Major Dog Handler Failure – What I Learned When My Dog Attacked

I failed Honey. I failed my friend. And I failed a stranger who will never forget their scary encounter with us.

It’s time for me to tell you our story. And what I learned.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever sits with her yogurt cup.

This sounds like it will be a long story. Okay, go ahead. I have my snack and I’m ready to listen.


 

Dog Handler Failure #1 – Being Distracted

In late August, I had a few friends over for dinner. The weather was great. To take advantage of the waning days of summer, I set the table on the front porch.

To simplify matters, I put up a baby gate across the open front door so the foster dogs staying with us could be part of the activity while not running the risk of escaping off the porch (one was small enough to crawl through the gate we put across the porch entrance).

Honey, of course, often spent time on the porch with me. So she got to join the party.
 

Golden Retriever Honey with a stuffed butterfly

I love the porch. It’s the best place to catch butterflies (Pam – note the baby gate across the top of the steps).


 
When several of us got up to get “seconds” from the kitchen, I struggled with the baby gate across the door, keeping the foster dogs inside, and playing hostess for my friends.

Dog Handler Failure #2 – Ignoring My Best Instincts

Honey seemed happy enough so I asked my friend remaining on the porch if it was ok to leave Honey with her.

I briefly thought of putting up another baby gate across the porch steps but during the hassle of balancing my plate and avoiding stepping on dog feet, I dismissed it and went inside.

The last time I looked, Honey was sitting next to my friend enraptured.

Dog Handler Failure #3 – Not Being In Charge Of My Dog

The next thing I know, I hear my friend shouting. She’s calling Honey who is obviously ignoring her.

Someone else is screaming and crying. Honey’s best friend (D) runs out the door ahead of me. By the time I get outside, I see D holding Honey by the collar and walking her up the steps.

I run down the stairs asking, “What happened?” when I see a little girl crying surrounded by her mom, brother, dad, and their dog on a leash. The father yelled, “Your dog attacked mine. She came running down the stairs and attacked him.”

At this point I’m in a state of shock. But I know enough to realize that whatever happened, I was the one in the wrong. These people were upset. And they had every right to be.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever rests on her stuffed lamb.

I’m happy to apologize when I’m wrong. What’s apologize?


 

Dog Handler Success #1 – Always Apologize First

First, I told the family I was terribly sorry. As the man kept repeating that my dog attacked his, I continued to apologize, telling him that it was all my fault and that I took full responsibility for whatever happened.

The little girl was crying and obviously upset. I asked her if she was hurt or just scared. She said she wasn’t hurt.

No one was hurt. The dog was fine and absolutely unstressed. Slowly, the man with the dog relaxed. He was still upset. But he realized that I was not going to fight him on this. I knew I was in the wrong.

A neighbor from around the corner heard the noise and came running. She also has a golden retriever who occasionally runs loose in front of their house. She explained to the family that she was sure Honey was just playing.

I was still in a state of shock. I couldn’t imagine what got into my dog to cause her to attack a dog just walking by.

As the family continued on their walk, I also apologized to my friend for leaving Honey with her on the porch. I put her in a scary place which I never should have done.

If I had been on the porch, I would have seen the family coming. I would have hooked my finger on Honey’s collar. But no stranger would think of those things. And she shouldn’t have to.

Dog Handler Success #2 – Trust Your Eyes

Next I tried to figure out what happened. I was very worried about the idea of Honey suddenly turning aggressive toward another dog.

I had never seen Honey exhibit threatening behavior to anyone.

She gently wrestles with foster puppies. Allows other dogs to take toys right out of her mouth. And barely looks up when her friend Li’l Punkin Butt steps on her tail trying to get the good spot on the back of the couch. How could she attack a strange dog walking by the house?

My near neighbor kept repeating that Honey was probably just playing. At first, I thought she was terribly unhelpful. But eventually, she led me to use my eyes to judge what happened.

When D went after Honey, she was able to call her away from the other dog on the second or third attempt.

The other dog had no injuries. He appeared totally relaxed after the “attack.”

