We Need to Talk About Dangerous Dogs

Im just going to jump in. In the past two weeks, I have had two incredibly scary incidents with out-of-control, quite dangerous large, powerful dogs. I also am aware of several people who are fostering and trying to place some lovely, appropriate, sweet, well-mannered big dogs - some of them quite senior or middle-aged, and some of them refugees from the tragic fire in our area some months ago - with little success. And I am so upset and have no idea of where to go with these feelings.


Editor’s Note:

Some people who have read the following post objected to its original focus on atypeof dog. The intent of this post is to ask the question, “What can we do to reduce the hazard of dangerous dogs in our communities?” As stated in the post, we do not support breed-specific legislation, and know only too well that breed identification (even through DNA tests) does absolutely nothing to identify dangerous dogs. So, to be more clear, we have removed any language that refers to breed or even type. The issue remains: What can we do to increase the safety of our dogs, children, elders, and selves from dangerous dogs of ANY breed and type – or even size?

For example, a friend wrote to me privately and said she wishes that the individuals who run rescue groups had to bear financial or legal responsibility for the dogs they adopt out for at least some period of time. Too many rescue organizations, in her opinion (and mine), go too far to save dogs who have worrisome bite histories; if the principals at these organizations had to bear more of the risk of placing a known biter back into society, perhaps they would be more stringent about the dogs they attempt to rehabilitate and place. It could be similar to drunk-driving laws that place some responsibility on bartenders who overserve customers, who then drive drunk and cause harm to others.

Personally, I am focused on the original oversupply of particularly large and/or particularly strong dogs. Their over-representation in shelters, rescues, and in foster homes who are holding them for shelters and rescues, indicates that there are far too many of them being produced, and not enough appropriate homes for them – with people who have particularly escape-proof homes or properties, the physical strength to control them, and the education/skill/experience to properly socialize, manage, and train them. There is a thriving black market for dogs who are large and/or powerful, with tens of thousands of puppies being produced and sold and dumped at shelters in higher percentages than any other type of dogs (save, perhaps, Chihuahua-mixes). What can make it more difficult for backyard breeders to churn out badly bred, poorly socialized, stressed big/strong dogs, many of whom end up in shelters? These are the questions we’re asking.

There are a few helpful suggestions in the comments below. Helene G. mentioned that New York state has good “dangerous dog” legislation. I’m going to take a look at that, and will run an update. What else can we do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from dangerous dogs in the possession of people who are not wiling or able to control them?

Two weeks ago, my husband and I went hiking on Table Mountain, a volcanic plateau that looms on our northern horizon. The open space area is managed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, although it’s adjacent to privately owned property. Beef cattle roam over the entire plateau, on both public and private lands (cattle ranchers lease grazing rights on the public land from the state). It’s best known as a springtime destination for its vast array of tiny wildflowers and dramatic waterfalls.

I brought just one dog, my three-year-old mixed-breed, Woody. We planned a long hike, and I didn’t want to subject my senior dog to a long day on unknown terrain. The area has few trails – and none, oddly enough, go directly to the biggest, most dramatic waterfall; one has to sort of wander across the plateau in a general direction, until you find the appropriate stream and follow it to the cliff it goes over.

For much of the past few decades, access to the land was informal. Private landowners pretty much looked the other way when hikers came to gaze at the waterfalls in awe, or traipse around the wildflowers. But a couple of years ago, the area was added to a list of state lands that would require a small admission fee. One can either pay for a day pass (less than $5 per person), or purchase a year-round pass that confers access to a number of state parks and trails (less than $26), or, show a hunting or fishing license. Some portable toilets were added to the parking lot, and a sign was erected that posted a few rules.

One of those rules was that dogs should be on leash.

Keep in mind that locals have been taking their dogs to this area for decades and letting them run off leash. And they still are. Even me.

However: I practice off-leash behavior with my dogs literally every day. If they show any sign of being unable to heed my cues to stay near me, or sit instantly when I call for them to do so, they go back on leash immediately. I keep my dogs on leash when I am near any other humans, and especially near any other humans with dogs.

So there we were, my husband, Woody, and I, crossing a wide-open vista, in search of the biggest waterfall. A few cattle grazed nearby. As he always does, Woody kept his eye on them, and kept close to me. He’s not sure about cattle, but he knows not to go near them. As we walked, I noticed one young steer grazing apart from the rest, just to our left, and some mamas and one giant bull to our right. I called to my husband, who was a bit ahead of me, to veer to the left and not get between the youngster and the rest of his herd, lest the bull or the mamas get concerned. (Range cattle, who have to cope with coyotes and mountain lions on a regular basis, may well give chase en mass to an unwary dog.)

