Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Dogs Unleashed

November 29, 2009

When I was growing up, most dogs ran free. Some dogs got hit by cars. We lost a puppy that way, the first Traveller, and then Traveller II got hit by a car one winter on Newton Street near Pine Brook Country Club, the best sledding on our side of town. One hind leg was badly injured; it didn't have to be amputated, but he pretty much used it as a crutch for the rest of his very active life, till he died of natural causes at age 12. Jill, our first dog, a Lab-hound mix, was an inveterate car chaser. She survived several hits in her early years and after that her car-chasing expertise enabled her to live to a good old age.

The only dogs that were leashed or kenneled were those with behavior problems. Siggy, the German shepherd up the road, would attack boys. Halfway through elementary school I already understood and sympathized with Siggy: boys were nasty, boys had treated him poorly, and he intended to get them before they could get him again. Siggy had to stay behind a fence.  He was unfailingly friendly to girls; he only snarled at boys.

When Rhodry was young, I carried a leash with me on our long walks but only attached it when we were passing livestock or crossing roads. That was in the mid-1990s. After I got Allie, he accompanied me on rides down Tiah's Cove Road to the Land Bank's Sepiessa reservation. Rhodry thought cars were his friends, but Tiah's Cove Road is not heavily traveled. My biggest concern on those rides was dodging the Land Bank employees who were enforcing the leash law. They were only around in the summer.

Now? Travvy isn't Rhodry, but even if he were -- things have changed. Thanks to a long-running high-profile case in Tisbury, northern breed dogs have been profiled big-time. And the current week's Martha's Vineyard Times carries two dog stories. The Tisbury harbormaster's dog attacked a three-month-old puppy that was on a leash. The harbormaster had been told several times to keep his dog on a leash. The harbormaster's dog is a golden retriever. I have to admit to some snarky satisfaction at the thought of a golden retriever getting into trouble.

The other story was about an unleashed pointing Griffon in Chilmark who, according to the report, appeared out of nowhere and attacked one of two Yorkshire terriers being walked on leashes by their owner. The little dog was so badly injured that it had to be euthanized. The Chilmark animal control officer recommended that the culprit, who had never caused a problem before, be euthanized on the grounds that it might attack a child next. I'm getting really tired of people who are so dog-ignorant that they assume that a big dog that goes after a little dog, or a dog that goes after chickens, is ipso facto a danger to children.

Anyway, I'm trying to do my best by Travvy, who is absolutely capable of killing chickens or cats or any small animal that triggers his prey drive. So far he's been good with small dogs, but how much would I bet on his good behavior in future? A modest amount, but not my life savings.

Today's agility class was postponed because one student was in heat, so Travvy and I went for a bike ride. We picked up the bike path near the West Tisbury School and were heading toward Misty Meadows when I spied up ahead a kid on a bicycle, a woman on foot, and a large unleashed dog. Between the three of them they were taking up both the bike path and the wide grassy shoulder alongside it. I slowed down, to allow the woman to notice a bicyclist approaching with a dog attached and get her dog under control. The woman might have noticed but she made no move to do anything. We got closer. Travvy was interested but not frantic. The woman, the kid, and the dog -- a Bernese -- were still occupying most of the space dead ahead.

The woman called out, "She's friendly."

I tried to come up with a quick explanation of "My dog is friendly but he's attached to my bicycle and since I've got both hands on the handlebars I can't dole out treats from my bait bag, and if your dog gets in my dog's face I don't know what he'll do." All that came out was "My dog's on a leash."

Woman said her dog would come when called. This was followed by "Paula, come."

"Paula, come."

"Paula, come."

Paula was showing zero interest in coming, or in approaching Travvy either. She was too fascinated by something in the bushes.

An opening appeared, and Travvy and I went through. He was great. I was snarling about clueless dog owners who think their dogs will come when called. Travvy comes about 95 percent of the time when there's nothing else going on. If he's got a better offer, the odds are 50-50 at best. If a squirrel, rabbit, or deer dashes by while I'm saying, "Travvy, come," it's "Bye-bye, back soon -- maybe."


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