Make My Day or Make Fido Pay?

I feel a change in the air, and it’s not just that lovely autumn breeze bringing the first snow of the season. It’s a mood change, a political change, a rethinking of basic “rights.” People around the country are becoming more hostile to each other and towards each other’s pets.

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a time honored cliché and it’s almost gospel in the dog owning world. Fences protect us, our dogs, and our neighbors from ourselves and each other. Even better than fences is land. Enough land where you don’t have to listen to the neighbor’s teenager with horrible music taste, enough land so you aren’t a party to domestic disputes, the sex crazed newlyweds with the creaky bed in the unit directly overhead, and enough land where you and your pets are buffered from unwanted confrontation.

There have been newsworthy neighbor-dog disputes in the past, but high profile incidents like the mauling death of Dianne Whipple are easy to dismiss for suburbanites outside of the original locale. She lived in an apartment in San Francisco and her neighbors were wackos. Even worse, the simple nature of the case (woman attacked and killed by two vicious dogs that had no place in a cramped apartment building combined with a history of violence and no training) was clouded by zoophilia, the Aryan nation, the victim’s sexual orientation, and an aspiring dog fighting venture. It was easy to miss the forest for the really bizarre trees on the periphery.

I don’t think the Whipple case rang home in mid-America where it’s easy to say “that could never happen with my neighbors. They are nice people and there’s 1.2 acres between me and them. “

The burbs are the better choice for pets, we shouldn’t be concerned with what those crazies in the city are doing. After all, even a laissez-faire place like Colorado has a pit bull ban in Denver. The burbs are obviously better: more room, more of that land, more fences, and fewer neighbors. Right? Well, until you start piecing together the national trend of nasty dog focused encounters in the burbs.

This week the dogblogosphere has been abuzz about Congo. A dog from the wealthy and spacious suburb of Princeton Township, NJ. The poor German Shepherd is now the center of a political tug of war because he attacked a gardener on his owner’s property. The details are up for debate (the animal control officer who supposedly took statements and notes on the situations claims those notes were eaten by another dog!) and the overtones are more than just animal in nature as the gardener was Hispanic and the owners wealthy Whites, neither fluent in the other’s language. The gardeners were invited on the property, but perhaps they disobeyed instructions, and sometime before or during the incident the gardener hid behind or assaulted the owner’s wife causing her to fall. Blah blah blah.

What could have ended as a simple home owner’s insurance claim is now working its way up the courts with death sentences handed down and reversed, puppies being labeled as vicious, and a whole can of worms that no one really wants opened. The ripples are moving well beyond the dog owner world. The Whipple case had the same effect, one of the legacies was the precedent setting civil judgment for Whipple’s lesbian partner, a noteworthy case in the issue of civil unions and rights of survivorship outside of marriage.

Here’s another dog attack story that I’m sure will make some waves. A three year old little girl was unsupervised in her back yard, climbed the cinder block fence and fell into the neighbor’s yard on top of a cactus. Then the neighbor’s dogs, also unsupervised, attacked the girl and dragged her further into the yard. The girl was eventually saved by her mother who hopped the fence.

Now, this story is new so we don’t know how the “victim” and the dog owners are going to proceed. But both stories speak to a dangerous wind blowing in.

That’s the chill of your home no longer being your castle. Where the make-my-day law no longer applies and potential criminals are given more rights and home owners are given more liabilities.

What? A three-year-old and a hard working lawn man are potential criminals? You bet they are, in the eyes of your dogs, a bloody and wailing child could easily evoke the same instinctual response as an injured animal (prey) and an unfamiliar man with a rake combined with a flustered female owner could make for a situation where instinct says bite first and ask questions later (danger). I’m sure a good chunk of you own dogs for protection and are happy that you’ve never needed their services.

Maybe even a few of you own guns for protection too, and likewise are happy that you’ve never had to shoot anyone on your property. That cold wind is also spelling trouble for the handgun debate that neither side has been willing to push too hard for or against (read: take to the Supreme Court for a precedent setting judgment) for fear that the outcome could be worse than the status quo. But this week’s news brings word that the Supreme Court is going to decide just that issue.

Remember pet owners, the Second Amendment to the Constitution speaks directly (if not clearly) at gun rights. There is no Amendment for pet rights, and if you consider them property, then you’re only protected against “unreasonable searches and seizures” under the Fourth Amendment. But “unreasonable” is up for debate, and just like the government takes a little bit a sizable chunk of your land every year in property taxes and your liquid assets in the form of income tax, and another cut off of your buying and selling habits with even more taxes, the trend for “reasonable” seizures of your property has been giving more rights to the government and taking rights from the citizenry ever since the ink was still wet on the Bill of Rights.