Just as we veered left, I noticed another young steer, all by itself, a few hundred yards off to our far left, running fast (well, as fast as a 400-pound steer can run) toward us. I glanced at the mama cows and especially at the bull, to see if they were alarmed or taking defensive action. They were watching but hadn’t moved. I called Woody even closer, to my side, and gave him some treats from my pouch of training treats. And that’s when I noticed that the young steer wasn’t just running for fun, or because he had been left behind; close on his heels was a brownish-gray large dog, chasing him with an intent look. Farther off, there was a group of people, with one man chasing and yelling at the dog, to no avail.

And the dog was rapidly gaining on the steer.

A few days prior, I had watched a video taken by someone in Detroit who was one of several people who spent the better part of five long minutes trying to rescue a postal worker from a large dog who, as the video started, had the mail carrier on the ground and was biting his leg. Don’t watch the video unless you are tough; it’s pretty graphic. The man is injured, though ultimately saved, and the dog is badly injured before finally letting go of the man. I watched it several times, and discussed it with a number of other people who watched it, as an educational opportunity. What’s the best way to stop a strong dog in the middle of an attack? The only thing that stopped this dog for long enough for the postal worker to get away was being choked, almost to death, by a leash or rope wrapped around his neck. (And the minute the leash was dropped, though staggering with oxygen deprivation and badly injured, the over-stimulated dog was still looking for someone, anyone, to go after.)

So that was very much in my head. I could see that, within seconds, the dog was going to catch up to and grab onto the steer’s hind leg, or worse, throat. I saw myself trying to stop the attack and control the dog. Having grown up in cattle country, I also saw the possibility that the range bull (who was about 150 feet to my right) would launch into action and come after the dog. I saw my dog Woody getting hurt by either the out-of-control, over-stimulated dog, or the bull.

So I flew into action. I yelled at my husband, “Keep your eye on the bull!” and started running directly toward the steer and the dog, yelling in my deepest, meanest, most out-of-control, angry voice and waving my arms like a crazy person. “NO! BAD! GET OUT OF HERE! BAD DOG! NO! YOU GET!”

Faced with this, the steer veered off, further to my right. And although at this point, the dog was no more than 20 feet from the steer’s hind feet, he was momentarily distracted by my attack. He glanced toward me, and slowed a bit, a bit less intent. As I continued to yell and advance toward him, now miming that I was picking up rocks and throwing them at him, he slowed further and then came to an uncertain stop about 100 feet to my left. I continued to yell, “YOU GET BACK. BAD DOG! GO!” And then suddenly his thinking brain kicked in again, taking control back from his reptile brain and predatory instincts. He heard his owner (still about 400 feet away) yelling for him, and turned and ran back toward his person. With my heart pounding and hands shaking from the adrenaline coursing through my body, I also yelled furiously toward the man, “LEASH!” (I didn’t trust myself to say more, I was poisoned with anger.) I looked back toward the bull and the rest of the herd and they were still stationary; the steer ran to his mama.

And then I looked at Woody – who was cowering behind my husband, scared to death, shaking so hard he could barely stand. I said, “Oh Woody! It’s okay! Come here!” – and he wouldn’t come to me!

My heart just broke. I dropped to my knees and, also shaking, patted my lap. “Oh baby puppy, come here! It’s okay! YOU are not in trouble! You are a good, good, dog!” I opened my treat pouch and, tears running down my face, dumped out a huge handful of treats. He came to me then, still shaking with fear. I stroked and petted him as he licked his lips nervously, and we sat there for a few minutes, both of us recovering from the flood of stress chemicals in our bloodstream. I was so upset – at the person who had his dog off-leash and without control, and at myself for scaring the crap out of my own dog. But I also felt I had done the right thing; there is not a doubt in my mind that without my intervention, that dog was going to attack that steer and it was going to be all bad.