Honey also had no injuries. And she had no saliva on her neck. Years of living with two dogs who often fought with each other led me to understand that even an awful looking scrap with no injuries results in two dogs slathering and covered in dog spit.

After debriefing with D about what she saw, observing Honey’s behavior, and remembering the other dog, I came to a speculative conclusion about what actually happened. I believe that Honey wantonly ran down the stairs in a burst of enthusiasm and engaged in an unexpected and horrifying attack of bitey face.

I can see why the family was frightened.

Honey came running at them from nowhere. And a good game of bitey face involves jumping on another dog, some growly noises, and flashing your teeth. If they had never seen such behavior before, of course they’d be upset.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever and Bandit the foster puppy play bitey face.

One scary game of bitey face.


 
And even if no harm was done, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

No one should have to worry about a strange dog rushing at them as they walk by a house.

Dog Handler Failure – Moving On

It’s been more than two months since this happened. I felt my hands trembling as I remembered that day. I still can’t believe that after all my writing and thought about being in a loving and responsible relationship with Honey that I would set her up for such a big failure.

And if the other dog had not been friendly, the cost could have been horrific.
 

Honey the Golden Retriever.

You’re okay with me.


 
I needed to share this.

One of the sailing magazines I read has a regular feature where the reader recounts a scary story. It usually involves a boat slipping anchor and hurtling toward another one in high winds or a dinghy heading out to sea with no engine and no oars.

But at the end, the writer talks about what they did wrong in the situation and what they did right. So the readers can learn from his example and avoid the same failure.

That’s why I needed to write about this. To confess to my community. To purge some demons. And to help someone else avoid the same mistake.

Maybe the failure of this dog handler doesn’t have to be yours.

Your Turn: Have you ever had a major dog handler failure? Have you been able to put it behind you? Or use what you learned to help someone else?

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Comments

  1. I can completely sympathise with you on this one. An similar incident has just happened with Del, and it really shakes you up. Unfortunately, you can’t be with your dog at all times, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Del recently spotted another dog on his walk and decided he MUST play with him. He wriggled out of a collar that we were trying for the first time and ran over to another dog walker and his dog, who just happened to be a very small dog. A few growls from Del (and a lot of shouting from my partner who was walking Del) resulted in the other dog owner picking his dog up by lifting up the lead, leaving the small dog dangling by his collar. Del didn’t attack, but the owner wasn’t impressed. And yes, it was our fault. It can be really scary for the person at the other end. I suppose what’s important is that the people or dogs from either stories got hurt and we can learn from it. Thanks for your honesty, Pam :)

  2. Hi Pamela,

    It is very brave of you to share this story. It is really hard to admit when we’ve unintentionally done something that has had negative consequences for our fur babies. This situation could so easily have happened to any of us – we’ve all had that momentary lapse of concentration. Glad everything turned out ok in the end.

    I am a regular reader of your blog and find it most entertaining (my favourite story to date is the one about your husband making the poop snowball when he got caught without a poop bag – that made me laugh out loud!) Keep up the good work!

    Nicola

  3. I imagine your incident was magnified by having a young child there as well. The parents would feel more threatened especially when the child started crying. It sounds like they might not have been super dog savvy either. I am glad it turned out reasonably well. It’s impossible to own a dog and not have a few mishaps like this occur.

    We have one of the neighborhood walking paths empty into our court and I’ve had more than a couple of incidents where the dogs were in the front yard and they had to run out to “greet” a walker’s dog. Needless to say, it isn’t always well received.

  4. Honestly I did not notice anything different in how I got the post, but I like it when things haven’t changed too much.

    • You will, Emma (or rather Emma’s mom). Unfortunately, i forgot to delete the old subscriptions. So you’ll get the new subscription style at 8 a.m. in addition to your regular one.

      Sorry about that. But i’ve fixed it and you won’t get two emails again.

  5. These things happen. It is unsettling, but sounds like the other dog handler overreacted. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it too much. We’ve all been there.

