Lives Lost on Leash

Warning: These stories contain violent behavior to dogs by both dogs and humans and may be upsetting to read

Gini by Amy LaFerrera, Co-Founder of Behavior United LLC

Gini was my mom’s dog. She was a sweet, easygoing Yorkshire Terrier mix. A number of years ago, she came into the shelter where I worked. She was found as a stray and was never claimed. Gini was an unflappable, gentle soul. She could fly beneath my mom’s seat without barking for the whole flight, get along seamlessly with my weird crew of 3 female dogs, and absolutely loved to be around my daughter. More than that — she was my mom’s companion, her “heart dog,” as some would say. She kept my mom company while my stepdad traveled and when she wasn’t visiting us. As Gini began to age, I began to think about where my mom’s next dog would come from. Morbid, I know. But, Gini was maybe 10-11 years old and her overall health was good.

So, I thought I had time.

I never would have thought that Gini would be attacked and killed by another dog, while next to my mom, in her own yard, in their quiet semi-rural town. The unknown dog was on a leash and walked up to greet my mom and Gini. Suddenly the other female dog grabbed Gini by her neck, pinned her to the ground, and would not let go. A neighbor heard my mom screaming, came outside, and was able to get the other dog off by hitting her in the head. The other dog bit the neighbor when he attempted to restrain her, then grabbed Gini a second time. My mom was finally able to get her off. My mom picked up Gini, and ran inside. She wrapped her in a towel. My mom's quick thinking neighbor called the emergency vet's office before giving my mom the address. My mom jumped into the car with Gini and hurried to the vet's office who was prepped and waiting.

Gini spent the next several days at the emergency veterinary hospital in intensive care. She had multiple puncture wounds all around her neck. She had significant damage to the soft tissue in her neck and trouble breathing. Gini was intubated, but despite all efforts, she passed away. 

The owners of the other dog only gave my mom a first name and street they lived on — no last name, no proper address. However, that was enough for the dog to finally be found, surrendered to the shelter, and likely euthanized.  

Amelia by Stephanie Berry, Founder of Blueberry Dogs LLC

It was our last potty break before bed, after a long but productive October day: nose work class, a walk in our neighborhood, getting our gardens ready for winter. I clipped Amelia’s leash onto her collar and headed out onto the front porch, intending to take a quick walk around our front yard before heading inside and going to bed. As the door closed behind me, Amelia sat at the edge of the top stair, as she had been trained to do. She was a willing learner – a smart Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who understood routines like waiting at the stairs with little repetition. I heard a deep bark a moment after the door clicked shut and paused in place, surrounded by the circle of yellow glow cast by our porch light. I waited for the dog being walked by, obscured by our fence, to pass before heading out on our walk. I was startled as my dog disappeared behind a mass of black fur with a shriek of pain. My heart dropped to my feet as my world collapsed: my neighbor’s Rottweiler had grabbed Amelia by the rib cage and ripped her from my side, pulling my leash out of my hands. Neither his collar nor his owner were able to stop him. The events that unfolded are simultaneously crisp and muddled in my memory– I recall trying desperately to get the attacker to drop my dog without getting bitten, hauling on his collar in an attempt to choke him, screaming for my husband while the attacking dog’s owner stood by, either unwilling or unable to help. After what felt like an eternity, we managed to wrestle Amelia away from him and corral him in our backyard, wrapped Amelia in a blanket, and dove into the car to go to the emergency vet. We were only a few blocks from home when I realized that her pupils were fully dilated and she had no corneal reflex blink – she was gone.

We returned home in a cloud of confusion and grief. How could this happen? What should we do next? Over the following week, more of the story began to unfold, relayed by neighbors in their kind attempts to convey their condolences and by animal control when we called to report the attack. The dog, Thunder*, had attacked several dogs previously – one in a different county which I have little information about, and at least one in our neighborhood. He did serious damage to our neighbor’s small dog, resulting in significant wounds and steep veterinary bills. Thankfully this dog survived. This attack occurred as the result of Thunder jumping the fence in his yard. Animal control met with the owners and required them to secure their fence, but to my knowledge made no other demands. The dog’s owner was doing the best she knew how, walking her dog late at night to avoid other dogs and using a collar she believed would stop him.

What would actually have been effective? Was there a way to prevent this tragedy? I believe that one piece of equipment would have changed this scenario entirely: if Thunder had been wearing a basket muzzle, the events could have played out exactly the same way: with Thunder lunging towards my dog, but without the ability to grab and kill her. The tragedy was twofold – not only did Amelia lose her life, Thunder also lost his. His owner made the decision to euthanize him later that week, as she could no longer trust her ability to prevent him from harming other dogs. A properly-fitted basket muzzle could have kept both dogs safe.

I also wish that all owners of dogs who’d had an encounter with Thunder had reported the incidents. Had he been deemed a dangerous dog, his owner may have pursued additional training and management options which could have changed or prevented the tragedy of that night.

As a dog trainer myself, I wanted to make changes that would help my own dogs and my student’s dogs. Here are some options that have helped:

  • I no longer leave jangling tags on my dogs’ collars, as these can attract unwanted attention from aggressive dogs. Tags are taped together or replaced with boomerang-style tags.

  • I always carry Spray Shield, as a means to stop a dog rushing up to us, as well as treats in a treat pouch. Spray Stop can help deter aggressive dogs, and a handful of treats tossed in the face of oncoming friendly-but-rude dogs can distract them long enough to make an escape. Carrying an umbrella to pop open as a dog rushes in to startle them away and remove their line of sight to my dog is also an option.

  • I do not allow my dogs to greet other dogs on leash. I wasn’t in this habit before either, but as I see increasing numbers of “friendly” greetings going awry, I find it is best to teach dogs that they won’t be saying hello to other dogs when on leash – their job is to stay focused on me.

  • I’ve taught my dogs a cue for “get behind me.” Having a quick way to ask my dog to hop behind my legs gives me the opportunity to body block the other dog, a strategy that might have given Thunder’s owner the precious seconds she needed to get her dog back under her control.

Sharing these stories is incredibly painful. We offer these stories for public education purposes. Four dogs' lives were lost and numerous hearts broken. If you only change one behavior, let it be this: Do not let your dog greet other dogs on leash. If there is a visual barrier, move so that you have an unobstructed view. No one intends for these tragedies to happen. If we’re all more mindful, perhaps we can save lives.