Dog Bites

A man walks down the block, a reddish hound prancing forward, then when the man spies me and speaks to the dog, it doubles back, nose to the ground. The dog is not on a leash.

Flashback: I’ve had two dog bites when walking in my neighborhood, a relatively peaceful spot in Saint Paul, not far from highway 94. The first was maybe ten years ago. A fat toy collie was used to crossing the street unaccompanied, from its house to the adjacent alley, then back again. Otherwise it was on a tight leash in its shallow front yard.

One afternoon rather bemused, I began crossing before its house, not aware of it in the yard. All of a sudden a torrent of barking erupted and the dog flew at me, bit through my shorts into the flesh of my thigh, and hung on. I screamed in horror, hit the dog back, and ran the three remaining blocks home. The wound was messy but not deep. I cleaned it with alcohol, covered the bite marks with bandages, and with shaking fingers dialed the owner’s phone number.

A few hours later, the owner, a single woman, called back and left a message on the voice-answering machine. “Oh, don’t worry, he’s had his shots. And he’s not vicious, only protective.” Says who? I thought bitterly. When I called the vet she mentioned, her claim was confirmed: the dog’s rabies vaccination was up the date. I had to leave town the next day. The wound healed. After that, I steered clear of that side of the street.

Three years ago, a couple with a white boxer moved two doors down from our house. They spent a lot of money renovating the yard and house, fencing the backyard with a waist-high picket fence. And they found a dog-walker from the halfway house a few houses in the other direction from us. This dog-walker often let the white boxer off its leash. It was far bigger than a toy collie. When it bounded across the street, paying no heed to her voice commands, and lept onto my front porch, I was terrified and screamed at it to get away. The woman merely kept calling it with a cutsey-sweet voice, as if it were a toy.

I yelled across to her to keep the dog on the leash, but she simply waved her hand at me and kept walking, the dog bounding ahead of her to the corner. Leaves fell, snow fell, it was mid-December, crunchy underfoot. I decided to walk, early afternoon, before my evening class. The neighborhood was deserted. As I proceeded along the sidewalk into the space before the boxer’s house, it suddenly let fly a torrent of barking. It stood on its hind legs, its front paws between the pickets of the fence, baying at me. The dog walker was collecting mail on the front porch.

All of a sudden, the dog had my ankle in its teeth. “Get that dog away from me!” I cried. The dog walker rushed off the front porch and grabbed the dog’s collar.

“Did he hurt you?” she asked, a worried look on her face. I was wearing hiking boots that came up over the ankle. Yet I could feel the bite underneath the leather.

“I can still walk!” I said. “But keep that animal chained up.”

I made my usual tour. By the time I got home, I was furious and called the non-emergency police number. Within a half hour, a young policeman was at the door. I showed him where the dog’s teeth had punctured the leather and left red marks on my skin. “If I’d been a child at that dog’s level, that bite might have taken out my cheek or eye!” I cried. “Yes, I want to file a complaint.”

It took several months for the complaint to work its way through official channels. Just before our court date, the female half of the couple who owned the dog knocked at my door. “Please withdraw your complaint,” she begged. “He’s really a nice dog. When we let him off the leash in Wisconsin, he plays beautifully with my husband’s nieces and nephews.”

I was furious at her. “There is no way I will withdraw my complaint,” I told her. “This is not Wisconsin. This is a city block with lots of people walking along the sidewalk. Your dog is a menace.”

What I didn’t say, the court did: the problem was as much with the owners as with the dog. The court determined that the owners had to build a ten-foot fence, and keep the front window of their house always curtained. When outside, the dog had to be on a lead only in the backyard. If it was being walked, it must wear a muzzle and be kept on a tight leash.

Dogs are territorial: if they see someone enter their line of vision and cross into a property they’ve determined is theirs, they begin scare tactics. The more this continues, the stronger the dog imprints itself with this behavior. The couple was also warned that if the dog was ever off-leash again, they would be required to put it down.

Within a year, they moved. I was intensely relieved.

Fast forward: As I pass the man with the rather benign acting hound, I say, “Dogs are supposed to be on a leash.”

He looks down on me from his fleshy, benign height: “Oh, I have him,” he says.

“I don’t believe that,” I retort.

“Too bad for you,” he answers.

Yes, it is too bad for me because if he’s wrong, I or one of the many children who now crowd our block will be the one bitten, not he. By the time I reach home, I’ve determined that I have several choices: I can cross the street the next time I see him. I can disguise myself with a different hat and follow him from a distance to his residence. Then I can report him. Or I can wait for something nasty to happen.

For now, I’m writing this little history.

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