No matter how the Congo case goes, the damage has been done. Pet owners are certainly not going to come out with any more rights than before, we are certainly at risk of losing the moral high ground in the debate over what we and our animals can do on our own private property, and now that a sure to be sympathetic three year old girl is in place of an immigrant as the victim, the fight is going to be even more difficult than it already is.

I imagine more than two dogs save their owner’s life or property this week, but you won’t see that in the news. It’s not newsworthy unless there is some sensational spin on it.

I for one want to have the right to shoot an intruder on my property and I want my dogs given every right to bite them in the ass. If there’s a case of mistaken identity, so what, that’s what insurance is for. A little higher premium is worth it to me to err on the side of my safety and wellbeing.

My two dogs are just sweethearts. They greet anyone at the door with boundless affection and this Halloween we had a little traffic jam at my place on what has traditionally been a slow night because so many people wanted to play with the pups. What the heck, it’s good socialization and I got a chance to reinforce good doorway etiquette. Even with the silly costumes, the dark of night, and an oft ringing doorbell that usually sparks enough excitement for a whole day, the dogs behaved with aplomb.

Last week, though, my uncle came to my house to help fix my car. He has not met my two dogs and they have not met him. My girlfriend was taking a nap on the couch by the door and I was downstairs. I heard the security door shut and the creek of someone entering on to the landing. “Uncle Bob?” No answer. I got up with only moderate concern and followed Dublin up the stairs.
That’s when I heard a rumble that came from a place I didn’t know existed in my sweet little boy. He has never needed to protect me, nor would I encourage such behavior if he exhibited it. Celeste, the female who is smaller and daintier than he is has more of a killer instinct (just ask the rabbits and the squirrels) and even she has yet to bark at anyone aggressively.

But as I got to the top of the stairs and came around into the den, I watched as Dublin backed my uncle into the corner, both away from me and my sleeping girlfriend on the couch only a few feet away.

A quick and friendly “knock it off, that’s Uncle Bob” did the trick with Dublin, and Bob and I were in the garage before I had time to really process what happened. But I have since come back to that growl and show of teeth and an unexpected pride wells up in me. I like that my “soft” border collie boy has the guts to stand up and defend the pack and am I so wrong in feeling that way?

I am a large man and I don’t feel threatened very easily. I have avoided most of the fights of youth simply because would-be bullies were smaller and weaker. I inherited a 6’1″ body and a barrel chest, and hands larger and meatier than a professional basketball player. My great grandfather was a professional wrestler, my grandfather a hall of fame boxer, and my father was famed as the “King of East Denver” for his street fighting prowess. My last real fight that came to blows was in kindergarten when I lunched the school bully when he kicked my best friend in the face.

I have never thought of buying or owning a big dog or a powerful dog for protection, that just is not a need I would think to fill. I also like idea of guns for protection, but I don’t own anything more powerful than a .177 air powered pellet gun and it’s never been aimed at anything more vicious than a tree rat. In theory I’d like to learn handgun safety and operations and have one for protection, but again, it’s just not a pressing need to me.

But I got a real taste of what it must be like to think of an animal as a security guard when Dublin defended me, my loved ones, and my property from an unknown intruder who hadn’t been welcomed into the house. I’m still rather confused about it, being that everything I love in Dublin stems from his docility, his neediness, and his affection… and now I have that juxtaposed with a primal respect for his aggressive defense.

It’s easy to give away a right when you don’t think you need it, when you don’t appreciate it. When it won’t ostensibly alter the way you live today or tomorrow. The right to have an animal for protection used to be one such right for me. But now that I know just a little bit what it feels like to be protected by a dog, these recent cases make the hairs on my neck stand up.

I don’t want my dog to be taken away and killed because he stood up to a threat on my property. I don’t want to be liable for the stupid things other people do on my land when I’m not there, especially if that liability extends beyond monetary compensation into the mandatory killing of my dogs. Of course I have reasonable precautions, like well maintained 6″ fences, covers on the pool, and obnoxious security flood lights at night. Of course I socialize my animals and obey leash laws in public.

But apparently the cold winds of change are whispering that such precautions and responsibilities aren’t enough. What if Congo and his crew are either killed or labeled vicious beasts? What if the mother of the 3 year old sues and wins? What if the Supreme Court upholds the ban on handguns in the home? Any one of those three eats away at my castle and my rights to defend it.

I frankly prefer the wind when it’s carrying forth the howl of “Make My Day,” not “Make Fido Pay.”

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.