Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seconds between Safety and Sadness

I was never the crossing guard at my elementary school. I jaywalk sometimes when I'm walking alone. I exceed the speed limit on the highway when conditions are good and traffic is flowing well. The stairs on my deck leading down into the yard have no railing on them. My anti-virus software is not 100% up-to-date.

I'm no saint when it comes to safety.

But I'm far from a sinner, either. I wear my seat belt every time I'm in a car. I wear my helmet when I scooter--and I would anyway, even if it wasn't a law. I never, ever wear flip-flops, because I'm afraid I'll twist my ankle being clumsy or stub my toe (and for dog's sake, what if I have to run somewhere suddenly? Flip-flops aren't shoes!). I don't tailgate, change lanes without a turn signal, or pass on the right. Even though my dogs are trained, I leash them when we are near traffic.

Safety matters to me. (No, that is NOT ME or anyone I know in that photo.)

I crate my dogs in the car, and encourage my students to do the same--and if crating's not an option due to the size of the dog or the size of the car, I encourage them to use seatbelt harnesses. I tell them to not allow their dogs off-leash until they are responding immediately to the come command in every possible situation. I tell them to never, ever crate two dogs in the same crate--no matter how much they "love each other." I teach them to hold their leash properly, make their dogs wait at doorways, avoid retractable leashes, and to pay attention to what they are doing at all times.

To potential adopters with whom I speak, I strongly recommend crate training for safety and structure. It's a "dogsend" for any dog going into a new situation, and it can avert serious accidents or problems with a dog you really don't know much about. This seems odd to many people, because they assume the dog they are adopting knows more than it does. But the bottom line is that this dog has never lived in your home. Keep him safe, and keep your other pets safe from his exuberance or lack of training, until you know each other better.

I'd never, ever leave a dog I don't know alone with other dogs (or kids, of course). But people do it. And because, like many things with the potential to cause harm, it usually works out, many people seem to think it always will. Until it doesn't.

I incorporate these messages into my classes and all my lessons. It takes a bit of extra time, but I know it's worth it.

I have horror stories from former students and potential clients, from friends and neighbors, from internet acquaintances and message board posters about What Could Go Wrong.

A woman adopts an adult dog with no known negative history from a shelter on Tuesday. On Thursday she is petsitting a friend's small dog, and leaves her new dog and that dog alone in the house while she runs errands. She comes home to find the small dog dead. Was the dog she adopted truly dog aggressive? Or did he simply see the small dog as prey?

The above story is not an isolated incident.

A student of mine called me in tears. She'd been working to wean her adolescent Shepherd mix out of the crate during the day (something I absolutely agree with, done in small bursts with well-trained dogs). She came home to find her dog had suffocated inside a potato chip bag he'd found in the kitchen.

I cannot imagine the horror and guilt she felt upon finding her precious companion this way. I know it tore her up. It was an accident. It was random. It was freakish. No one would ever think it could happen. But it did.

(Yes, I am aware that crates themselves can kill dogs. Collars get caught and dogs strangle, or they try to escape the crate and impale or horribly injure themselves in the process. I am not saying crating is 100% safe for all dogs, and I completely understand why someone would avoid it if the above had happened to them or someone they knew. I still say that properly crate-trained dogs are safest, overall.

As for collars, accidents abound there, as well. Chain training collars left on dogs can and do choke them. Pinch collars get caught on fencing, in other dog's teeth, and on other dog's collars. Even regular buckle collars can strangle dogs in some situations. I still collar my dogs, each and every one. For my dogs, the risks of collaring are miniscule when compared with the risks of not collaring. This is not true for everyone, but I believe it is true for most of my students and regular pet owners. If you are leery of collaring for the above reasons, you should try a breakaway collar.)

Some people simply do not understand that certain situations pose safety risks for ourselves and our pets. Many people suffer from the "it hasn't happened to me yet; therefore, it won't happen" syndrome. How often do you see dogs being carried loose in the beds of pickup trucks? Dogs on retractable leashes on busy streets straining at the end of the leash (at least 16 feet away from the handler, probably more) while the handler talks on a cell phone? Dogs off-leash on busy roadways? Small dogs left on balconies with very wide guard rails? Dogs left in closed (or partially open) cars on hot days? People bringing Chihuahua-sized dogs into dog parks (in the "large dog" section)? People leaving leashes and training collars on dogs at the dog park? People bringing their pets to fireworks celebrations? The list is endless.

