Spoiler alert: My dog survived!
Disclaimer: This story includes some graphic details.
People who love pit bull dogs REALLY love them. I get that. I’m actually a little nervous writing up this story because pit bull advocates are not only enthusiastic, but also very defensive about these animals. I get that, too.
I love animals and I grew up on horseback, the daughter of a Texas cowboy, and I’ve had just about every kind of creature people keep as pets. For a while we even had a pet tarantula; it ate live crickets. I love animals and can’t imagine life without them. I love horses and can ride one without a saddle or bridle. I’ve rescued animals and given them second chances. I’ve advocated for them. I have a daughter who works in wildlife rescue. I’m fascinated by the human-animal bond and the healing power of horses, dogs, and other creatures.
So I’m just going to tell you my story. Because other stories I’ve come across don’t seem to convey the ferocity and single mindedness of an attack. At least, I had never read one.
It was Memorial Day. My husband and I were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and we decided to go for a hike at Horse Thief Canyon trail, south of Lake Tahoe near Carson Pass. The trail was steep and rocky, almost like climbing rock slabs for stairs. We brought along our dog Sprinkles, a silky terrier who weighs about 12 pounds. She’s a scruffy dog, with a black body, with silver and golden brown fur on her legs and face. She has dark brown button eyes and floppy ears. Sprinkles was on a leash, the retractable kind you can let out, lock, or reel in by pushing a button.
While Sprinkles looks sort of like a dainty little Yorkie, she’s actually a sturdy little animal and we’ve hiked all around the area with her. She’s a great swimmer, good at playing fetch, and was born with a boundless supply of energy. She’s bouncy and can run at turbo speed. She’s also very connected to me. We got her when I was recovering from breast cancer, right when I was finishing up with chemo and radiation. She seemed to sense when I was anxious or not feeling well and would curl up beside me. Once, when I went jogging with new socks and came home with a bad blister on my ankle, she took it upon herself to lick my ankle every morning while I was drying my hair. It was like she was taking care of me, even as a puppy. I can’t explain why that little act made me feel better, but it did. She was doing what she could to help.
So on Memorial Day Robert and I were climbing this mountain, me stopping for lots of breaks to enjoy the scenery (and catch my breath), and Sprinkles joyfully trotting along. She hopped up the rock ledges like a rabbit.
A clear, gurgling stream ran downhill next to the trail over rock waterfalls and into little pools. We stopped in the shade for a break and Robert took Sprinkles down to the water so she could get a drink.
I was about 25 feet up the trail, resting. Movement ahead caught my eye. I looked up and two dogs were running down the trail toward me. This is not unusual. Lots of hikers have dogs and when you’re up in the high country, there aren’t that many people; so, even though dogs are supposed to be on leash, people often let them loose so they can have a little freedom to run and sniff and enjoy themselves.
But these two dogs were running straight toward me with no owner in sight. Something about their body language, heads down, tails out, and picking up speed, filled me with a sudden sense of foreboding. These were not dogs out for a leisurely stroll in the woods. The bigger dog was a dark gray, barrel chested, powerfully built, and sleek. The other was tan, a little thinner, more like a smallish Labrador Retriever.
Before I could even register fear for myself, the two dogs zoomed past me in a cloud of dust, not interested in me at all, and veered down towards Robert and Sprinkles. I realized something bad was about to happen and turned around.
“Robert,” I screamed. “Pull her back. Pull her back!” Sprinkles was at the stream, about ten feet of line between her and Robert. He saw the approaching dogs and immediately began pulling the line in with his hands, trying to drag the terrier towards him. But it happened too quick and the two dogs were there, tails stiff and upright, backs rigid with excitement, legs straight and quivering. They paused for a split second, then the big gray one attacked. There was no barking, no growling, no warning sound of any kind. Robert was yelling but the dog ignored him, its eyes on the small dog. Then the pit crouched, every muscle coiled, and pounced on Sprinkles before Robert could save her. The tan dog just watched.
