Keeping Toby Safe (Plus Shibas, Snakes and Spiders! Oh My!)

Keeping Toby safe is not an easy thing.

Because he insists on doing things that are not safe.

And sometimes, I help that along.

This is a story of how difficult managing reactive dogs can be, because any mistake–and there will always be mistakes–can be dangerous.

Today’s mistake was relatively minor, thankfully.  Though it could have been very very bad.

The first lesson of managing reactive dogs is this:  Always stick to the routine.  A set routine means mistakes are not as easy to make.  Our routine involves making sure doors are always closed and latched, and dog gates are also latched  in place.   It means double checking to make sure we know where all dogs are before letting a dog in or out.  And it means having a schedule.

Toby’s schedule is like this:  he is in his room most of the day.  He goes for a walk most days with me to the mail boxes and a bit beyond.  He is let outside to run around in the yard several times a day.  He has dinner at around 8, and because Toby is a creature of routine too, he likes to go out and poop right after dinner, though he usually doesn’t stay out long (his door is always open when he’s outside, and most of the time, he goes back in his room relatively quickly).  Bel and Oskar go to bed at around 11, Oskar upstairs, and Bel  in Oskar’s big cage in the living room.  Toby comes in then, to spend some quality time with me (which mostly involves him sitting on the back of the sofa watching me read).  He gets to sleep where ever he wants downstairs, and in the morning goes out, then back to his room, before U. leaves for work.

Welcome to my room.

Toby seems content with this schedule.

So today, I broke the routine.  I let Bel and Oskar out, made coffee, heard Toby scratching at the sliding glass door to come in from his room, and thought, why not, even though I never let him in at this time of day.  Today I did.  He settled on the back of the sofa. I had more coffee, got ready for my day.

A few hours later, as I was getting ready to go to work, I thought, well, Oskar’s at the door, and I need to get him and Bel in so I can leave, so I opened the door and let him in.  He ambled in, then froze in the living room.

Because of course, Toby was still in.  I’d forgotten, because that’s not the routine.

Oskar approached Toby on the sofa, and I was right behind him, but before I could intervene, Oskar was sniffing Toby.  I could tell he was anxious:  his ears were forward and his body was stiff, but he wasn’t growling or snarling.  Until Toby went into full Toby cave troll mode:  snarling and snapping.  Then everything happened very quickly.  Did Toby bite Oskar?  I don’t know, but he was close if he didn’t.  I went to grab Oskar’s collar, and Toby jumped off the back of the sofa still snarling, and I did see Oskar bite Toby’s leg.   I grabbed Oskar.  Toby jumped off the sofa.

Then we were stuck.  I was holding a 110 pound Akita who refused to move.  Toby was a safe distance away.  I started to pull Oskar to another room, and yelled at Toby to go in his crate, but of course, the little cave troll would not back down, so instead of going away from us, he came forward again, growling.  Oskar pulled towards Toby, but thankfully, Oskar is biddable and was unsure of the situation; he was looking to me for guidance, so I was able to pull him into the other room.

Toby was holding up one paw and limping.  After a quick examination, though, I found no puncture wounds at all, though there was a bit of saliva on his leg.  Still, Toby was limping and carrying the paw, so I ended up missing my class as I waited to see if he would need a vet visit.  Answer, no.  As soon as I stopped paying attention to him (to check on Oskar who also had no wounds), Toby stopped limping.  He was fine.  He’s just a drama queen, like all Shibas.

In fact, the only one injured was me:  Oskar stepped on my foot and his toenail scratched me deeply enough to draw blood.  And I also seem to be the only one shaken up by this.  Oskar was puzzled, and a bit excited, but calmed down quickly.  Toby seemed totally unfazed by the whole thing, though he did puff out his chest a bit.  He thinks he’s a bad ass.

Ruler of all he surveys

I’m aware this could have been a disaster.  If Bel had come into too.  If Oskar were dog aggressive, or not so soft-mouthed.  (Oskar was clearly warning Toby, not trying to hurt him).   Frankly, it scared the hell out of me, especially because there was no one to blame but myself.  I broke the routine.  And then I forgot.  And I risked my dog’s safety because of it.

But Toby is a hard dog to keep safe.  That’s not making light of my mistakes; it’s just a fact.  Once I had talked to a dog psychic about Toby and Bel (it was interesting, if not my best use of money).  She said she didn’t think Toby would live a long life because he was such a daredevil and always putting himself in dangerous situations.  (She also said Bel would soon find a home with a blonde woman in the mountains.  Well, Bel does–still–live in the mountains, but none of us are blonde).    There is some truth to this.  Toby is fearless*.  In pretty stupid ways.

He always goes for other dogs immediately.  He is always on the offense, and that offense is pretty, well, offensive!  His reaction to another dog is always snarling snapping growling….imagine the Tasmanian Devil cartoon and you have Toby.  (Or a imagine a cave troll–Toby’s favorite thing is to menace other dogs from behind something or from a crate).  He doesn’t care how big the other dog is–he’s going to immediately launch an attack.  He usually won’t bite unless the dog gets too close, as Oskar did, but he sure makes a lot of noise.  And if he manages to avoid a fight, as he did today, he’s usually pretty eager to jump right back in and get it started again.

But it’s not only that.  After the incident today, I took Toby for his walk, because it looked like his leg was ok.  It was.  He pranced and whiffled with excitement, as usual.  But here’s more of his “dangerous” behavior:  every time a car passed, I try to pull him over to the side of the road and get him out of the way.  And every time, he tried to bolt out into the road.  Or he just froze in the middle of the road, and I had to drag him out of the way.  This is not new behavior; he’s always done it.