And in addition to the "it hasn't happened so it can't happen" folks are the "bristlers." They are the ones who cannot handle any kind of criticism, who react immediately to other people "getting in their business" when it comes to pets or kids, even if they are doing something horribly unsafe. They scream, curse, yell, give you the finger, or attempt to harm you bodily if you even so much as suggest that what they are doing might pose a risk.

Haven't had this happen? The next time you see a dog in a hot car with the windows up, wait by the car for the owner to appear, and politely (and I mean, politely--be almost ingratiatingly polite) explain to them the risks they are placing on their dog. I can bet you $100 that they will not say, "Oh, thank you! I didn't know that. I won't do it again, and I really appreciate you bringing it to my attention." Well, at least not without dripping sarcasm, anyway. Be prepared to flee their unbridled wrath. (There's a blog post coming soon that talks about the inability to handle criticism. I've been "brewing" it for a while.)

I honestly don't think I look for safety risks; they just pop out at me. I notice them like lotharios notice buxom girls. And once I spot them, I can't "unsee" them, unfortunately. I see the potential for harm to happen to the pet or child in the scenario like a movie playing in my head. And it makes me angry.

Every day, we take risks. If we are smart and being rational, we calculate these risks instead of simply tossing caution to the wind. What has occurred in one's past will most definitely affect the risks one takes in the future. Often, critical thinking doesn't play a part in risk assessment in conjunction with events that have occurred to us before; we react in an emotional, non-rational way. It's all part of the human experience.

We also laugh derisively at the multitude of warnings now placed on everyday items that seem so ludicrously unnecessary, but let me tell you: if the warning is there, that means that someone, somewhere was injured by that product because they did the ridiculous thing. How does the saying go? Build an object that is 'idiot-proof' and they will simply build a bigger idiot."

What can we do to make our lives, and the lives of those who depend on us, such as our pets and our children, the best they can be? Calculated risk is an important part of life. Throwing caution to the wind in situations where mistakes cannot be undone is a recipe for sadness.

Be safe.

There are seconds between safety and sadness...a razor-thin line of them. ~Sarah Wilson

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Kindest Call

Have you ever been out for a walk in your neighborhood, or anywhere, with or without your dog, and had a loose dog menace or attack you? It's a terrifying experience, especially when you look around for an owner--or anyone to help as the dog is coming toward you with negative intent--and see no one. You feel helpless. Even if you are not normally afraid of dogs, or even consider yourself a dog lover, being menaced by a loose dog is an experience everyone wants to avoid.

Depending on where you live, this may be a common occurrence, sadly. I get calls on a weekly basis (and regular queries from my students) about how to handle it if a dog is approaching with intent. There is no one answer that works in every situation as the moment is unfolding; putting something between you and the dog is your best hope if you don't want to carry "doggy mace."

Once the incident is over, though (hopefully sans injuries, but take care of those first if they do happen), there is something important you simply must do. Call your local Animal Control (typically in your county or municipality) and report the incident, giving as much detail about the dog and the situation as you can. If you live in an area that is prone to this sort of unpleasantness, have Animal Control on speed dial so you won't forget to call them.

Many people have reservations about reporting loose dogs or inhumane circumstances with pets to Animal Control. Though no one appreciates being harassed by dangerous or potentially aggressive animals, and no one likes to see suffering, when told to “call Animal Control,” many people blanch at the thought. They don’t want to get their neighbors in trouble, and they worry about what will become of the animals that are picked up. But if you don’t call Animal Control, an agency that your tax dollars are funding to keep you and the animals in your community safe, then who will report the situation? Many people complain about roaming animals, and some are so worried that their own dog’s exercise needs suffer. They have been attacked or menaced before, and now can only walk their own dogs at certain times of day, if at all. Some wonder, “why doesn’t Animal Control do something?" Well, how will they know there is a problem if you don’t report it? Don't assume someone else has reported it. If they haven't, your call is vital. If it's already been reported, your call is more proof that Animal Control is needed urgently in that area.

