Noe Valley Voice March 2001

Big Dogs Ostracized

By Steve Steinberg

It's not easy being the owner of a large dog in Noe Valley these days. You sometimes get the impression that people are avoiding you and your dog, or shrinking in fear when you walk down the street.

Your impression may be correct. Ever since the horrific Jan. 26 incident where two huge Presa Canario dogs attacked and mauled to death Diane Whipple in the corridor of her Pacific Heights apartment building, many people have had a sea change in their attitude toward large dogs.

"People are edgy as hell," says professional dog walker Louis Olds of Fog City Dog Walking. Olds, who sometimes walks as many as six good-size dogs down 24th Street, says that within days of the tragedy, "you could tell that people were freaked out about dogs." He adds that "some even huddle against the wall" when he and his dogs pass by.

Frank, a 24th Street resident who preferred not to give his last name, says he has seen parents clutch their children at the sight of his 4-year-old Weimaraner, Sasha. Before the fatal attack on Whipple, kids used to run up to pet Sasha, he says. Now Frank goes out of his way to be sensitive to people who may be afraid of his dog. "I give people more room; I'll steer my dog closer to the curb."

Frank and some of his dog friends are also trying to preempt negative reactions toward dogs by picking up more poop -- and not just from their own dogs. Still, Frank believes the present attitude toward dogs is temporary. "In another two or three months, this will all be a memory."

Not everyone walking Noe Valley's streets with their dog has felt anxious eyes staring at them.

Dave Devlin, a neighborhood resident who has a 11/2-year-old pit bull mix named Juice, says no one has said anything disapproving about his dog. He also is convinced the public will not become permanently fearful of dogs because of one attack.

"Most people have enough common sense to realize that no matter how much the press plays it up, this was just an isolated incident," says Devlin. As if to confirm his assertion, several people came up to pet Juice as the dog sat tied up outside a 24th Street store.

People may feel fine about Juice, but some Noe Valley merchants, especially those who have dog-related businesses, say that overall, the public's perception of dogs has definitely changed for the worse.

"I feel there's a genuine public hysteria about dogs due to media coverage," says Celia Sack, co-owner of the Noe Valley Pet Company at 1451 Church Street. Sack says people are now more afraid of dogs, even dogs once considered very friendly, like golden retrievers. The fear, Sack maintains, is not justified. "[The fatal mauling] was a unique incident; it has never happened before in San Francisco."

Sack says many of her customers have reported receiving negative remarks about their animals, particularly if the dogs were off-leash. "It's ridiculous," says Sack. "People are now even equating barking with viciousness."

Over at VIP Grooming at 24th and Douglass streets, owner Lancy Woo says the fallout from the Whipple tragedy has made life more difficult for her dog owner customers. "Things are harder in every way, from renting an apartment to just walking your dog," she says.

Woo blames the owners of the Presa Canarios for the attack, not the dogs themselves. "The dogs did not get the training needed to redirect their aggression."

Ironically, says Woo, it is the little dogs who do most of the biting, not the large breeds. "But you don't hear about it." Big dogs with mean-looking faces, such as pit bulls and boxers, often inspire the most fear, Woo says, although the fear is unfounded. "Those are some of the nicest dogs."

Woo says the current situation is also giving additional ammunition to those who would ban off-leash dogs from all city parks.

Across the street from VIP Grooming at Noe Courts -- which in the past has been the focus of intense standoffs between pro- and anti-dog forces--some dog owners hanging out with their pets are feeling increased pressure to curb their animals.

Colt, a 24th Street resident, who has an 11-month-old pit bull named Nikita, says that people with kids often leave the park when they see her dog. She calls their reaction a "media thing," adding that Nikita is "super friendly."

Ken, who lives close to the park at 24th and Hoffman streets, said that someone recently called the police to report that his 12-year-old Weimaraner, Bridget, was off-leash by his house. Ken couldn't believe someone would do that. "She just sits there; she's very docile."

A couple of parents playing with their children on the Noe Courts swings spoke of their increased awareness of dogs. "There is a natural cautiousness, which has been amplified by the [mauling] incident," said Regan Pritzker, a Glen Park resident.

Eric McClellen, a 25th Street parent, said that although the vicious attack on Diane Whipple had made him more conscious of dogs in general, he does not want his kids to be unduly afraid of them. So he is teaching them the proper way to behave around dogs.

According to the San Francisco SPCA, one should never approach or pat a strange dog without first obtaining the owner's consent. Once the owner has given permission, then offer the back of your hand for the dog to sniff.

For more advice on interacting with dogs, see the list accompanying this story.

How to Prevent a Dog Bite

Here are some tips from the U.S. Humane Society that may help you avoid becoming the victim--or the cause--of a dog bite.

* Before petting someone else's dog, ask the owner for permission. After getting permission to pet the dog, let the dog sniff the back of your hand first. Avoid petting or trying to pick up strange dogs.

* When a dog approaches you, stand still and stay quiet. Keep your hands at your sides.

* Always walk your dog on a leash.

* When you are not walking your dog, keep him indoors with you -- or in a fenced yard. Spend time playing and caring for your dog.

* Don't pet or approach a dog while it is eating, sleeping, or guarding something. Pets naturally guard their food, their offspring, and their toys. Dogs also protect their owner and their owner's property--such as their home, yard, or car.

* Don't try to pull a toy, stick, or any other item from a dog's mouth. Avoid playing tug-of-war with dogs. Playing roughly with dogs may teach them to bite, jump, or become aggressive.

* Don't run away from a dog that is chasing you. A dog's natural instinct is to chase and catch someone who is running away. If you stand still, the dog will most likely stop, sniff you, and leave you alone when it realizes you are not a threat. Also, don't chase or tease dogs.

* Don't approach a dog (or any other animal) that is injured. Instead, call a vet or animal control authority.

For more information, visit the web site of the Humane Society of the United States at