The Dune Chronicles (second in an ongoing series)

It was 4 pm on a sun-drenched autumn day. The sun had begun it’s descent, making the temperature perfect for a four-mile trek in the Northern California hills. The dusky sky was ripening into a mottled rosy-violet curtain that would gradually darken to a deep blueberry hue. Flecks of silver stars dotted the atmosphere and a sliver of silvery moon was making an early appearance on the horizon.

Dune, my youngest dog, accompanies me on these workday respites, and he is the perfect hiking companion; well-mannered and energetic, but low-key, he stays with me at a good pace, he doesn’t chase the wildlife, and he never leaves the trail. If we meet others he politely waits for permission to approach and greet rather than charging, uninvited, up to someone or something that may not appreciate dogs. We share these hills with equestrians, children, professional dog-walkers, cattle, deer, fox, and rabbits, so it is important for dogs to have manners and decorum when meeting others on the trail.

As a team, Dune and I have been practicing his trail manners, especially towards both humans and canines, since he was 12 weeks old, for over 3 years now. Other than a brief period of adolescent over-exuberance a while back, we pretty much have our routine under control. We are friendly, unobtrusive, and polite - always.

One particular day, as I got out of my car at the head of our favorite trail, I heard raucous and incessant barking. This was not the kind of joyful barking so many dogs do for the sheer pleasure of running in these gorgeous hills, nor was it the good-natured “banter” of two playmates. Hmmm... This type of commotion was unusual, so I kept Dune on-leash as we approached the trailhead, just in case. What on earth was going on?

We crested the first hill and I saw a horse on the next ridge. His rider had dismounted and was standing next to him, holding the reins in one hand and calmly soothing his horse. The barking continued. It was piercing and sounded awful.

Behind the horse and rider a woman pushing a sturdy, off-road stroller of some sort emerged from a grove of Redwood trees. There was a baby in the stroller, probably around 6 months of age. Dutifully following the woman were two small children, not yet of school age. Walking with the children was a cheery, but calm, Jack Russell Terrier. At that moment a second JRT came bounding from the trees and headed straight for me and my (leashed) dog. The barking continued in the background; it was frantic and never even paused.

The two Jack Russell Terriers weren’t the source of the barking – however, one of the dogs was silently coming at me as fast and furious as a bullet. I didn’t fret though, because rogue beasts have charged Dune on countless occasions, especially in these hills. We have done much training, proofing, and practicing for exactly this type of situation, which unfortunately happens to us nearly ever day we hike.

I was confident Dune would sit if I asked him to and that his sit would be combined with a rock-solid stay until released, even if this dog physically “jumped” him (okay, it works most of the time). As far as training goes, we are a far from perfect team: we have plenty to work on and many goals we aspire to, but we take trail manners very seriously and this is something we really have down pat.

This particular day I didn’t ask Dune to sit, I let him meet the dog head-on and handle the situation in his doggy way, through body language and copious sniffing. Once I was comfortable that this “in your face” JRT (is there any other kind?) meant no harm, I turned my attention back to the scene unfolding on the next hillcrest.

The woman with the off-road-mega-stroller was gruffly rolling the contraption down the hill, past the man and horse, with her toddlers in tow. As she came into closer view I noticed an ugly grimace on her face. I could now also see a third dog (Ah ha! The source of the audio assault and commotion!) darting to and fro, charging the horse’s legs and then running away, barking aggressively all the while. The woman repeatedly called the dog, a little Schipperke mix of sorts, in a feeble attempt to coax him away from the horse, but her half-hearted, grim-faced effort failed (I mean, who would come to a face like that!) and she kept on walking right by the horse without stopping.

By now several minutes had gone by and I was still standing at the trailhead, with a feisty but apparently harmless JRT circling Dune, trying to assess what I should do next. Should I trudge on ahead and ignore the entire chaotic scene? Should I attempt to help the man with the horse, or will bringing Dune closer to him exacerbate the problem? To his credit the equestrian remained quite calm and his horse only seemed mildly perturbed. Should I help the woman catch her third and most unruly dog?

