Crissy Field by Bernt RostadPhoto of Crissy Field by Bernt Rostad.

Charlie’s ordeal, in a nutshell, was as follows:

  • Charlie was within an off-leash recreation area (Crissy Field, San Francisco) when encountering police horses.
  • Charlie had not encountered horses previous, and was surprised/spooked by them.
  • Charlie chased the horses, and bit the horse twice (causing the officer on the horse to fall off and injure himself)
  • Charlie injured the horse, but did let go (which is good, often during such attacks a characteristic is to hold on)
  • It was Charlie’s first incident.
  • Charlie chased the horse, and then the horse kicked him and he retreated
  • Charlie has been sentenced to death.

For further details, please see these following news stories:

Charlie’s first mistake was a big one, mind you, but it was still his first mistake and one for which he has been sentenced to death. Often such mistakes are learning experiences responsible dog guardians can take into account for future management. However, Charlie is not being given the option to have a future at all, and in my opinion this is not fair. Particularly considering he is not necessarily a menace to society, and there are management options available to make this incident avoidable in the future (namely: leashes, muzzles, and banning off-leash activities).

Note: I heard second hand on an email list from someone who spoke with Charlie’s owner that he was willing to place any restriction on Charlie in order to allow him to live.

With tragedies like these, the question of voice control, and what that really is, needs to be considered. Charlie was in an off-leash recreation area, one in which voice control is required. But, what is voice control, and what can really be expected of dogs who have this skill? It is important to understand that voice control is never 100%. Ever. You are dealing with domesticated animals, but training can only go so far in the face of excitement, panic, high-arousal, and prey drive. You can train for maybe 90% recall, maybe 95%, but unpredictable life (being a dog, human, or horse) gets in the way of that remaining 5-10%. That’s the risk we all accept living in this uncertain world.

This is not permission for dogs to run wild. Dog guardians, for the safety of themselves and others (other dogs, wildlife, etc), are responsible to do recall training to “have voice control” (humans also being “trained” in what that means, and then practicing with their dogs first on long-line, then in low-key off-leash areas or off-hours, and then ramping up to higher traffic areas/times). Dogs and their humans should then regularly practice recall every time they go to an off-leash recreation area. Some of that final training, practice, and refresher work must be in real life, and actually off-leash. Therefore, some dogs in the off-leash area will not be as dependable as others. Again, final training and practice should not be used as an excuse for poor behavior but it’s acceptable (to me) that the odd accident will occur.

Going into an off-leash recreation area (as a human, dog, on a horse) means you accept some unknowns – you will have dogs still in final training, you will encounter a variety of new dogs amongst familiar faces, and you have to be ready for horses and other types of animals, distractions, or events. Such as kite-boarders or parachutes! Those look incredibly odd to dogs, but they are in our off-leash areas too. Sharing these recreational areas requires everyone to be aware of varying levels of dependability of all dogs. I do believe the court system should be understanding of this aspect of “life”, that even with proper voice control it is never 100%. Especially with horses or when a dog is spooked or in panic mode – training goes out the window at that point, for any dog.

My response, emailed to officer John Denny who ran the hearing at dog court, is as follows:

Even with proper voice control, there are extraneous circumstances we as guardians cannot plan or train for. We are absolutely responsible to train reliable recalls in every scenario we can (return and stay away from children, people, other dogs and animals, cars, etc) to say that we have voice control. If a dog gets spooked or whatever they get into their heads for good reason, or even unknown reasons, they sometimes cannot act predictably in whatever form of training they have had. I reckon also true of people and horses. I’ve learnt from some of the best dog trainers and behaviorists in the country that even the best voice control is never 100% because of this. Panic and fear or any other form of extreme adrenaline, for example, can quickly and easily override extremely dependable recalls and would never in my opinion be outside of what is required for voice control. Yes, these are edge cases but they should be accounted for in the decision making for cases like these. I do believe that dog guardians should accept the repercussions of having a dog and take responsibility for potentially undesirable actions of their dogs – but this understanding should go both ways when the judgement is made, especially when death is on the table. For a dog to be executed for a first-time incident, especially one that did not cause major injury like death and might never be repeated, does not seem just or called for.

For example, when my adopted dog first encountered horses (on Ocean Beach during the season the entire length is off-leash) I leashed her up and walked her almost a mile before unleashing her. She had absolutely no reaction at first, and no reaction for over half an hour upon seeing, passing, smelling (the horses and their hoof tracks), and we were walking in the opposite direction of the horses. Because she did not react and we were so far past the horses, I felt it was fine to unleash her again. We walked a bit further, and then her head shot up suddenly (“I remember those!”) and she took off after them – her training disappeared too. I lucked out and she merely ran a circle around them, woofed one woof, and returned back to me – but what if she hadn’t just woofed? I feel we were responsible in spending 45 minutes evaluating her non-reaction, but what if this herding dog nipped the horses? Or worse? It is unfathomable to me to think she could be killed for that, and I feel we were pretty responsible evaluating her for that long.

After living in San Francisco for 7 years, and active in the dog community and utilizing designated off-leash recreation areas, I am extremely saddened to hear about this judgement. I’ve trained very reliable recalls in both of my dogs, but there are extremely rare cases that you cannot predict nor even have the opportunity or resource to train for as outlined above. It terrifies me that were I to experience something unpredictable that couldn’t be trained against, it may mean the city could potentially kill my companions for a first infraction. For panic, spooking, the first time someone sees prey drive in their dog, or whatever life throws at a dog — he should not be executed for this, but instead be given a much less extreme punishment (leash at all times, muzzle, or similar).

I hope this will be taken into consideration.

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About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.