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“Intense Pit Bull Encounter”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Julian Ortiz

“Dear PoPville,

This happened at the intersection of 7th and Gallatin NW, just south of Kennedy St.

Yesterday my husband and I had an intense and scary encounter with a pit bull while walking our dog Lucky, a twenty-three pound mixed breed. Before I give you the harrowing details, know that everyone’s ok, but I want to share it to highlight three important message:

1) NEUTER your dog! There is absolutely NO reason for anyone who isn’t a professional dog breeder to have intact dogs (and even that’s questionable in many cases). Especially male dogs. Period.

2) EVERY DOG should have BASIC OBEDIENCE TRAINING and SOCIALIZATION with both dogs and people. Especially larger, powerful breeds.

3) NEVER let your dog roam freely and never just stick it out in your yard, even if you think it can’t get out.

Here’s what happened. We took Lucky on a long walk yesterday afternoon. About a mile from our house in a residential neighborhood we spotted a large pit bull that was off leash with no human in sight across the intersection we were approaching. This was a big dog, I’d guess 70-80 lbs, with a huge head, ripped muscles, and an intense stare.

Now, I know that pit bulls are great dogs and that most problems associated with them are 100% caused by how people raise and treat them. But I’m not so naive to think that there’s not the seedy pit bull dog fight/guard/status culture going on in DC where these dogs are trained and encouraged to be aggressive, especially towards other dogs. We had no way of knowing which kind of pit bull we were about to encounter.

It locked eyes on us from diagonally across the intersection. I had to make a split-second decision to either turn around and walk away from him, or keep going forward. Not wanting to trigger the dog’s natural predator response by turning our back and moving away from him, I decided to stay calm, not make eye contact and just proceed forward on our side of the intersection.

Of course, the dog made a beeline directly towards us, with a hard focus on Lucky. I braced myself–it was either going to go directly into an attack on Lucky, or it wasn’t. There was nothing we could do either way. It was an awful, awful feeling of dread and adrenaline.

I should mention that I work with and handle potentially dangerous wild animals professionally as a wildlife educator, some that could easily kill me, and am experienced in reading animal body language. I also have a lot of experience with dogs. And frankly, dogs are way more potentially dangerous than the ambassador wildlife I work with. Dogs generally lack a fear of humans (that’s part of what domestication means) which makes them bold and willing to offensively attack, and because humans sometimes deliberately instill aggressive behavior in dogs.

So, in those seconds as it approached us, I was locked in on that pit bull with every ounce of my attention, reading his body language, trying to maintain a calm yet assertive body language myself, and to try to position myself between him and Lucky. This dog’s body language was extremely intense and focused–not a good sign.

Thankfully, its intensity was not attack-driven. But it was instantly clear to me that this was a young but fully mature, un-neutered male dog that was raging full of hormones. And that it had absolutely no socialization with other dogs or with humans–a dangerous scenario with any breed. And that it was targeted on Lucky.

It ran right up to us with a stiff-legged posture and jerky movements–signs of a highly stimulated and potentially aggressive animal. It kept its focus on Lucky, immediately moving to stand over him, which is an act of dominance. It totally ignored me, and even body-checked me to get me out of its way so that it could get to Lucky.

Now, you might wonder why I didn’t just pick Lucky up as soon as we saw the dog. In my experience it’s generally always best to let dogs meet each other on their own terms, using their own ways of greeting each other. There’s a whole dialog of body language, scent, and movements that dogs have between themselves when they meet. Sometimes that includes growls, pushing, hard pawing and even mounting–which is totally normal. But that’s when people tend to panic and try to snatch their dog up or yank on its leash, which is only going to make a potentially aggressive dog more stimulated and more likely to lunge and attack, or your dog to panic and snap defensively out of fear. Also, picking up a small dog is a sure way of getting a large dog to jump up on you to get at the smaller dog in your arms. Not good.

So in the small hope that this dog was just friendly and curious and that they’d sniff and that would be it, I left Lucky on the ground and let them greet, all the while talking to the pit bull in a clear, friendly voice and keeping my own adrenaline in check and my body language calm. But within moments it was clear that this dog was intent on totally dominating Lucky, who at this point was beginning to get intimidated and defensive. All it might take was a warning nip from Lucky to set this other dog into an attack.