For the rest of our hike, I kept reassuring Woody that he was a very, very good dog, and we never came within sight of the other party of people (or their dog) again. By the end of the hike, Woody’s confidence in me seemed restored. I’ve made many deposits in our relationship account, and though that was a major withdrawal of funds, at the end of the day the balance was still positive, thank goodness. Had he been a more fearful dog, or our relationship not so secure, my frightening behavior might have bankrupted us irreversibly.

table mountain

The second event happened two days ago and is more tragic. I was working at my desk, at my office/house in town, when someone knocked urgently on the front door. I answered the door and saw a teenaged boy who lives across the street and one house over. He said, “There’s a dog that got mauled and the owner needs your help!” I was like, “What? Who?” But I grabbed a leash – again, thinking of that dog in Detroit, who had to be choked almost to death to be stopped – and followed him at a run down the sidewalk. There was a group of people gathered on the sidewalk about six houses down, with one woman kneeling and a dog on the ground. The woman on the ground was my neighbor from directly across the street. She has an ancient, blind, deaf old man of a Beagle, Brando, whom she walks very slowly every day. Brando was lying on the ground in front of her, wearing his vest harness and leash but covered with mud and spit and blood. As I approached, I saw his chest expand and then fall – and he didn’t move again. We all gasped as we realized he had taken his last breath.

I put my arm around my neighbor, who was stunned, crying, in shock, and also covered with mud. “What happened?” I asked her. She said, “There were three dogs… they attacked him.” I said, as much to the other neighbors standing there in shock as to her, “Where are the dogs? How far? Where are they?” Everyone started to answer at once. “Around the corner… they are still loose… we saw them…”

Because I volunteer at my local shelter, I have the number (the same as for our animal control officers) on speed dial. I said, “I’m going to call animal control, and get my car.” I asked another woman standing there to stay with my neighbor. I pulled my mobile phone from my back pocket as I trotted home to get my car. When the shelter staffer answered, recognizing his voice, I said, “Dave, we need an officer here, fast. Some loose dogs just killed my neighbor’s old Beagle as she walked him down the street.” He said he would send officers as soon as possible.

I drove back down to the knot of people. One of the people is a guy I have seen walking his senior (though not nearly as senior as Brando) Beagle around the neighborhood. He said, “Those dogs are still loose!” I said, “An officer is on the way, but let’s make sure someone knows where the dogs are – can you keep your eyes on them, or where they go?” He took off up the street, and a minute later, I saw an animal control truck pause at the corner, and then turn up the side street toward where the man had gone.

Together, my neighbor and I lifted her dead dog’s limp, sodden body and placed him onto the back seat of my car. I said, “Honey, I know this is all very sudden, but we could take him to the shelter and arrange for him to be cremated, if you would like.” She nodded and said yes, she’d like that, but she wanted to go home for a minute and check on her other dog, a middle-aged Lab she had adopted from our shelter just a few months ago. I told her I would wait with Brando, and took the opportunity to call the shelter again and let them know I would be bringing my neighbor and her dog; could someone be ready to help her arrange for the dog’s cremation?

We were at the shelter, and she was talking to a shelter staffer about cremation options, when the officers who had been dispatched to the scene returned to the shelter, shaking their heads. The other neighbor who owns a Beagle had seen and spoken to the woman who owned the three dogs who attacked Brando. For reasons of his own, he had apparently told her angrily that animal control was on the way and they were going to seize her dogs. By the time the officers got there, she had put her dogs in a truck and fled the scene.

We just stood there, stunned. There would be no justice for Brando’s murder today.

My neighbor recounted for the officers what happened. She was walking Brando on leash, at his usual slow pace, when a collarless, unaccompanied black Lab-mix approached them. The dog was sniffing Brando and everything was fine, when a woman opened a door to her apartment and started yelling at the dog to come – and two other dogs got past her and ran straight for Brando, instantly attacking the old dog. One was a large brown dog, and the other dog was black – my neighbor thought the second attacking dog was a Lab-type, but it was all a muddle. She said the brown dog had Brando by the neck and was shaking him, and the other dog grabbed Brando by the face, and neither would let go. She didn’t think the first dog who had been sniffing Brando was involved but couldn’t be sure, it was all a blur. She said she and the other woman were both yelling and trying to stop the dogs, and as soon as the dogs let go of Brando, she picked him up and tried to carry him home, but she stopped on the sidewalk where I first saw her, as they were both gasping for breath. And he took his last breath when I came upon them.