I could see now–as my adrenaline rushed in, causing time to slow down and my vision to sharpen–that it was a grayish-brown pit bull. I clearly saw the short, broad head with small ears, the wide jaws, a thick neck, and a big, deep chest. The pit bull snatched the terrier up by the back of the neck, picked her up in the air, and began shaking her. It was a savage, furious movement, a whipping back and forth so quick it was a blur. Then it began to go crazy, jumping back and forth in a grotesque dance as it shook her limp body. When the pit first grabbed Sprinkles she shrieked, but the shaking was so intense her yelps cut out.
As the dog started its attack and began to plunge around with the little dog in his mouth, Robert initially pulled hard on the leash, trying to pull her back to him before it was too late. But the pit’s movements were so quick and powerful that the leash ripped through his fingers, causing a rope burn, and he could no longer hold on. He ran after the dog, yelling and kicking at its back, trying to force it to let go.
All of this took a total of about twenty or thirty seconds. Something about the pit’s body language, and the sudden ferocity of the attack, along with Sprinkles’ screams, reminded me of watching one of those nature programs on public television where a lion grabs a gazelle by the throat. There is an intensity, a single mindedness, when a carnivore decides to kill. The killer doesn’t play around. There are no threats of displays of aggression. There is only action. The predator’s body, mind, and spirit are focused on killing its prey as quickly as possible.
I’ve been around animals all of my life. I’ve been in dangerous situations and witnessed animal attacks before. I’ve seen horses kicking and biting and fighting. I’ve been around dogs battling for dominance, growling and snapping and grabbing each other by the throat and drawing blood. But I’d never seen anything like this in person. I’d never seen an animal go into such a killing trance, with a single minded focus on tearing another creature apart until it no longer lived. And I didn’t know what to do.
I’ve always known what to do with animals. I can read a horse’s body language and get him to do what I want. I can tell when he’s going to bite or kick or misbehave and try to head off the behavior before it happens. The same with dogs—I can read their body language and listen to their breathing and watch their eyes and know what they’re going to do, and what I can do to try to stop it. But this—this was beyond anything I could do. I saw the attack, and I knew the pit was going to kill her and there was nothing I, nor anyone else, could do to stop it. She was as good as dead.
But the most horrible part was that she wasn’t dead yet. It was still happening. My dog was still alive and I could not protect her. Just then, I heard something behind and turned to see a man running down the trail from where the dogs had come. He was in jeans and a tank top, muscular and young he reminded me of a cowboy or a football player. He ran towards me, his eyes wide.
Before I could think, I was screaming at him, “Your dog is killing my dog!” I repeated it twice more before he ran by me, straight towards the dogs. Robert was still yelling and kicking at the dog. It was still shaking Sprinkles. Every once in a while it would stop for a minute and she would shriek again, as the pit readjusted his jaws, trying to get a better lock on her neck.
I collapsed, sitting down on a rock, put my face in my hands, and started crying. I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that before. I’m not a big cry-er, but I was wailing out loud, a sound tearing up and out of me, the pain I was feeling at witnessing a killing was taking shape and becoming sound. I cried, not caring who could hear, and then bent over and covered my ears with my hands so I couldn’t hear the strangled screams of my dying dog.
Total time elapsed: about 90 seconds.
After my first burst of crying, I looked up and saw the guy jump on his dog. The pit was facing away from me and I could see the muscles working in her sleek, grayish back. She had Sprinkles down on the ground now. The man grabbed his dog around the neck from behind. It reminded me of a steer wrestling event at the rodeo, where a cowboy jumps off his galloping horse and grabs a steer by the horns to stop it and flip it over onto its side. The muscles in the guy’s shoulders and arms bunched and popped as he struggled with his dog. Dust was kicking up amid the frantic savage movement, and two men trying to save a little dog.
I bent back over, wailing and crying again. Next time I looked up, it was over. Robert told me later the man picked up a big stick and started stabbing his dog in the face with it. But it didn’t seem to be working and Robert said the guy repeatedly stabbed it in the face, including the eyes, and the dog finally let go.
