. I cannot describe the feeling of sheer panic watching and hearing the two dogs you love most in the world go after one another. I feared Arlo would actually kill Rooster, which my dog trainer confirmed was what he was trying to do: take out the weakest link in the pack. Twice, I had to take my beloved Rooster to the vet for stitches and face the shame of admitting to the vet that somehow I had allowed my own dog to do this to him.
My efforts to show Arlo that I’m the alpha in the fam, like eating first, invading his space regularly, making him sleep separately, keeping him off the furniture, and walking through doors before him, had little effect on his actions. For a while, I vigilantly watched body language and verbal cues to prevent issues between them, but as Rooster’s health declined further, it got too difficult and risky, and eventually I had to keep Rooster and Arlo separated, until the end of Rooster’s life.
At the same time as these issues appeared, Arlo also started to have issues with strangers and strange dogs. This extended, I learned, to things as simple as someone passing us too close on a trail. I learned he could be wagging his tail and launch to bite someone in the same moment. At the dog park where he had been playing happily with other dogs for 3 years, a dog twice Arlo’s size rushed him, and didn’t back off when Arlo growled. Arlo lunged and snapped. The dog ran off largely unphased, but my friend stood up with the very tip of the dog’s ear in her hand, and we heard a woman across the park start wailing that her dog was bleeding. My blood pressure skyrocketed, and I was mortified. My friend calmly helped me react to the situation and to assuage my guilt, I helped pay for the dog’s emergency vet visit, despite the fact that dog parks are at-your-own-risk places. The guilt and shame I felt has kept me from even sharing that story with most people. Needless to say, that was the last time we went to the dog park.
I was at a loss for how to deal with this new dog that Arlo had evolved into. With me and his friends, he was the same old dog: lovable, playful as hell, full of energy, and the best cuddler of all time. His resource guarding, or protectiveness over his space, food, toys, and people, is sure to stem back to his puppyhood as a street dog. As these issues grew, we went back to training. In addition to private consultations to deal with Arlo’s issues, I spent 3 years in training classes.
But even today after years of training, I can’t trust Arlo the way I used to. He’s not allowed to be around mobile children. While recall was never an issue, Arlo now always has to be on a leash if there is any chance a human or dog will show up unexpectedly. We have a process for meeting new people and new dogs. The consequences for not following it are dire. Once a few years ago, some friends were meeting at my house to leave on a trip. Claire showed up, and I had to run an errand before we departed. In a rush, I left her to wait for Rosie to show up, not thinking about how Rosie had never met Arlo. When she arrived in my absence, Arlo greeted her wagging his tail, then promptly bit her in the leg. Her wound healed and she was very gracious, but I should have known better.
When I just had Rooster, I harshly judged dog owners who modified their own behaviors “instead” of training their dogs, not realizing that unfortunately it’s not that simple. But after both a ton of training and modifying my behavior, Arlo will always be Arlo, and I’d rather avoid an altercation than risk harm to anyone — human or dog.
But don’t worry — I still judge. It’s human nature, right? Now, I judge dog owners who have poorly trained dogs off the leash, or let their dogs approach strangers freely. I totally understand that dog owners want to let their dogs run free to keep them happy and healthy. Happy dogs make us all happy. But if a dog runs up to Arlo and he, on the leash, bites off the tip of its ear or punctures its neck, I guarantee nobody will be happy.
After all of these experiences — getting bitten on the butt by a stranger’s gigantic terrifying dog, watching one of my own most-loved creatures go after my other most-loved creature, feeling the guilt and shame over and over from having a dog bite or terrify new friends, strangers, or other dogs … the thought of any sort of dog confrontation makes my blood pressure spike. I fear altercations enough that some days I avoid the woods completely for just that reason. As outdoor activities become more popular, there are more people and more dogs on less popular trails.
When I do venture out and see a dog off the leash, I bite the bullet and holler out through the woods, “Could you grab your dog? My dog is not friendly!” Although I try to be as friendly as I can, I always feel ashamed yelling out to strangers that my dog is unfriendly, like I am announcing to the world my failures as a dog owner. I am thankful for dog-owners who are sympathetic and friendly, but more often get the side-eye, despite having Duluth’s leash ordinance on my side.
Arlo’s issues were just beginning when I was bitten by the huge, terrifying mastiff. After the incident I called the owners to let them know what happened and make sure the dog’s vaccinations were up to date. I tried to be understanding — I’ve been there. And the baseball-sized purple bruise did give me some good street cred, at least around folks who would let me show them my bruised ass.
Getting bit made me wary of approaching strange dogs, like others should be wary approaching my strange dog. It helped me realize that Arlo isn’t alone in his issues, he’s just a dog. Like the rest of us, from the strangers on the trail to the protective mastiff who bit my ass, he’s just trying to be the best version of himself he can be, the only way he knows how, using a dog’s mentality. Even good dogs are still dogs. Maybe we can’t always understand a dog’s mentality, but we could all be a little more compassionate of all the humans and dogs out there with issues we don’t understand.
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