In summer 2007, in New Jersey, a police dog named Rommel was let off leash to do his business and ended up killing a chihuahua who was walking by with its owner. One quick shake and the tiny pet was gone. Needless to say, it was a tragedy for the chi's owner. The police called it "a horrible accident," apologized to the owner and sent the german shepherd back to training. As far as we know, Rommel has gone back to his life and - we can bet - he won't be let off leash around small animals anytime soon.
At around the same time this summer - here in the SF bay area - a similar scene played out when a dog named Lucy escaped from her yard during an exciting squirrel-chase. Unfortunately, she too came across a chihuahua on a walk. (Insert expletive) As you can guess, Lucy ended up killing the chi just as Rommel had done on the other side of the country. And in front of its horrified owner, no less. In both cases, the owners of the attacking dogs were tragically negligent. The only difference being, Rommel was allowed to live while Lucy - a pit bull - has been sentenced to death. The gray muzzled girl has lived incident-free with her family for over six years, so we can all imagine the anguish her owners are feeling over the outcome of this tragic first offense.
Our sympathy goes out to the heartsick chi's owner for the loss of her companion. And while we can't condone the irresponsibility of Lucy's owners, based on the behaviorists' evaluations, the declarations on her behalf, and the shelter staff's own adoration of her, we're concerned that Lucy was condemned to the most severe and ultimate decision because of her breed.
Despite the mismanagement of her owners for not maintaining their fence, chasing small animals is NOT a "pit bull thing." And contrary to popular belief, it's not even a "dog aggression" thing. (Note: Lucy's lawyers misfired and called the incident a "dog fight" - OUCH.)
Rommel and Lucy are certainly not alone. The wolf-kin Malamutes and Huskies, the bred to-lure-course Greyhounds, and even those cute little Westies ...All breeds are encoded to exhibit prey drive in select situations. This canine behavior is as natural as shedding fur and it demands a good old fashioned dose of common sense management from dog owners especially in an age when living spaces are getting squeezed and small squirrel-sized dogs are heeding Paris Hilton's bidding and arriving by the tens of thousands into our neighborhoods. (In two recent Shots Fairs in Oakland, chihuhuas outnumbered the pit bulls by 6 to 1!!)
Above: The primordial wolf. Simon taught us early on that thousands of years of hunt drive were not erased with the invention of kibble.
We have to wonder: If a german shepherd with no previous complaints had been involved in killing a chihuahua in Sunnyvale, would he have been ordered to death as a result? Time will tell.
These sad situations beg a larger question: How can we support dog courts to hold irresponsible owners accountable without causing their people-safe dogs to suffer the most dire of consequences? It's a difficult time for cities that are encouraged to "get tough" on owners who set their dogs up to fail, especially when a pit bull is involved and worse yet, when the pit bull paparazzi is watching. From a judge's perspective, miscalculating a home's intentions and letting a dog return only to possibly fail again is every court's worst nightmare and can cause the bravest to buckle under a deadly dose of breed bias, peer pressure and misinformation. It's not fair, but it's the reality that dogs - our breed especially - is facing right now.
So how do we find any balance in this chaos? It's not going to be easy. Recently, we absorbed a new dog into our program that had been deemed a "dangerous dog" by the courts and condemned to death by the shelter for allegedly biting a dog's ear while running at large. It was made clear to us that she'd been set up to fail several times by clueless owners that neglected to contain her. In this surprising case, an open-minded judge reviewed video tape of our evals (which revealed a highly manageable, people-safe dog) and a dog-savvy city attorney convinced him to remove her "dangerous dog" label so she could be saved. (Rescues can't absorb dogs with "dangerous dog" or ''potentially dangerous dog" labels since they render a dog essentially unadoptable).
The judge's decision and the dog's liberation was a first, and a sign that with education and cooperation, we can work towards helping dog courts make decisions that are fair for all involved -- especially to those people-safe dogs that are only guilty of acting like dogs when their owners fall asleep at the wheel. But of course, that can only happen if dog owners stop howling and start building those bridges needed to change the minds and hearts of the powers-that-be in our city councils and especially, our dog courts.
Please, PLEASE remember to practice defensive driving with your dog during this difficult time of breed bias, and know your rights, your responsibilities and your dog laws. Your dog's life may depend on it.