Total time elapsed: about 3 minutes.
Somehow, even in my hysterical state, I could tell the attack was over. The shouting had stopped and I heard no more yelps or sounds of movement from below.
I stood up, afraid of what I would see, and called out in a shaky voice, “Is she alive?” No response. The pit bull and the tan dog were gone. I wondered where they were. Would they come back?
“Is she alive?” I called out again. I was pretty sure she must be dead. I stood up on wobbly legs and looked down. I could see Robert and the young guy on their knees, bent down over what I only assumed must be Sprinkles. Maybe she’s alive. If they’re looking at her like that, she might be alive.
I picked my way down the trail. She was on her back in a c-curve, lying still, eyes wide open. She had a thick ruff of brown and black fur around her neck, shoulders, and chest, so it was hard to see anything. Robert was trying to see her injuries. There was blood, mostly on the front of her neck.
The young man had a first aid kit, and he pulled out some things and fumbled with them but Robert and I quickly decided if she was going to live, we had to get her to a veterinary hospital as soon as possible. The guy also tried to feed her a cracker from a plastic container he had in his backpack. She was in no condition to eat, but I guess he was trying to help in the only way he knew how.
I had a sweatshirt tied around my waist so I pulled it off and we wrapped it snugly around her neck. Then Robert gently picked her up and carried her a mile down the steep, rocky trail. She was breathing in quick, shallow breaths, eyes still open but glazed. I almost felt like she was unconscious because she didn’t seem aware of much, but I guess that was the shock. I was afraid she would die in his arms.
The young guy followed us silently down the hill. The walk took about 30 minutes. I talked to Sprinkles a little bit but we were mostly quiet. I felt like we were in shock, too. I couldn’t comprehend what we’d just experienced. Robert climbed down slowly, careful with each step, balancing himself and keeping Sprinkles level with as little movement as possible in his upper body.
Down at the bottom of the trail, we saw a pickup truck with an older man at the wheel. He had the pit and the other dog locked up in the camper shell behind. He said a few words to the young guy and then took off. The young guy had his own truck and he gave us contact info before we left. In some ways I felt a little sorry for him because he seemed in shock, too, at what his dog had done.
I realized suddenly that Sprinkles would have already died without his intervention. The owner wasn’t our enemy. Stabbing his dog in the eye with the stick distracted it enough to give our little dog a chance of survival. Robert’s attempts at pulling Sprinkles away, yelling at the pit, and kicking it hadn’t really done anything at all. In fact, it’s a miracle the pit didn’t turn and bite him.
We drove Sprinkles to a vet hospital on the Nevada side of the mountain and they put her on oxygen and rushed her into surgery. Before he put her under the anesthetic, the vet showed us the wound at the front of her neck. It was open from one side to another, the muscles torn apart and exposing her windpipe, her jugular, and even part of her spinal column. We looked on in horror.
The vet said, “Somehow her jugular is intact. I don’t know how. She should be dead.” He went on to do a two-hour surgery where he cleaned her up and sewed her all back together, including several deep lacerations on the back of her neck. X-rays showed damage to her spinal column, particularly her neck (which now had an odd curve) and her middle to lower back (where the vertebrae were now compressed), likely a result of the savage whiplashing the pit had put her through.
Robert and I sat in the waiting room a few feet apart, not talking. We had no words. I replayed the attack again and again in my head, wondering what we could have done differently. He did, too. Over the next few days we talked about what we could have done to fight off the dog, and what we can do in the future if it ever happens again. We love to hike and don’t want to give it up, so what would we carry for protection? We talked through the merits of a walking stick, pepper spray, a taser, a knife, and even a loaded gun.
We determined that based on the speed and viciousness of the attack, the only thing that would have stopped the pit bull’s attack is a gun. The problem is that we don’t want to carry a loaded gun with us on hikes, we’re not trained to use it in emergency situations where adrenaline is racing and mistakes are easily made, and we’re not even sure either of us could have gotten it out of a backpack in time to use it effectively. Plus, would the shots have hit our dog by accident? Or simply enraged the pit further? Or its owners? The situation was already volatile enough without introducing a firearm.
