I’ve been doing Agility with my dogs for about twenty years, most recently running my little Terrier mix Travis. Everyone knows and loves Trav – he’s got “IT” – that inexplicable something that just draws people in.
It was probably more than two years ago that Travis was attacked by another dog for the first time at an Agility trial. I’m no stranger to canine body language. For years I’ve spent countless hours in independent study, attending seminars, reviewing video with experts such as Sue Sternberg, monitoring day care and play groups. Believe me when I say the attack was unprovoked.
The distance that dog traveled to get to Travis, jumping out of the ring on the other side of the room at an expansive two ring trial (Tolland) precluded even eye contact.
Travis was sitting quietly by my side on a short lead as I chatted with a friend. Nothing that would incite arousal was going on, such as a game of tug. Suddenly there was an explosive blur and the sound of my dog screaming. It was an horrendous experience which thankfully caused no permanent damage. Except to the psyche that is.
The owner was very apologetic, telling me that the dog was a rescue with very high prey drive. I initially thanked her for her apology.
After the incident, numerous folks approached me privately to say that people were aware of that dog’s proclivities and often were warned, or they would warn others, when it was in the run order near their dog. Someone else said the dog was in an ongoing training protocol to “correct“ the behavior. Another person informed me that she was standing near the trainer and the owner after it happened and overheard the trainer remark “I guess we didn’t do enough…”.
Before leaving, the owner approached me to again offer her apologies. I told her that given all the information that was voluntarily provided by others, her apology rang hollow. She knew what she had and still chose to put everyone else’s dogs at risk.
Moving on. Trav and I got over the trauma. He is the most astonishing little trooper and he was shaping up towards an amazing career.
Three weeks ago Travis was attacked again, this time by his Masters Pairs Relay partner, from behind, at the end of the other dog’s run. His screaming was pure torture to hear; the attack was vicious and it took several people to break it up. It was so terrible to witness that many people at the trial were actually crying. At first it seemed he was hurt as he was shaking, whimpering and holding up his right front leg.
The other dog’s handler apologized. A veterinarian attending the trial examined Trav and found no apparent injuries. She gave him a Rimadyl and iced his shoulder.
[Punctures are notoriously difficult to find. About a week ago I discovered a scab which when removed revealed a puncture wound on that shoulder.]
I received a phone call the night of the incident from a trial official who was concerned. She assured me that having watched the video repeatedly, in slow motion and frame by frame, Travis was completely without blame for the attack. This I already knew.
In a subsequent, written message to this same individual I asked for updates on what was being done in response to the attack. Would there be a suspension? The answer was, as far as she knew, no. A note would go in her file.
Yes, my dog is a Terrier. Yes, he can snark. I try to be extremely careful and in this particular situation, I was even more cautious because the other handler had asked me to assure her that Travis wouldn’t “run up to, or get in her dog’s face”. (So I was forewarned I guess.) Travis did neither. He was leashed, I saw him take one step towards the other dog, I called his name and he turned back to me.
Once again, since that incident I’ve had fellow competitors confide in me that they viewed that dog as unsafe around other dogs. One person told me she had refused to keep the dog at her home because she couldn’t let it near her own dogs. She informed the owner of the reason.
So…once again, the owner has a pretty good idea that her dog has an issue yet chooses to be out there with fingers crossed.
I seriously considered quitting Agility then. Everyone was commenting on how Travis “wasn’t even fazed by the attack”. Trust me, he was fazed. I started seeing avoidance behaviors indicative of stress and my trainer agreed, saying we had damage control to do.
I have to admit I’m probably having more trouble than Trav. I’ve spent a great deal of time meditating to manage my newly resurrected fear, trying to regain a sense of safety.
So…we were at a trial Friday. By our third run I felt Travis was running with more confidence. We had some amazing segments in our MC Biathlon Standard run. We were waiting to go into the ring for the Jumpers portion.
When there were two dogs ahead of us we were sitting ringside getting ready. Stretch, cheese…touch! cheese… We were focused on each other. Suddenly there was a commotion and snarling. I looked down to see a Border Collie in Travis’s face. I don’t know what exactly happened, but the handler was apologizing profusely, and reassuring me that “she didn’t hurt him…she didn’t attack him…she only scared him!!”
I took Travis for a long walk after Jumpers. My heart was saying “you can’t do this anymore”.
We both love Agility. But questions were running like an ear worm through my head. “What’s it going to take Janice? What if “next time” the dog shakes him and breaks his neck? Snaps his spine? Maims him so badly that you have to choose to let him go…? How many more times are you willing to spin that wheel, hoping it stops in the LIVE TO RUN AGAIN slot? Where’s the line Janice?”
This may seem overly dramatic, but Travis is a little guy. It could happen.
I’m not really sure what’s going on here. I’ll be the first to admit, Travis is not an angel. But I am confident that in all three incidences, Travis was not the instigator. And oddly, in all three situations the other dog was female, so he was not beaming stink eye at another male.
The Agility environment is highly charged, and dogs are in very close proximity to one another. The chances of something going wrong are high.
Yet at trials I have witnessed the following:
- Dog(s) running ahead loose through the room while their handler is just entering the building.
- Dogs trained to run out of the ring at the end of their run to get their toy, with the handler lagging far behind.
- A dog with a toy in its mouth, unattended, racing back and forth along the ring gating as another dog runs the course. The owner occasionally takes a glance over to check on it.
- Dogs on leash too far out to be in the handler’s control, while the handler pays no attention to what they’re doing.
- And a new one just this past Friday: An unleashed dog climbed in the lap of a competitor with a tiny poodle in her arms and proceeded to nose the poodle in the face. The offender’s owner was about twenty feet away, watching benignly. Then she let it happen again a few minutes later.
The lack of attention and/or concern that I have seen is appalling and frightening.
Something could happen to Travis anywhere. But to continue to place him in an environment where the risks are exponentially higher is just wrong. I can’t keep him safe. And I couldn’t live with myself if safety at trials gets more attention because something beyond horrible happens to Trav.
I always tell him I love him more than life. In a way, Agility was my life. Travis, I love you more.
I am very sad, angry…probably 99% of my friend base is in the Agility community. In reality I know this means I will never see a lot (if not most) of you, again.
No one wants to be the whistle blower in a tight knit community, especially when they consider that community their friends.
Agility folks are good people; I love Agility folks. But good people are making some very bad choices and someone is going to get hurt. And all the apologies in the world won’t undo it when it happens.
I was recently assured that steps are being taken to increase the consequences of a dog-on-dog attack. If there is a second offense, there will be an automatic 3-24 month suspension (if I’m remembering correctly).
We’ll wait for it to happen again before taking action. Can we have a show of hands…who wants to volunteer their dog as victim #2, so we can get the aggressors out of circulation for a while?
Be brave. Speak the truth, make trials safer for everyone.
We were going to Cynosport this year. He’s already qualified in Grand Prix, Steeplechase and I just learned that we got our first qualifier in MC Biathlon on Friday. 😢
I really don’t know yet what I’ll do without Agility in my life. But Travis and I will miss you guys. 💔