The news media today reports on a woman who was mauled to death by eight dogs that she was walking. Eight dogs was too many. Some jurisdictions limit the number to six or perhaps even four. These limits, as I see it, are to do with control. Does the dog walker have sufficient control over their “pack” of dogs when they take them for a walk?
The story is tragic. This was a professional dog walker, 28 years old. She was exercising the dogs at a ya Surrey beauty spot. The attack occurred near Caterham last Thursday afternoon. The dead woman’s dogs are believed to have included a Leonberger, a large German breed that weighs up to 11 stone (70 kg). The attack occurred on the North Downs Way at Gravelly Hill. The police have said that nobody will be prosecuted and a file will be sent to the coroner.
Somebody observed the attack. They said that one of the dog walker’s large dogs, perhaps the Leonberger mentioned, attacked a smaller dog owned by another passing woman who picked up her dog in its defence. The attacking dog jumped up and bit the woman on her side.
The attacking dog then turned on the dog walker and the rest of pack joined in. The dog walker was pushed to the ground and couldn’t get up. There was a frenzy of biting. The woman was screaming and she might have been tangled in the dog leads. It is not reported but it seems that she died on the spot. The police arrived and seized the dogs. None are considered to be dogs of ‘dangerous dog’ breeds.
Two horse riders happened by chance to arrive at the scene. The dog walker was still alive at that point and told them to “Go back, go back”. Two of the dogs then chased the horse riders. One horse bolted and threw their rider. Her horse had been seriously spooked. The rider was lucky not to suffer serious injury.
Why did it happen?
I’m going to rely on Dr. Desmond Morris, a zoologist and author. I will also rely upon personal experience because I’ve been attacked by a dog.
Personal experience: When I was attacked there were three dogs owned by a woman. The biggest of the three dogs attacked me as I walked by. It was totally unprovoked. I was doing nothing other than walking by. I told the woman that she had lost control of her dogs because she was not playing the role of top dog. She was too weak with them. The dog that attacks me had taken over the role of alpha dog. I was bitten on the leg. I very modestly asked for £50 in compensation for the torn trousers. I could have asked for ten times that and more and she would have paid up because she had committed a crime.
Dog walker tragedy: In the dog walker story, clearly the larger dog that attacked was the top dog in this group. He was the alpha dog. He was difficult to control. He became out of control despite the reports saying that he has a pleasant personality. How does a dog develop this type of personality?
In the words of Dr. Desmond Morris:
“The fact is that male dogs of this kind have simply been allowed to become the dominant members of the pack. Each male wolf tries to achieve this status in a wild pack, and domestic dogs are no different in this respect”.
Dog owners normally take on the role of top, alpha dog because they are bigger. They have a great advantage over dogs in this respect. They can dominate. There are also more intelligent and can use their intelligence to help them dominate.
But if a confident male dog feels that he is getting the upper hand in confrontations with the owner they might make a bid to be pack leader. It doesn’t mean they have to fight with their owner. The dog achieves dominance over the human owner by getting their own way; doing what they want to do rather than what their human companion wants them to do.
After a long string of wins in such confrontations the dog might then consider himself to be dominant and starts to behave accordingly.
And so, this larger dog was the lead, top dog in this pack of dogs being walked by the dog walker.
Why did he attack the passing dog? He did it because in the words of Dr. Morris again:
“One of his leadership duties is defending his subordinates (that is, his human companions) against attack from strangers.”
Hence his assault on the passing dog and then to the owner of that dog. They were considered to be threats in the same way that postman delivering post to the front door are considered potential threats by a dog inside the home. It is why they bark as a warning to others in the pack that a potential threat has arrived.
Why did the dogs then turn on the dog walker? Because their adrenaline was up and they redirected their aggression towards the dog walker in a ‘fog of aggression’ according to The Sunday Times’s Colin Tennant.
So, without wishing to be unkind in any way, the professional dog walker lost her life, I would argue, because she was unable to become the top dog in the large group of dogs that she was walking. This was exacerbated by the fact that it was indeed a large group of eight dogs.
She might have been able to have coped and controlled a smaller group of half that size. There is no certainty it would have happened that way because it appears to me that this large dog had decided to be the leader.
Note: these are my opinions. I might be wrong. If I am then please tell me in a comment. I’m not seeking to blame anybody or indeed criticise anybody. I’m just trying to find a reason why it happened as it may prevent this sort of tragedy happening again.
Postscript, the next day and day after
Apparently, the Leonberger dog who appeared to be the alpha in this group, is named Shiva. Shiva appeared on the BBC2 programme 10 Puppies and Us in 2017 with its owner, Delia Lewis. She said, incidentally, that her dog is missing after this tragic event. And she asked what to do about it. Perhaps she is unaware that the police seized the dog or perhaps they have not seized Shiva yet.
The Times states that Leonberger’s were originally used as guard dogs. However, the Kennel Club state that they are now known to have gentle and affectionate temperaments. Comment: no doubt their temperaments are gentle and affectionate but they are still dogs and inside their head they think they are wolves. That’s why this kind of event can happen. By the way, The Times reports that Shiva’s reputation with postmen/women is good.
Dennis Smith, 61, a postman said that while the dog initially intimidated the area’s postman, according to The Times report, Shiva eventually gained a reputation as a big cuddly lump in their words.
He said: “All the postmen were afraid of the dog because it was so big, but it was really harmless. It would just jump on you and try to push you over but that’s all it done (sic). It never tried to bite me or any other postman. It was nerve-wracking to see the dog for the first time but then I got used to it and after a couple of times it was okay. Anybody can look at a dog and think it was scary but for me, it was always okay.”
Below are some more articles on dog ownership.