  6. It must have been horrid, it is fab that you have been able to look at the situation and find out what has happened – I must admit that on first reading your title I re-read it a good few times, I just couldn’t believe that honey would have attacked another dog.

    Your post has inspired me to write a confession of my own!

  7. I bet we all have a story similar to this that we have difficulty writing about. I know the mistakes I’ve made with my dogs are many, and we all hate to admit when we fail. Everyone is OK, that is the most important thing, and of course you learned from your mistake as we all do!

  8. How scary for all involved. Thank you for sharing this. It seems as if some “dog people” only want to share the sunshine and butterfly stories, avoiding telling the tales involving failure on our part, or an indiscretion on the dog’s behalf. I am glad everything worked out well. I have failed as a handler countless times, but fortunately there have been no altercations/ill effects.

  9. Thanks for sharing your story – and for copping to your culpability in it all -too many dog owners don’t do that. At the end of the day even perfectly well-behaved dogs like Honey can be unpredictable – especially when the mom is out of sight. I agree with your assessment – bitey face can be a scary encounter if you’re not used to it. Chalk this one up as a good lesson learned. Teach your friend to take better care of Honey! (No, just kidding 😉

  10. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been through something like this. It happens, even to the best to us. I’m glad it turned out OK.

  11. Thank you for sharing and I believe your assessment of the situation is correct. Honey was probably just playing but the surprise of a dog rushing at them caused the family to react as they did. I have a confession to make too. After Maggie attacked (yes, actually attacked, no innocent bitey face here) a small dog at the dog park, we thought it was a fluke and that our precious friendly lab would never do that again. While we stopped going to the dog park, we didn’t stop taking her to other places where she was off leash and encountered other dogs. A year later, 2 more attacks happened before it sunk into our thick heads that she had a major behavioral problem. That hands down is my absolute worst failure as my dogs’ guardian. But it made me a better dog guardian & I am thankful for the lessons I learned.

  12. I think that “moving on” piece is often the most difficult step, but hopefully sharing your experience and hashing it out will help get you closer to that goal. Try as we might, no matter how well prepared, thought out, or responsible we are, it’s impossible to predict and prevent every mishap. But I love that example from your sailing magazine of thinking it through after the fact. What a great way to learn. Thanks for sharing your story!

  13. Yes, we’ve ALL made mistakes like this. If you haven’t yet made a mistake yet, just hang in there, it WILL happen! You do your best, and hopefully you’re lucky enough to learn from your mistakes.

    Having a leash-reactive dog, a loose dog is my biggest nightmare. I can empathize with the scared owner. It’s definitely a heart-stopping moment.

    So now you know better, and have a story to tell! :) And can help other people with your experience.

  14. I understand how scary that must have been! Please don’t be too hard on yourself. You are an excellent dog mama. Thanks for giving us all the opportunity to learn from your experience. (BTW…didn’t notice anything different about the way I received my email this morning.)

  15. I’ve seen these thing happen enough times that I know no matter how much we love our dogs, analyse our dogs, and train our dogs, they still have a very unpredictable animal nature that we cannot, unless we became dogs ourselves, see in advance of an incident. Much as we want to we just cannot climb inside their heads completely. We can predict people behavior better, of course, but even that can be off by a mile in lots of situations, so how can we be alert to everything a dog does and thinks?

    The good part is you accessed the situation later, and learned from it. So sometimes it’s healthy to have something happens that reminds us, yet again, that the beautiful part of having a dog friend is how close they live with us, and the unknown, scary part of having a dog friend is that….how close they live with us. Respect the dog in dog.

  16. Gosh, I make mistakes worse than this at least once a week. 😛

    But seriously, I do understand exactly what you experienced and I am so sorry that the family had such rotten timing. It’s so hard to be so on guard all the time and well all slip up now and then. If this dog hadn’t walked by then you never would have had to feel guilty. Random chance but I guess, a lesson learned. We can never be too careful when it comes to the safety of our dogs.

    I do appreciate you sharing this story, though, as I beat myself up just as much. It never hurts to know you aren’t alone.