At this point we’d made it across the street and were on the sidewalk. The house in front of us had a fence and so I was able to pull Lucky out from under this dog and hold him facing the fence with my back to the pit bull, so it couldn’t reach him. As I knew would happen, the pit bull then started jumping up on me, trying to get at Lucky.

When that happens, it’s your natural reaction to kick or push back, but I knew that with this amped-up dog that clearly had no regard for human authority, that it could potentially turn into an attack on me. So I stayed calm but held my ground without becoming aggressive myself.

I was able to quickly hand Lucky off to my husband and told him to get inside the fence and into the yard of the house we were in front of, keeping myself positioned between him and Lucky and the pit bull. The dog was aggressively jumping up on me, gripping me with its front legs and humping my leg, trying to knock me over or get around me to get at Lucky. I could feel the incredible strength of this animal and knew that if things went south and it got aggressive, I wouldn’t be able to fight it off. Once my husband and Lucky were inside the fence, I was able to shove it off and get inside myself and slam the gate on it so it couldn’t get in.

At that point the pit bull became manic, running up and down the fenceline trying to find a way in. It was a standard three-foot wrought iron fence, so the dog could see us standing there behind the metal posts, which thankfully were close enough together that it couldn’t fit its huge head through. But it actually started ramming its head under fence trying to get in, and in the process cut open its forehead on the metal post, which didn’t even phase it. There was one spot that I knew it would be able to fit under the fence, so I positioned myself there and every time it tried to get in, I was able to use my foot so shove it back under.

At this point we were safe but trapped inside the fence. My husband was holding Lucky keeping him safe and I was trying to call animal control while guarding the space under the fence. I called 311 and had to deal with an interminable phone tree and then got put on hold, but finally got connected with an animal control operator, who said he’d try to get someone out as soon as possible.

The man whose yard we were sheltering in came out at this point and we quickly explained what was happening and why we were in his yard. Then the pit pull spotted an older woman on the other side of the intersection, and ran right for her. She began to panic and yell for help, and all we could do was tell her to stay calm, while we yelled to distract the dog. It worked and the dog came running back to the fence and tried to get under it again. I kept shoving it back with my foot. Then, it spotted another women, a mother with two kids, walking down the street. In a flash it ran at them, but thankfully they didn’t panic and just let the dog sniff them. I had a moment of dread when it jumped up on one of the kids–it was as tall as she was on its hind legs–but she pushed it off and they kept walking and the dog again shifted its focus back to trying to get in the fence to get at Lucky.

Based on how it responded to the people on the street, I knew it wasn’t outright aggressive towards people, but I could also tell from its body language that it could potentially become so if it was met with aggression. And I knew we weren’t going to be able to keep it off of Lucky if we tried to leave the fence. We were trapped.

At that moment a car came tearing down the street and a guy jumped out, screaming at the pit bull. Upon seeing him, the dog immediately cowered (which was in stark contrast to how it responded to me). He ran up to dog and punched it in the head, then dragged it to the car and shoved it in, cursing the whole time. He then hit the gas and tore off down the street. A few seconds after he was out of sight, an older gentleman came running down the street from the direction the car had come, also looking for the dog. He was clearly upset and was much friendlier than the younger guy who dragged the dog away–but he was also carrying a big wooden shovel handle like a club as he searched for the dog. It was disconcerting. We told him that the younger man had already gotten the dog, and he left the way he came.

And that was it. We thanked the guy whose yard we’d sheltered in and then continued on our way home. It was traumatizing–I have adrenaline coursing through me just typing this up–and ultimately a really sad incident. I don’t have much hope for that dog and pray that it doesn’t hurt anyone or anyone’s pet, and that it finds better owners.

So, again, I share this to drive home those three points I started with. Neuter your dogs. Make sure they know basic commands and are socialized. And never let them roam off leash or leave them unattended in your yard, even if you think it’s secure. If this dog’s owners had done these things, this wouldn’t have happened to us.

I hate to tell such a depressing story and leave it at that, so to end on a positive note, I want to promote adopting a pit bull. They really are sweet dogs when raised like a normal pet. (Even though some are unfortunately exploited by the worst of people and turned into monsters, giving the entire breed a bad name. The dog we encountered seemed likely to be on that path.) The shelters here in DC are filled with perfectly wonderful pit bulls or mixes that, with proper care and training, would make a great part of your family. Check out the Washington Humane Alliance and the many rescue organizations such as Ambassador Pit Bulls.

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