What happens to the dog you report should not be more important to you than your own personal safety, the safety of your children and neighbors, and the safety of your own pets.

Dog owners are losing our rights on a daily basis, it seems. I see links to stories pretty frequently regarding breed bans, dangerous dog ordinances, crackdowns on leash laws (which are not necessarily a bad thing, but it's hard on dog owners when municipalities go from "no enforcement" to "strict enforcement"), and more. Many insurance companies have started dropping homeowners for simply owning a “suspect” breed, regardless of the dog’s temperament. Public places are not as open to dogs, even well-behaved ones. Law-abiding pet owners end up being demonized for doing nothing wrong because irresponsible people have given dog owners in general a bad name.

Reporting abuse and loose dogs to Animal Control is a civic duty. Pets that belong to irresponsible people are a hazard and a nuisance, and the owners need to be taken to task for it. One call might not get action, but 2, 3, or more calls will. How is it fair for irresponsible people to “get off the hook” when their actions jeopardize YOUR safety, and the safety of your pets? Animal Control has the police power to write citations and bring charges when needed. They are a valuable resource to the responsible pet owner. They are the ones who can go after the irresponsible pet owners in your area, and wth the right evidence, get convictions. You could provide that evidence.

(For those of you who will say that you regularly call A.C. and yet there are still dogs being abused and neglected in your area, I cannot defend this. I never said the agency works perfectly everywhere; it's often short-shrifted in budgets, unfortunately. What you need to know is this: in many places, without evidence, at least 2 witnesses, and a perpetrator, a case cannot be made for abuse. These safeguards exist to protect owners' legal rights, and that means you, too.

If an animal has access to shelter, food and water, even if you don't agree with its living conditions, A.C. may not be able to cite the owner or remove the animal. Check with your A.C. so that you know. And hold their feet to the fire if they are truly not doing their jobs.)

If you are not calling Animal Control because you don’t want the loose dog to be euthanized, I can sympathize with your large heart. I really can. But know this: in many cities, being picked up by Animal Control is not necessarily a “death sentence,” especially when the animal isn’t aggressive. Many Animal Control facilities have their own adoption programs, and some work with rescue groups to reduce the euthanasia rate. It isn't near perfect, but in many places, it is getting better.

(Yeah, I know about the pit bull problem: in some places any dog picked up that even remotely resembles a pit bull is euthanized immediately, regardless of temperament. Pit bull lovers hate this, and I can't say I blame them. I'll address this in a future post.)

However, a dog that bites, scratches, or attacks people or other pets (breed is irrelevant here) is a danger to your community. You can bet that you are not the only responsible pet owner or neighbor affected by him. He needs to be caught (safely, by professionals). If he turns out to be a placeable, adoptable animal, then he probably has a chance at a new home.

Regardless, why are you allowing the well-being of an unknown, potentially sick, aggressive or potentially-aggressive dog to trump your right to a safe neighborhood? Putting his well-being above your own (and the humans and other pets in your neighborhood) is misguided. I know, I know—“it’s not his fault; he shouldn’t have to pay with his life because some idiot didn’t take care of him.” He shouldn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is very likely a danger.

Which of the problems at hand (free-roaming dog is menacing/attacking people but he'll be put down if I have him picked up) gets to trump the other? In my book, safety wins. What happens to the dog you report once Animal Control picks it up should not be more important to you than your own personal safety, the safety of your children and neighbors, and the safety of your own pets.

Do you think that, if you don't call them, the problem will go away on its own? Maybe the dog will be taken in by a kindly stranger and suddenly become a nice house pet? The likelihood that it will be hit by a car, poisoned, or starve to death is greater.

If you have a run-in with a loose dog or an irresponsible owner, or you see abuse or neglect, report it. (In some cities, you can do this anonymously.) Do it more than once if you have to. Don’t automatically assume the worst of Animal Control, especially if you've never dealt with them. Your taxes pay them to keep you safe.

Sometimes, it is truly the kindest call you can make.