  17. I also wanted to say that I am impressed with how gracefully you handled this situation. You were able to calm them all right down. Usually when I get into a confrontation like this I just want to run away and I never have the presence of mind to remain calm and listen. This is something I need to learn.

    • What helped me rush to apologize (over and over until he calmed down) was having been in the person’s shoes.

      Before Honey, I’ve had horrible experiences with my reactive dogs being rushed by enthusiastic, bad-mannered dogs. I’ve been furious, frightened, and used terrible language.

      No way was I in a place to listen to someone cavalierly telling me their dog was just playing or denying that it was a problem. So I knew that the only thing I could do was apologize a million times.

      I guess all of our experiences come together to give us what we need when we need it.

  18. I honestly do not think that that was your fault and I think you are being too hard on yourself. I do understand how upset you are but I agree, that Honey was just playing and her actions were completely misconstrued.
    You did nothing wrong by leaving Honey with your friend, you had the baby gate up and who knew that Honey would want to play? It could have happened to any of us.
    I think you handled it impeccably and I admire how you handled it but please do not beat yourself.
    As for Mad Mimi, I use it for Dakota’s blog too :)
    I subscribe to you via email and truly didn’t notice a difference.

  19. I saw my vet for the first time today whom Brut lunged and scraped up when given a simple blood test at our home or territory should I say. That happen this year in early spring and after hearing her voice on the phone, I was sobbing after I hung up. I was terrified to see her today, but as it turned out I saw a different vet for Silver instead. I can’t seem to come to terms with what Brut did nor can I just blow it off like my vet who said it didn’t need to be mentioned again. I feel pretty screwed up about it. At some point we will face each other again and I’ll have to talk to her about it. But for today, I got a bit of relief talking with second vet.

  20. Oh my goodness. What an unfortunate incident. But I imagine that almost every down owner has been the culprit of and the victim of such an incident at least once. Sephi has gotten away from me twice before I realized what happened. In one of those incidents, she actually did go after the other dog in an aggressive way. Maya has done it once, but she was just playing too. And yes, Pierson has done it too. He is so dog aggressive, I am extremely thankful all he did was chase the other dog and not attack. You’d think that because I’ve owned dogs all my life that I would learn. But accidents happen. Thankfully no one was hurt.

  21. What a sad experience – for everyone. I am glad that the family eventually calmed down. Having been approached by a dog in a yard before, I can understand why they might have been scared. I am so sorry this happened to you Pamela.

    I fail my dog often enough to know when I do. The last time I ever let Jasper off leash on our favorite hiking trail was when he chased a jogger who came out of nowhere. He never bites or hurts anyone, he just barks and herds them, but to the other person it can be quite scary. The last time the older jogger started trying to kick Jasper to get him away from him. Honestly? I don’t blame him. He acted on instinct and what he thought might work in a pinch. But, it was also an eye-opener for me. I put both the man and Jasper in harms way. Jasper has remained leashed ever since. I failed him and the stranger.

  22. Being a former owner of a Golden I can totally understand what happened. At the same time I know what the other owner was going through… but i’m not going to go into that… the most important thing is that you learned very valuable lessons.
    Thanks for sharing… I have recently had a major handler failure. I just hope I can step up and let everyone know my mistake.
    Bravo to you for sharing.

  23. It’s unfortunate that you had this experience, but I want to disagree with one thing. Do not apologize first. Apologizing takes responsibility for the action and if the individual in question wants to sue, you’ve just opened the door for being held at fault. If you want to say something like “I’m sorry your little girl was frightened,” that’s great, but I feel it’s a mistake to say something like, “I’m sorry my dog rushed at yours” when you weren’t there to see the situation unfold.

    • I respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement. :)

      1) If I’m wrong, I’m wrong and legal liability has nothing to do with doing the right thing. and 2) Studies show that admitting mistakes and trying to resolve them makes someone less likely to be sued. The doctors who are most likely to be sued for malpractice are not doctors who are bad doctors but the doctors with bad bedside manner.

