When you have a reactive dog, you are more preoccupied about how your dog is going to react to the world around him than the contrary. On our walks, I am generally on the lookout for possible triggers and monitoring Spencer’s state to make sure he’s checking things out in a relaxed manner and not having his stress levels build to the point of a possible eruption. All the more reason we were caught off guard this morning by an attack from an unexpected source.
During the past couple of days, I’ve been asking myself if you can ever trust a reactive dog without a muzzle. Even if you’ve done years of work and the dog seems reliable in every situation you’ve tried, how do you know that you haven’t missed a key trigger? I first started thinking about this because I had left the muzzle in the car that Greg had parked near the train station before leaving for England. So I found myself with a big, reactive dog who wanted to go for a walk and no muzzle. My temporary solution was to use a head halter with a mechanism that closes the dog’s jaw if he pulls against the leash. Spencer did very well with it. I was very careful as we were walking, and we had no problems during two walks. Still, I was relieved when Greg came back and we could use the muzzle again.
Last night I took Spencer to the big park (castle grounds) for his first long walk since I got back from the US and he returned from the kennel.
When we first got there, he was pulling on his leash, but in a happy, let’s-go-faster way. His body language was relaxed, and he was enjoying checking how all the smells had changed in the week he’d been away.
He seems to be suffering from allergies, and the muzzle seemed to be really annoying him, so when we sat down by the canal, I took it off, as I often do when we are seated and I have him under tight control. As we were sitting there, I noticed his nose was bleeding. He gets these pimples that open and bleed and seem to be extremely itchy. This one wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to irritate it more than necessary.
Since he was behaving and we had plenty of space, I decided to take the risk of walking a bit without the muzzle and put it back on when we headed back to the car on paths. I was careful to keep a distance from other people. However, I was breaking one of the cardinal rules of dealing with reactive dogs: always have at least two separate “safety lines”. If the muzzle is off, you should have two different leashes.
We walked around exploring for a while. At one point, we were in the middle of a small lawn with various paths around us. People were walking and running by. The park keepers went by on a little electric car. Suddenly, when a woman ran by us and then turned to circle back around, Spencer lunged. I don’t know why he reacted to her and to no one else we’d seen. Earlier when he was muzzled, we’d been much closer to other people with no problem.
The shock absorber I had recently added to the leash — and which is supposedly designed for canine sports where the dog pulls you on a sledge — gave way, and Spencer was free. If he had been muzzled or on a second leash, this would not have been so serious, thus the importance of the cardinal rule.
I tried desperately to get him back under control and away from the woman before he could do any damage, but I failed. He bit her on the thigh. I’ll spare you all the minutia, but she required stitches under general anesthesia because of the depth of the flesh wound. She is not pressing charges, and we are insured, so this could be much worse, but I am sick over what happened and beating myself up for not having been more careful.
Thinking back on it, we’ve had several incidents right after one of my trips. I think there are probably two factors at play. 1. Because of my fatigue, my judgment is poorer than normal. 2. Spencer’s routine’s have been interrupted and he is feeling more insecure and therefore more likely to react.
I would like to forget this ever happened, but it seems important to share the incident so that others can learn from my experience and prevent another bite. This also reinforces the initial question I had. Can you ever trust a dog like Spencer to be around people outside the family without a muzzle?