A few years ago, one of my dogs bit a woman in the park. It wasn’t Angus — Angus has never bitten anyone, has never even tried. But that one bite — minor as it was — changed the way I look at dogs, and it has made me scrupulously careful.
Riley, who died two years ago, was Angus’ doppelgänger. They looked so much alike that when we brought puppy Angus to our vet the first time, the vet started laughing. “I guess you have a type,” he said. Both dogs were black and white, with a white stripe on the snout and speckly legs.
And both dogs were skittish. While Angus barks at people and dogs who get too close, Riley used to sometimes lunge at whatever startled him: bicycles, in-line skates, vacuum cleaners, other dogs.
We were careful, so careful, when walking him. We perfected the Emergency U-turn. We avoided busy areas. For years and years, this was enough. But one day, when he was 13 and suffering from severe arthritis, he lunged at a bicyclist who startled him, and he bit her on the leg.
This is not a story I am proud of. I’m telling it as a cautionary tale. Skittish dogs can be unpredictable, and if they misbehave we are responsible.
I was walking Riley and Rosie on a fine morning in May 2014. We entered the crosswalk of a busy street, and a distracted driver turned her minivan right into our space. I yelled, I leapt backward, I jerked both dogs back, and we retreated safely to the curb.
So we were already rattled when a bicyclist zoomed up behind us and stopped. Riley lunged and I pulled him back, and the bicyclist yelled. “He bit me! Your dog bit me!” and she started to cry.
It was a terrible moment. I couldn’t comfort her, because I was hanging onto two dogs, including one that had just bitten her. Another bicyclist rode up, looked daggers at me, produced paper and pen, and the woman and I exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Her name was Linda.
I apologized a hundred times. I assured her that Riley was up to date on his shots, I gave her our vet information, and then I went home.
I called the vet. I told them what happened, and I said that if Linda should call they should tell her anything she wants to know about Riley.
Linda called me a few hours later. She had gone to Urgent Care. The bite was not bad — there were four small punctures, but it was mostly bruising — but the folks at Urgent Care told her she needed to report it to the police, and she did. She later regretted this, because reporting it set a whole chain of events into irrevocable motion.
A few weeks later, an animal control officer came to our house. He said that Riley needed to be quarantined — he could not leave the yard for two weeks, and while in the yard he needed to be muzzled. This, apparently, was to ensure that he wasn’t rabid. But it’s already been two weeks, I said. And he’s had all his shots. And we don’t own a muzzle.
No matter. Those were the rules.
In June, we received a ticket from Ramsey County. This was not like an expired meter, something you can pay and forget. This needed to be resolved in person, in court. The potential fines were six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The ticket, for reasons nobody could explain, was issued to my husband, who had been at work when the bite occurred.
When I called Ramsey County, no one could help me. They said our case first needed to be put on a court calendar, and after that it would be assigned to an attorney. This could (and did) take months.
Over the summer, Linda and I were in frequent e-mail communication. Her leg healed nicely (she sent photos). I paid her Urgent Care bill. I told her Riley’s story: How he, like all our dogs, was a rescue. We had adopted him from a shelter in 2001 after he had been “returned” by a family. His brief life with them, according to records the shelter gave us, had involved aggressive children and a jealous older dog.
Linda wrote an e-mail to Ramsey County on my behalf, noting that the bite was not serious and saying that we should not be punished. “I think it is nuts to penalize people who are conscientious and do everything right,” she said.
The ticket hung over our heads all summer. Every few weeks I called Ramsey County, to no avail.
And then, right after Labor Day, the charge was suddenly dismissed. I never found out why, though I was profoundly relieved.
Oddly, by then Riley had become completely calm. He lived three more years, and he stopped lunging; he became a model dog. It might have been the arthritis; it might have been guilt.
Riley is why we are so careful with Angus. Dog bites are not always as minor as this one. And gosh, they can happen fast — in a blink of an eye.
If your dog bites someone, do not run away in a panic. Exchange information. Give them access to your dog’s medical records. Pay any medical bills. Apologize repeatedly.
And hope that the victim is as kindhearted and understanding as Linda.
Read all of the Puppy Chronicles at startribune.com/puppy