      • Yes, that’s true–but legal liability has a lot to do with today’s society. If you want to put yourself at risk, that’s fine but it should be a personal choice and not a recommendation to your readers.

  24. Where there are dogs, there is enthusiasm. Where there are dogs, there are over-protective owners. By freaking out, the parents probably scared the little girl more than Honey did. They should have remained calm, especially as no one was hurt!

  25. Yikes…how scary. But remember, no matter how well we care for our dogs, accidents happen (and it’s not like you are in the habit of letting Honey run amok in the neighborhood!). They are animals after all, and even the best behaved can sometimes be unpredictable.

    Now, having been on the receiving end of two actual attacks when I was the one walking by with my dog on leash – the way you handled it made all the difference. A dog shoved it’s way out of the front door once and got into a fight with Leah, and the owner came out and was apologetic and helped break the fight up. Although I brought Leah to the vet to get looked over because I found a small wound on her, I didn’t even ask for compensation, because hey, it was an accident and the woman was so sorry.

    Toby, however, was also attacked by a dog because the guy had it loose in the front yard and said he was “about to put on leash to take for a walk.”That dog just barreled down the drive and started biting Toby (who didn’t even fight back) while I was trying to shove the dog away with my foot and the guy took his sweet time getting down the drive to call his dog off and when the dog broke off he was just so flip about it like shrugging it off as if their dogs and these things happen – it really steamed me. Luckily no vet visit was needed, but I was so upset about how he handled it, had Toby needed vet care I would have been pounding on that guys door.

  26. I don’t see this incident as a failure at all. And you did a wonderful job of defusing the distraught family–apologize first and then find out what really happened (if you can). I think we all have had something happen and you wonder what you could have done to prevent it. I’ve seen Sage, who normally is a sweet, loving, well-behaved dog turn into a snarling beast when she, at random, encounters another dog while on a walk. And I never know which dog will trigger it. Or what circumstance we are in that will trigger a fear in Sage and then translate to leash-aggression. I know I probably failed as a trainer in these situations and working to reinforce positive behavior whenever encountering a dog on the street is something I need to be more vigilant about.

  27. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s so important and I think many of us have been there. It’s all a learning experience. It’s funny that they say parents are handed a manual when they leave the hospital; well that applies to us as well. There are tons of books on dog training, behavior, and breeds – but each individual dog is different, they can’t cover each situation, and it’s up to us to trust ourselves.

    The best piece of advice that I took from this is to apologize. It’s so important to acknowledge. In the past, I would get angry when someone would start yelling at me and it was hard for me to swallow my pride and apologize, but it’s amazing how quickly something can be diffused when we put our dogs first.

  28. I’m glad you’re all ok and nobody is hurt. Lapses do occur and as long as we move on from there, it’s fine. Of course, I myself will continue to mull over it for days… haha…

  29. Oh boy. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s so well written and informative. I hope you’ve moved on 100%. I have similar stories about being off leash, which is a no-no, as you know.

    ArOOOO, Stuart

  30. As a professional pet sitter, there’s a lot of dog walking involved. First, I ask my client’
    How are they with other dogs? Needless to say I get answers from “great”, “wonderful

    I am a Professional pet sitter so dog walking is a must. When I ask my clients ‘how are they with other dogs’, most of the time answers go from, wonderful, no problem, to a more thruthful, “not good”. When I am walking a dog through a neighborhood and I see another dog approaching, I just gently cross the street., or change direction if I’m not sure. After all, these are my clients dogs (make that children). What I am always careful about are driveways and alleys. People who live in their neighborhood think they own the place which is another reason why I hate extenda leashes! In an emergency situation, you cannot “reel them in” fast enough! Thank god it’s not happened yet. I usually stop before a driveway, or watch for the garage door opening, then I know the car will come speeding out. The same with alleys. And then there are small children who come running at your dog, arms waving madly with Mom saying nothing. I don’t know about you, but if someone came at me in that way, I “charge” in the other direction too. I am so passionate about dogs I could be with them forever. I’ve been in the business for 35 years and love every minute of it.