The Charge! of the Off-Leash Brigade


Dogs in mid-chase


When out strolling with a group of dogs, I am often given a wide birth. Some people even recoil, with frowny faces, and display other signs of discomfort or disapproval. At such moments I want to wear a T-shirt with the slogan "I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR FEAR". I'd get one made, too, except I'm afraid it would come back to bite me in the butt.

Let me explain. Besides getting the occasional glare, the other thing that sometimes happens when out with the pack is that we are charged by off-leash dogs. The canine on-comers are usually very excited, but not overtly aggressive. They have a boisterous air about them, like rowdy soccer fans during the World Cup. In this situation, I feel like a fan who has been stumbled upon by other fans of an opposing team. Are we friendly fellow tourists, or hostile hooligans about to throw a punch?


dogs on leash sign


The off-leash dogs' human companions (HCs) are usually nowhere in sight. And if they are, they are useless. "Call your dogs!" I demand; HCs either comply, with no results, or don't even bother trying. They know their dogs won't come.

There's never much warning on these occasions. If I'm lucky, I might see a dog at the ten yard mark. Often they're just there, swooping down out of thin air. I do not try to distract or calm my dogs. I am too busy monitoring reactions. Are my guys posturing, or are they genuinely freaked out? Are anyone's teeth getting near anyone's
flesh? Do I hear vocalizations that signal panic or pain?

Generally I let my dogs thrash around, hoping that their reactions provide more of a deterrent than an incitement. True, my 3 are limited by their leashes (six in number, since they are all double leashed, in part to prevent 'accidentally-off-leash' moments of our own). They are also vociferous, possibly due to their over-leashed state.

Luckily, The Charge of the Off-Leash Brigade happens only once a month or so. But this past year, from mid January to mid February, the charge became an almost daily routine: different streets, different dogs, same scenario. It was wild. It made me wonder whether the universe was trying to send me a karmic message. ("Yes!" said my friend Mo. "And the message is 'Neuter McCracken!'" I ignored her.)


President Obama is chased by his pup

POTUS: clearly unalarmed by the chase.


I never figured out the cosmic meaning of the (repeated) Charge!, but I did ponder over my fear. Many HCs do not get anxious when an off-leash dog comes barrelling along, and yet many do. Maybe I do because I grew up with a brother who, for a stretch of years, tackled me whenever he could (I learned to sit down as soon as he entered a room). Instead of being habituated to ambushes in my childhood, perhaps I had been sensitized to them. At the time they didn't seem so bad — though of course I complained, about as vociferously as my dogs do now.

And, as an adult, there has been one Charge! during which I felt genuinely threatened. Years ago, with my first three dogs, I was out at around five in the morning, and a pit bull (sorry to play into stereotypes; most pitties I know are sweethearts) left the park to speed toward us. Her HC was in hot pursuit, ominously shrieking "No! Baby, No! No, Baby, no Baby, no! NO!", from which I gleaned things had gone badly when Baby had charged in the past. She was circling my on-leash group, presumably trying to decide whom to pick off first, when her HC tackled her to the ground, solid arm wrapped around solid neck.

Those of us with a heightened sense of our own and our dogs' vulnerability get a little freaked out by the Charge! And if the people responsible would apologize and contain their dogs, as did the pit bull's HC, I wouldn't get so hot and bothered when it happens. Or I might, but I would recover faster, and would not feel compelled to blog about it.


Beautiful dog running


And here's where my T-shirt slogan backfires, because the HCs behind the charging dogs almost invariably signal "I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR FEAR". An example: a dog ran at my pack, stopped ten yards away, lowered to a stalking position, and followed us, barking (I'd never seen a dog both stalk and bark at the same time, so that was nifty). "Call your dog," I suggested to her HC.
"She's not doing anything wrong," was the reply.
"She's not making my life any easier," I said. The dog was called. In response, she promptly took off in the opposite direction of her HC. Someone was now definitely doing something wrong. The HC's glare indicated that it was me.


German Shepherd dog, stalking


And fault-finding seems to be what these situations are all about, at least for the humans. Those of us protesting the Charge! are seen as uptight, over controlling spoilsports; those of us letting dogs off-leash with imperfect recall are seen as inconsiderate, potentially dangerous bylaw breakers. I'm often amazed at the level of the blame game; once, after her dog had charged my group, a woman demanded "How many of these dogs are yours!?!" (three of the four dogs were mine). She kept repeating her question. It took me a while to figure out that to her, I was to blame because I had four dogs, and somehow I would have been even more to blame if the dogs weren't mine. Sometimes there's not much rational thought going on.

In her defense, her dog might flunk the 'polite greetings' portion of doggie class, but no real harm was done. Still, such encounters are physically stressful (thanks to on-leash lunging), and highly arousing to many canines and their humans. When I'm on the receiving end of a Charge!, it's not a moral outrage, but it's not much fun. And blaming the victim is never really OK, is it? Shouldn't that come back to bite someone in the butt?