A pit bull attack on her dog at Dewey Dog Park lasted only a minute, but it left Izzy Diamond shaken.
“It could have been a child,” she said of the target of the pit bull’s ire.
Diamond and her border collie-blue heeler mix, Poppy, had just arrived at the midtown dog park on Jan. 3 when the attack occurred. Poppy is wary of other dogs, which is one reason Diamond made weekly trips to dog parks — so that her dog could get used to other canines.
On this Sunday afternoon, a pit bull came over to sniff Poppy, who reacted by raising her hackles, Diamond said. Dog trainers say that raised hackles, in which the hair on the back of a dog’s neck goes up, are not an unusual response when one dog meets another and that normally, the hackles go down after a little sniffing.
But the pit bull reacted by attacking Poppy, Diamond said.
“There wasn’t a whole lot we could do,” she said. “It was really relentless and extremely scary. I’ve never heard Poppy cry out and bark in pain so much.”
The attack underscores the problems that can occur at dog parks, which have become popular with urban dog owners. Omaha has four dog parks of varying sizes: Dewey, Hanscom, Hefflinger and Miller. Dewey is located along Turner Boulevard near Harney Street.
The parks typically have two fenced-in areas, one for small dogs and one for larger ones. Diamond said there were about a dozen people with their dogs in the large dog enclosure when she and Poppy went in. According to the city, the large dog enclosure is about 10,000 square feet.
The Nebraska Humane Society suggests that dog owners understand the risks and their own dog before going to a dog park.
“Make sure you are aware of the risks before you go in,” said Kelli Brown, director of field operations at the Humane Society. “This kind of thing can happen with any breed of dog.”
Given that dogs are pack animals, owners can expect that alpha dogs will try to establish a hierarchy, she said.
“When dogs are in large groups, (an alpha dog) will need to show its dominance,” she said. “If another dog doesn’t care for that, it becomes a fight right off the bat. We do see a lot of that at dog parks.”
Neither the Humane Society nor the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department tracks incidents at dog parks.
“For the most part, owners have been pretty responsible,” Brown said. “We don’t get too many complaints on people being irresponsible. Most of the times, it’s someone with a newer dog, and they don’t know what to expect.”
In Omaha, city ordinance requires that pit bulls and similar breeds be muzzled in public, Brown said. The muzzle ordinance also applies to the Staffordshire terrier, American bulldog, cane corso, dogo Argentino and perro de presa Canario.
One caveat is that the breed must be the dominant characteristic of the dog, Brown said. Dogs can also go unmuzzled if they undergo special training and wear an identifying collar.
Brown said most complaints about unmuzzled dogs prove unenforceable because the dog doesn’t have a pure enough pedigree to qualify.
Diamond said that the ordinance was news to her and that most pit bulls she’s seen at dog parks aren’t wearing muzzles.
While the entrances to Omaha dog parks include a long list of rules, there’s no sign notifying owners that certain breeds must be muzzled.
The city reviews its operations every year, and dog park rules are part of that review, said Parks Director Matt Kalcevich. For now, there are no plans to post a sign about muzzles, he said.
“I think we’ve done a nice job of setting up basic safety parameters,” he said. “Even if you list every rule in the world, sometimes things happen.”
Dog parks, like other community spaces, are intended to be self-policing, he said.
“People seem to be enjoying the facilities as designed the majority of the time,” he said. “We get more positive comments than negative; that’s always a good sign that what we’ve put together is working well.”
The fight at Dewey Dog Park ended when Poppy was able to break free and take shelter under a bench, Diamond said. The attack left Poppy, 5 years old, with numerous puncture and bite wounds around her head and neck. Poppy has mostly healed, Diamond said, but the veterinarian’s bill was $658. Because Diamond was focused on getting Poppy to safety, she wasn’t able to get information on the pit bull’s owner, so she got stuck with the bill, she said. It has since been paid, in part from donations she said she received through an appeal on social media.
Diamond said it will be a while before she takes Poppy back to the dog park, but she hopes to one day.
“It was fun and relaxing,” she said of her trips there. “It gave me a chance to talk to other people and her something different besides going for a walk. ... It’s important to have your dogs around other dogs.”