So, there’s no easy answer for us. Except this: the attack would never have happened if the dog had been under control on a leash. Or, of course, if it hadn’t been there in the first place.
Before we parted that day at the bottom of the trail, the young guy told us the pit bull was a female, 14 months old, and had never done anything like this before. If he could be believed, and I felt like he was telling the truth, this dog had no past history of violence and had been a loving family pet. But that day, something inside of her snapped and she became a killer. And Robert, my six foot tall strong, athletic, mountain bike riding husband, could not stop her.
Contrary to popular belief, the vet said, the jaws of a pit bull don’t actually lock. Instead, their jaws are so strong the only way to get them open is to use a pry stick, but it’s very, very difficult.. The vet also said they don’t bite more often than other dogs, but when they DO bite, it’s often lethal, or at least very destructive.
Some countries outlaw pit bulls. They were bred to fight and to kill and that instinct is built into their genetics. But there are multiple varieties of pits and they’re often mixed with other breeds, so it’s a difficult task—first to define the breed, and second to decide what to do with them. I don’t know what the answer is and I have no solutions to offer you. All I know is what happened to me and my dog on Memorial Day.
Sprinkles is recovering slowly. Her stitches are out and each day she gets stronger and happier. She still has pain and problems with mobility. The other day she was chasing a ball I threw for her inside our apartment and she ran headfirst into a wall. Is she partly blind? Or does she have some damage to her brain? There’s no way to tell. But I’m guessing she will never completely recover. She’s lucky to be alive.
And then there’s the fear. I live in San Francisco and pit bulls are everywhere. Most are well behaved—San Franciscans at all levels of society adore their dogs and spend lots of time with them. But I’m afraid of them now. I’m afraid to take Sprinkles on a walk anymore, and she really loved to go on walks. And I’m not just afraid of pit bulls, but almost any dog that seems like it could be aggressive. I hate that. I’ve never been afraid of dogs before. I wonder if the feeling will go away some day? I hope so. When that pit bull tore apart my dog’s throat, it also tore apart my sense of competence and safety, my feeling of knowing and understanding dogs, and feeling capable of dealing with a dangerous situation if needed.
And what scares me the most, so that I almost can’t even allow my mind to go in that direction, is the horror of what it must be like when a pit bull goes into the kind of frenzy we experienced and kills a human being. Especially a child. I can’t imagine it, and I don’t want to. I can’t. Because once a dog like this decides to kill, there is nothing you can do.
What you do with this story is up to you. I have no recommendations for you, no easy answers to this problem, no top ten tips to avoid a dog attack. I just have my pen, and the desire to share this experience with you so that you and your family never have to go through this. As bad as it was for us, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the owner of such an animal and to witness such an attack. May God have mercy.
What happened after: I reported the incident to the local sheriff, and they issued a warning to the owners about having a dog off leash in a state forest. The sheriff said he could have done more if the dog had attacked a person. We also sent a letter to the owners requesting they cover medical expenses and they did, but only after we signed a release form (to forestall a lawsuit).
I wrote this story a couple of years ago. Sprinkles is a walking, breathing, barking miracle–she is okay and very alive. Overall she is healthy and the only lasting effect I’ve noticed is stiffness in her back and legs. She can’t run as fast or jump as high as she used to. I imagine she has some significant arthritis in her spine and her neck from the trauma. I’m still afraid of many dogs–I can’t seem to shake it. I also don’t take her hiking in the woods anymore, and I pick her up and hold her if any large dog is near. I don’t like being afraid, but the feeling persists. Even reading back through this story is traumatic for me. I’ll never forget a couple of weeks after the attack, I was telling a few writer friends what happened. One person blinked her eyes, looked at me and said, “My daughter has a pit bull and she LOVES it. It’s a great dog!” I just stared back and didn’t know what to do with that statement. Pit bulls are great…until they aren’t.