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  • Tamsin De La Harpe

A Dog Fight on Elm Street.

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Walking three dogs at once has nearly cost all my dogs their lives. Sounds dramatic? Actually, it was a fairly mundane situation.

Walking three dogs at once has nearly cost all my dogs their lives. Sounds dramatic? Actually, it was a fairly mundane situation and what should have been just an ordinary daily walk resulted in a nightmare that created years of behavioral issues for my dogs.

Meet Jessie, an elderly English Bull Terrier who had excellent social skills with other dogs. In fact, we frequently used her in obedience school to help fearful and even aggressive dogs become calmer. Walking Jessie on her own had usually been a breeze.

Eventually, I added a second dog from a local shelter, a nervous young Cocker Spaniel called Gracie. When another unforeseen rescue situation emerged, I took on the third member of our growing family. This was another English Bull Terrier, Amy.

Amy had none of Jessie's tolerance for strange dogs and never had any interest in playing with other puppies in her socialization class. Nevertheless, Amy was gifted when it came to training and was soon joining the working German Shepherds in tracking, obedience, and bite work. Amy loved a challenge.

So, here I was with three dogs, taking their well-being seriously. Part of our daily routine was a long walk, every day, without fail.

However, walking three dogs was very different from walking one. Several years alone with Jessie, and we had our fair share of hairy moments. A big problem in our neighborhood at the time was the tendency for dogs to get out of their yard and charge us or otherwise be a nuisance. We also lived in an area where people tended to keep large and intimidating breeds to patrol their property.

With Jessie, this was usually a situation that could be handled. Jessie's gift of calming other dogs down meant that I got in the habit of just standing still and letting her work her magic.

But Amy and Gracie were two completely different balls of energy, and adding them to the mix created three different variables that, in hindsight, was asking for trouble.

It was a late afternoon walk in the fall when we rounded a corner and paused. Ahead of us, a woman had opened her yard gate to allow a visitor to back out with his truck. The visitor had paused in the gateway, and he and the woman were chatting in the open driveway. Meanwhile, two giant Boerboels or South African Mastiffs milled around the open yard, each about 130 pounds.

I stayed put with my three dogs, waiting for the visitor to leave the driveway and for the woman to shut her dogs away in her yard. I thought I was far enough away not to fall on the Boerboel's radar.

I wasn't.

I don't know if they smelled us or saw us first. But their body language changed.

Now, if you know anything about dogs on the hunt, you know there's a synchronicity to it. It quickly became apparent it was a male and female. The larger male tensed and charged straight down the street, his eyes locked on my three dogs.

Meanwhile, the female dropped low and came from an angle. She would circle around us, cut off our escape, and attack from the back.

I never ran from aggressive or charging dogs, but controlling one dog in this situation was one thing. Controlling five was a different universe.

Gracie was the first to raise the alarm. The nervous and high-strung spaniel erupted in high-pitched shrieks. Uncharacteristically, Jessie began to back away. Only Amy, loyal to her training, sat by my side, still as a statue, ears pricked and coiled like a spring.

I had seconds to make a judgment call. Whether or not it was the right thing to do is debatable. But I understood, as the Boerboels approached, that I could not handle my three dogs and the two monsters bearing down on us simultaneously.

So I dropped Jessie and Gracie's leashes and held onto the one I knew was ready for a fight.

Jessie, I trusted, had the experience to make her own judgment call. Gracie needed to be able to run.

And she did.

Straight into the road.

However, I could do nothing to retrieve or help Gracie or Jessie at that moment. The Boerboels had locked on to Amy and myself. Amy stayed in her sit. My other two dogs dropped out of my sight. The male came straight at us.

Amy waited till he was about 2 yards and leaped from her perfect sit, grabbing the much bigger dog on the face. I had no time to intervene, as the second Boerboel was already behind us. I turned to fend her off. If she grabbed Amy's rear, I understood I would lose at least one dog that day.

Now to be clear, it is extremely dangerous to be physically involved in a dog fight. It is a leading cause of bites. It was simply the decision I made in the moment.

Shouting and throwing kicks to fend off the female, my young 35-pound Amy clung to the male's face, not letting go even as he flung her bodily into the air. Gracie, still in the road, barked frantically.

My beloved Jessie?

Nowhere to be seen.

The woman who owned the Boerboels was soon there for all the good it did. Like Gracie, she took to standing at a safe distance and screaming, adding to the general mayhem.

Dog fights are violent, ugly, and upsetting. Had I been walking one dog, the situation would have been different, as I could have picked her up and kept her out of reach. But three? As it was, I was able to drive the female Boerboel away and grab the male by the collar. It took some persuading to get Amy to release her grip on the bigger dog and separate the two. Then it took some shouting to get the woman to take her dogs back into the yard.

I'm not sure how long the episode lasted. At the end of it, Amy dropped back in her perfect, square sit, her tail wagging as though it had been nothing more than a fun bit of bite work training. Oblivious to the fact that had the second dog been able to grab her, the two bigger dogs would indeed have mauled her to death.

Then there was the matter of Gracie, whose anxiety had skyrocketed and several cars had to swerve around her before I could grab her leash again.

And Jessie? Jessie had indeed used her best judgment. After an exhausted and tearful search, I returned home, shaky, convinced I had lost her, only to find her waiting at the gate. She took herself home, and thankfully, nothing had happened to her on her way.

The number of near misses stacked up. Amy could have been killed. Gracie could have been hit by a car. Jessie could have had an accident or gotten lost finding her way home. Not to mention that I also could have been bitten or worse in the scrap.

The problems this episode created lasted long after though. While Jessie was stable enough not to be affected, Gracie's anxiety problem became much worse. Similarly, Amy, who at best only tolerated other dogs, became actively aggressive with strange canines. Particularly large male dogs. Suddenly, I had a dog prone to hurling herself bodily at passing Rottweilers. It would take years to undo the damage of a single encounter.

Many of us have multi-dog households, and it seems simple enough to walk all our dogs at once. However, even if our dogs are well-trained and disciplined, it is impossible to account for all the variables that one can encounter when leaving the house.

As I discovered that day (and on subsequent occasions), pack walks are dangerous. The more dogs that need to be controlled in a bad situation, the more danger everybody might be in. And if the problem is bad enough, the ensuing chaos can spiral into a nightmare. If you do have a multi-dog household, it is better to break up your pack and walk one or two dogs at a time, simply to give yourself more control over any situation that could arise.

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