The officers promised that they would haunt the woman’s apartment and do whatever they could – but that she might “disappear” the dogs, in which case there would be little they could do, from an enforcement angle. There was no record of licensed dogs at that address, so if they could find the woman and any dogs at the address, they would require her to show proof of rabies vaccination and licenses; if she didn’t comply there would be some teeth in what they could do, but if she did comply, that would likely be the end of it. They were frustrated and upset, and sympathetic to my neighbor, just as I am. I can’t imagine how upset I would be if it was my beloved senior dog who met his end in such a traumatic, horrible way.

I have no helpful thoughts. I am horrified by the ubiquitous presence of these uncontrolled, seemingly untrained, aggressive, powerful, and powerfully focused dogs. Why are there so many of them – in my community and most everywhere else in this country? Our shelters are full of them and it seems like many of the people that own them have no ability to control or contain them. Against their stated policies, Craigslist and Facebook are full of ads for their puppies for sale.

And yet, there are also many powerful, but sweet, reliably friendly dogs out there, too. My one and only foster-failure pit-mix, the gentle and easily frightened Woody – one of nine puppies who washed up onto the shores of my local shelter three years ago – is a delight to own and train. My Facebook feed is loaded with pleas from fellow foster-providers who have taken in homeless large, powerful dogs who are affectionate with all humans and other animals and easy to handle, but no one seems to want to own those! The dangerous ones make it terribly hard to find good homes for these nice ones. Sometimes it seems like the only people who want these dogs are the people who really shouldn’t have them!

Aggression in dogs, no matter the breed or type, is always a concern. But it is a special concern in dogs who are especially strong and as focused (when in predatory, fight, or aroused mode) as many of these large breeds can be. If you doubt this for one minute, go ahead and watch that video linked at the beginning of this post. But don’t let it poison you against all of these dogs; there are terrific ones out there, who wouldn’t dream of biting, not to save their lives.

Ack, it’s such a mess. What can be done?


  1. Large dogs cannot be trained & controlled by people (1) who are not trained themselves in EFFECTIVE techniques of training and controlling these (unfortunately, often) difficult-to-manage dogs; (2) who are living with the mistaken belief that all it takes is sufficient love to raise a dog with the potential to maim or kill to be a dependably gentle pet; (3) who tend to use and enjoy the risk these dogs present as an expression of their own anti-social pathology. Rescue organizations (particularly those who specialize in placing these dogs) MUST be aware of these three types of humans in order to limit the tragic consequences that result LESS from the dogs’ tendency toward focused violence than the HUMAN FAILINGS that are to blame for allowing it to developed unchecked.

    Anyone who breeds dogs factors temperament and natural instinctive behaviors into their choice of sire and dam of the litters they produce. If one can select for the desire to run in sighthounds, to pull in Newfies, Rotties & other carting breeds, the ability to produce game birds for the hunter in the Sporting Group and so on, one can also select for instinctive aggression in the bully breeds. And sadly, many breeders of these dogs do exactly that. When offspring end up in rescue situations, they present a uniquely volatile problem, even if (and some would say especially if) they have been bred with lab-like breeds or mixes who are widely believed to be uniformly sweet-natured. While I am not in favor of breed-specific legislation, I think the active proponents of the bully breeds MUST pull their heads out of the sand and assertively address backyard breeding of dogs with the equipment, the instinctive proclivity, and the hair-trigger temperament of killing machines. It is WRONG to inflict such designed-to-be-dangerous animals on the public and the people who do so should be punished as criminals. The dogs didn’t ASK to be bred anymore than a child ASKS to be mauled to death by a “family pet” who is armed and dangerous.

  2. How do you suggest someone to manage a proven to be occasionally aggressive dog either towards people and/or other dogs? I feel lots of emotion in your article and the reply. I don’t read much for advice aside from keeping dogs leashed. Problem is, many are high energy as well as aggressive so finding an outlet for the energy is difficult. I find myself attempting and failing at jogging with my dogs due to my lack of stamina and mostly waiting until late at night before allowing them to play with a leash still attached but on the ground in a not very populated area. I’m trying to find a longline for sale to use as well. I don’t have a yard and possibly never will be able to afford my own home and yard. Mind you, mine have never ever killed another dog or severely injured but they both have bit and caused minor injuries. Their behaviour is inconsistent and most of the time you would never guess that they’ve ever behaved like that in their lives. Any other advice for managing behaviour that I’ve missed? Always looking to improve my management techniques as I don’t wish harm on others nor do I want harm to come to my dogs.