But today I kept thinking about how much time is spent keeping Toby safe:  keeping him away from the other dogs.  Keeping him away from strange dogs as we go for walks.  Keeping him out of traffic.  And he doesn’t make it easy, you know?  I was cleaning out his room the other day and found a big spider (which I later caught and put outside).  He tries to catch the spiders in his mouth.  Not a good idea, Toby!

This spider was in Toby's room before I caught it and put it outside

When he was a young dog, he used to climb up on the roof, and I finally had to put up a railing on the deck so he couldn’t get up there anymore.   One of his first interactions with an adult dog was him snarling and snapping into the face of an adult Rottie.  Toby was 7 weeks old, and thankfully, the rottie just melted and licked him.  She was charmed.

Toby, you are a daredevil.  But you’ve never had very good judgement.

On a more serious note, I know that the real way to keep Toby safe is not to keep him at all, but to rehome him.  When I talk about the difficulties of managing my reactive pack, I know that it is easiest to rehome the best behaved dog, and Toby would be a wonderful only dog.  He’s smart, and he’s great with people.  He’s sweet (with people) and doesn’t need or demand a lot of attention or exercise.    And of my three, he’s the one that doesn’t get along with the others.  Bel may be crazy, but she and Oskar are mostly fine together.

But…Toby.  I can’t give up my Toby.  Perhaps that’s selfish.  Perhaps I don’t have very good judgement either.

So I’ll keep trying to keep Toby safe.  He won’t cooperate.  But I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, trying to do it better.  Managing dogs that want to kill one another is not easy.  I can’t really recommend it to anyone, though it is possible, if you’re vigilant.  I’ll keep working to keep Toby safe, so I have  many more years of joy and aggravation with him.

And I’ll try to remember this lesson:  never break the routine!

Toby chillin' in his chair

* Toby is not really fearless.  I’m very aware that he is actually a cautious, somewhat fearful dog, who masks his fear of other dogs with instant aggression:  I’m going to get them before they get me!  Many reactive dogs are also fearful dogs.

Bel’s Hunt

This part could probably be called “keeping Bel safe” because this was kind of scary too.  While Bel won this round of Shiba vs. Snake Deathmatch, I don’t like these encounters  because I’m fairly certain Bel doesn’t know the difference between a rattlesnake and a rat snake, and I worry that one day she will try this with a poisonous snake and get bit.  But as is often the case, Bel finds the snakes before I can rescue them.

I had already rescued this particular snake moe than once.  Bel had cornered it a few weeks earlier, but I managed to get her and Oskar in on that day, and the snake went free.  Another day,  U. asked me why scrub jays were gathered down around the propane tank.  Indeed there was a little gang of  jays circling something.  The something was a largish snake (maybe 3 and half feet long?), probably a gopher snake.  They were trying to peck at it, but it kept striking at them and hissing.   The snake was in between the propane tank and the dog’s water….and it was a very hot, dry day, and my theory was it had gone to get some water and found its way home blocked by angry birds.  So I got out the broom, let the snake coil around the handle, and carried it carefully over to a big rock with a hole under it, where I’ve seen this snake before, and let it go.

I like the snakes.  They eat mice and rats, and we can always use that.  They don’t hurt anything.  I felt ok about saving that snake. Twice.

But I couldn’t save it the third time.

I was inside and heard Oskar barking.  His bark was his soft “woof” which he does when he’s either excited or concerned about something.  He does it when Bel has something to eat he doesn’t.  Or when she’s into something:  he did it when she got the cookie container off the counter last week and ate all the dog cookies.  Oskar’s a tatttle-tale.

So I heard his bark, then heard Bel snarl like she does when she is frustrated.  Sometimes that leads to her biting whatever dog is near her, so I ran out to intervene.

She had the snake.

Bel has a snake!

I couldn’t save it:  by the time I got out there, Bel had bit the snake on the neck and was whipping the body around so quickly it was clear she’d already seriously injured it.

Mortally wounded

I wish I could have gotten a video; it’s pretty interesting to see Bel in hunting mode, and this is not the first time I’ve seen her kill a snake.  She goes in for quick sharp bites at the neck, and she leaps back after she bites, out of striking range (not that this poor thing could even strike by the time I saw it).  She does the snake-whip routine, shaking the snake fiercely, then letting it go, so it flew across the yard.  Then she caught it again and carried it over to the driveway.

Bel with snake

Bel bites near the head

She finished off the snake pretty quickly.

Bel has quite a strong prey drive, and is so motivated and fast I think she could have made a good working dog if she didn’t have so many other problems.

And what did Oskar do while all this was going on?  Other than alert me  (“Hey, mom, she’s got something!  Come see!”) Oskar didn’t do a whole lot.  He sniffed the snake once, but he was not at all interested in it.   He does have a prey drive–he took out a family of bunnies earlier this summer–but I think he is (rightly) cautious about the snakes, and he kept his distance.

As for Bel, I let her have her snake for awhile, and then managed to get it away from her when she went for a drink of water.  While I’m sad we lost one of our resident harmless snakes*, it sure was interesting to see Bel in action!

Proud Hunter

In any case, poor snake.  Another warning:  Snakes, stay away from the Shibas!

* I’m not sure what type of snake it was.  From my field guide, it looks to be either a gopher snake or a glossy snake.  I’ve  rescued snakes like this before that did hiss very loudly and strike, which makes me think it was a gopher snake, but this one wasn’t nearly as loud, so I’m not sure if it was the same kind of snake or another kind.  It does look a lot like this gopher snake.  It is probably not a glossy snake, though it looks somewhat like the darker version of this one, as it looks like glossy snakes tend to be nocturnal and also tend to live below 6000 feet (House of the Fox Dogs is near 7200 feet in elevation).