by Karen Rile Smith

On Friday, Oct. 20, at 2:10 p.m., my two 10-pound dogs and I were suddenly swarmed by five large, unleashed dogs on the Lavender trail in the Wissahickon. My dogs, who were leashed, reacted by barking and snapping – and the pack attacked.

The dogs’ handlers were nowhere in sight. I was horrified to see my dogs’ necks in the mouths of the larger dogs: a German shepherd, a lab, a labradoodle, and two large brown dogs. I thought my dogs would be killed or mauled (we were far from any trail head at that point). Although I had a hiking pole, I was too stunned to use it for defense. I was also suddenly tangled in leashes, and overwhelmed by the swirl of dogs attacking from all sides.

After about 15 seconds, two women appeared and got their dogs under control. They demanded to examine my dogs. I did not allow them to, as my dogs were traumatized, and covered with saliva. One of my dogs had a streak of blood on his flank, although on later examination, I could not find a wound, so the blood must have come from the mouth of the attacker. I feel very lucky that the women arrived and were able to control the dogs before the attack worsened. From what I can tell, my dogs are OK and do not seem to have any serious injury, although it could have been much worse.

The two women were walking these five dogs together. The older woman was conciliatory; the red-haired woman was not. When I said, “It is illegal to have your dog off the leash in the city,” the red-haired woman responded, “So is going over the speed limit.” She also volunteered that her father is an important litigator and has described many cases in which people who are “sued for nothing.” (I had not mentioned suing – I’ve never been involved in a lawsuit.)

At first, both refused to give me their contact information. I volunteered mine, and eventually the older woman gave me hers. The red-haired woman had one dog with her, the German shepherd. The other woman had the other four. I asked if she was a professional dog-walker and she said no, that the dogs belonged to various friends. (Later, I discovered that she is a professional dog-walker; I have friends who are her clients.) To her credit, she has agreed to pay any vet bills.

Almost daily in the woods I encounter people with large, out-of-control, unleashed dogs. As the dogs bound towards us, the owners call out, “Are they friendly?” The real answer is, “Not when they think they are being attacked.” Even the question, “Are they friendly?” puts a weird spin on the situation since my dogs are leashed and controlled. They are not required to be “friendly.”  Unable to run away, they are defensive, and protective of me. When unleashed dogs get in our space and there’s a bit of barking, the owners often mutter, “Aggressive!” to my 10-pound dogs, mistaking defensiveness and fear for pugnacity.

Many local friends have since told me they’ve been attacked by unleashed dogs, including a woman whose dog was mauled by a loose pit bull near the Highland Avenue fire station, a friend who was bitten outside Allens Lane Art Center, and a friend whose toddler was almost knocked into the Wissahickon Creek by a dog whose owner then screamed at her for restraining it. Many have told me they no longer dare go to the Wissahickon because of unleashed dogs.

Although the Wissahickon resembles a wilderness, it is actually a well-groomed urban park meant to be shared by all citizens. Dog-walkers who feel they are above the law have made it the domain of only a few. If you are paying someone to walk your dog and it attacks another animal or person, you risk losing your pet, and you are exposed to liability. If you are a dog owner, be aware that dogs are pack animals. Their behavior will change radically when they walk or run in a pack. The sweet pup wagging its tail on your sofa will exhibit very different behavior in a pack circumstance.

Dogs on leash are generally protective of their owners. When your unleashed dogs, running, unseen by you 100 yards down a trail, rush up upon another human with leashed dogs, there will often be a problem.

Please stop exposing yourself and unknown strangers to this foolish risk. If you are paying a dog-walker, for your own sake, take the trouble to ensure that your pet is not running unleashed in a pack. All of us are entitled to use public spaces. When you deliberately disregard the law, you assume an unwarranted privilege for yourself and remove freedom from others.

Karen Rile Smith is a writer and long-time resident of Chestnut Hill. She teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • Joan Saverino

    Thank you for writing about your experience Karen and for your calls for respecting the public’s right to use public space without fear of being attacked by an unleashed dog. Having been bitten by a dog (the mother of our dog) on the head when I was about 3 or 4, I have a cautious attitude toward dogs I don’t know. I could relate many stories I have heard and scenes I too have witnessed over the years. I will never forget one incident of a pack of unleashed dogs who were running a deer one morning when we lived in the country south of Charlottesville, VA. The deer, fearing for its life, jumped across the road and we swerved to avoid hitting it with our car (unsuccessfully). The deer died and our car was badly damaged (which insurance didn’t cover because we swerved to avoid hitting it–word to drivers). As you describe, I have found many dog owners to be very irresponsible with their pets and defensive in their attitudes (stemming from a big sense of entitlement?) about their pets’ “rights”. I echo your call for leashing dogs when they are not confined to owner’s house or property.

  • Vanessa Ryan

    Thank you for sharing this!! My dog was attacked near lake Harmony last summer by an unleashed yellow lab, who was described by her owners as a “real sweetheart. I was waljing my dog, and just like you, I was stunned and didn’t know what to do other than scream and pull my dog away by her leash. I was horrified to see the other dog closing her jaw on my dogs neck and later moving to her back leg.

    My dog suffered severe damage and could have lost her leg!! The owners were unapologetic, and because my dog has a double coat, we were unable to see just how deep her wounds were. They refused to share contact information, and I was too distraught to push and simply took my dog home. This was on a Saturday, Father’s Day weekend. I took my dog to the vet on Monday morning and was appalled to discover she’d need surgery and 2 weeks of antibiotics. $600+, I was furious that I didn’t have any way to make the lab’s owners pay for the damage, and that I had not reported them to animal control! My vet said that is what I should have done, and apparently what must always be done when there’s an attack.

    I hope your pups are doing well and not too traumatized. My dog is now extremely skittish around other dogs, and I’m not as willing to take her to Forbidden Drive for long walks, since I often see unleashed dogs on the trails. It’s awful!

  • Gabriel Barros

    March 22, 2014

    How many other animals did pit bulls kill last year?
    by Merritt Clifton

    Pit bulls killed 99%

    Pit bulls appear to have inflicted not less than 95% of the total fatal attacks on other animals (43,000). Altogether, pit bulls inflicted 96% of the fatal attacks on other dogs (11,520); 95% of the fatal attacks on livestock (5,700); 95% of the fatal attacks on small mammals and poultry (16,150); and 94% of the fatal attacks on cats (11,280).

    About 30,000 pit bulls were involved in attacks on other animals. There are about 3.2 million pit bulls in the U.S. at any given time, according to the my annual surveys of dogs offered for sale or adoption via online classified ads. Thus in 2013 about one pit bull in 107 killed or seriously injured another animal, compared with about one dog in 50,000 of other breeds.

  • Philip m.

    I have been fighting this battle for ages. Many dog owners just simply believe that the law does not apply to them. They think that – because their dog is friendly – they can keep it off leash. Many people support this behavior by not calling it out.

    Every time you see a dog off leash in the park, in Chestnut Hill you should inform the owner of the law. If they give you some snide comment and/or refuse to put their dogs on a leash – call the police, in front of them.

    After a recent incident I had in the park… the police told me “it’s not a waste of our time, call 911 – every time… we will come out”

    They are starting to fine people…you just need to call them.

    In the park, you can call the rangers… same thing.