Crossing the street toward home, Gracie's mind is on one thing: dinner.
When I heard the unmistakable sound of a dog barking up ahead, my brain sounded a red alert.
Gracie and I were about to round the corner of our secret building on the back property of our local high school. Surrounded by woods and a wide, smooth, and rarely-used paved lane, on weekends and school holidays such as today, this is a perfect place to let a dog off leash for a romp.
Which is fine. As long as the dog is friendly.
I pulled my dog's ultra long leash up short as we approached the turn, and sure enough, we stepped around to find a thirty-ish year old couple and their two big dogs. Both pets were off leash, and the woman was holding one of those plastic ball-flinging devices. I shuffled and stamped enough to make sure they heard me, and sure enough, all four heads snapped in our direction.
Which might have been fine.
Before the walk, I fill her bowl and have it ready to go upon our return.
She wastes no time in digging in.
Since my dogs have been attacked a handful of times over the years in what appeared at first to be friendly encounters, I now go to great lengths to avoid meeting dogs I don't know. When both dogs are leashed, I keep my dog well out of the other dog's range and that does the trick. But when the other dog is off leash, my always-leashed dog and I are at a serious disadvantage.
The English sheepdog showed no inclination to meet us, but the Black Lab mix, who stood a bit taller than Gracie, took a bee line toward us.
"Zeus! Come!" Mama called, but guess what.
Zeus did not come.
He continued his march toward Gracie and me.
I quickly assessed Zeus's body language:
Eyes locked in on my dog,
Teeth slightly bared,
And prickling black hackles standing up along the full length of his neck.
I recognized the classic signs of a dog in aggressive mode.
Which was definitely not fine at all.
Her nose does not come up out of the bowl until every last bite is gone.
With Gracie pressed against my left side, clearly intimidated, I began to slowly back up.
Zeus continued toward us.
His people were standing and watching, apparently oblivious to their dog's obviously aggressive posture. To be honest, I was terrified.
In the next instant, I was utterly surprised to hear myself speak in a calm yet commanding voice:
"Call off your dog. Now."
Finally the woman acted. Still not seeming to read her dog's behavior, she walked over to where Zeus was backing us up along the lane, and after what seemed like ten minutes rather than ten seconds, grabbed his collar and hauled him back.
Both my mildly panicked dog and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and booked it away from them as fast as we could.
Which was absolutely wonderful.
While I get ready to prepare the humans' evening meal, Gracie settles into her favorite post-dinner spot: directly in front of the kitchen sink.
While part of me wanted to give those two a good lecture about the perils of letting dogs off leash who do not come when they are called, I decided instead to share this story with my fellow dog owners as a precautionary tale.
Please learn the signs of potential aggression as well as the signs of a playful pup. This article provides a nice summary.
Watch your own dog's reaction too; in an unfamiliar situation, our beloved pets can change gears quickly and it's our task to take them out of any encounter that isn't going well.
Even though we humans often enjoy the social interaction of meeting up with other dogs and their humans, it's worth remembering that these moments can quickly turn from fun to fatal. What matters to me, more than any lovely dogs we may meet along the way, is getting my dog back home, safe and sound.