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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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