As I pondered my options, the woman parked the stroller and told the two toddlers and one JRT to stand-stay by the baby. The children huddled together. She then proceeded to go back up the hill shouting the offending dog’s name over and over. Off on the sidelines Dune and I still had a JRT attached to us. Well, mainly Dune had a Jack Russell Terrier nose attached to his bum.

As the woman approached the scene, scowling, and shouting, the barking dog made a wide circle in order not to be caught. The woman lunged again and again, in an attempt to catch the barker who was alternately charging the horse and quickly scooting down another trail in order to evade the woman. This went on for a while.

Uncharacteristically, I decided to head towards the man with the horse (Jack Russell in tow) and as a dog owner, apologized to him loudly for the incident and told him that not all dogs on the trail were so out of control. I wanted to convey to him that both the offending dog’s behavior and the woman’s inability to control her dog embarrassed me. Dune, unperturbed, was still by my side, looking at, and occasionally interacting with, the renegade JRT, but my guess is that he was mostly wondering when the heck we were going to begin our walk.

At that moment I heard a loud squeal, just out of sight over the next hill. Suddenly, instead of incessant barking I heard repeated yelping. The woman climbed over the crest, with the dog in a death-grip pinch in her hands, a red-faced, angry expression, and steam practically coming out of her ears. The dog screamed again.

Normally I stay out of other people’s business, but I have a weakness: I cannot stand to see either animals or children being treated unfairly. I felt this woman was poorly representing responsible dog ownership, physically hurting the dog for not being trained (her fault), and acting as a bad example to the children in her care. As the dog squealed and struggled in her angry grip I said, “Don’t punish the dog; it’s not his fault. If he’s not trained, he shouldn’t be off-leash. What he was doing to that horse was very dangerous and gives dogs out here on the trail a bad rap.”

Very unlike me, but I felt the woman single-handedly risked her dog being kicked and injured or killed, the rider being thrown and severely injured, her children’s safety, and the precarious right for off-leash dogs in our hills, one of the last legal and safe places to hike with dogs.

She scowled in my general direction and stormed off with her entire crew of two dogs at large, one dog squealing in her arms, one infant, and two toddlers - quite a handful for one person.

I must take a moment to point out that during the entire incident my dog did not bark once, nor did he lunge at the children or stroller which were all at close range. He did not fight with the JRT that charged him; he did not lunge at the horse later, when we approached it. He exhibited no stress towards the strange man, the large farm (prey) animal, the toddlers, the infant, the strange bouncing stroller, the ruckus and commotion, the other dogs, or the strange and angry woman. He was also under control and on-leash. Good boy! And I told him so repeatedly; I do not take his good behavior for granted. I was very proud of him and his stellar behavior under such wild circumstances.

I approached the rider and asked him if everything was okay he said yes, and I complemented him on his horse’s solid temperament. He said this sort of thing happens quite frequently.
We chatted for a few minutes and parted ways. My dog and I were finally going to get our hike! As usual the calm and beautiful atmosphere cleared my mind and recharged me. I completely forgot about the incident.

Upon returning to my car I saw a note on the windshield of my car. It read:

“Actually, my dog just barks. He doesn’t maul people to death. I think it’s your fighting pit bull breeds that give us all a bad name!”

You see, Dune is an American Bulldog.

Apparently his good behavior and pleasant demeanor meant nothing to this woman. He was (and often is) accused and convicted on sight regardless of how friendly and tolerant he is or how well he behaves in a given situation.

Such is life with a bully breed, a bittersweet experience packed with the many wonderful benefits of sharing your life with such a lively, intelligent, athletic, good natured, and dignified companion; and the contrasting, almost daily, frustration and prejudice he and I experience exclusively because of his breed type and physical characteristics.