Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Walking the Dog Terror

Everyone who walks a dog in Hudson has probably at one time or another been subject to some level of verbal abuse--from people who hate dogs, are afraid of dogs, or are just full of anger and think they can dump their rage on you and have it pass for righteous indignation. In eleven years of walking William (at left) in Hudson, I’ve been falsely accused many times of letting him poop on someone’s lawn, but this story, shared by a Gossips reader and fellow dog walker, is just plain scary--because the abuse didn’t stop with verbal abuse.

I share it with you as it was submitted to me, so that those of you who walk in Hudson--with or without dogs--can be aware of this situation and avoid it. Discretion is, after all, the better part of valor.

At about 10:45 a.m. on Saturday, May 1, my wife and I were attacked by a man on the 500 block of Union Street. He falsely accused us of letting our dog poop on his front yard; screamed at me and pushed me in the chest; screamed at my wife and threatened to assault her too; and then, as we tried to flee, hit me so hard in the back that I was launched off the sidewalk and fell sprawling, face-first into the street.

There’s much to say about the injuries I sustained. And the rapid response of the Hudson police department. And how our dog reacted to all of this. But first, some detail about the incident itself.

My relevant memories begin 25 minutes earlier. Walking our dog up Warren Street at around 10:20 a.m., we were dismayed to see how much dog poop was on the sidewalk. There’s no doubt that Hudson has a problem with scofflaw dog owners who, whether out of laziness or ignorance, refuse to curb their dogs. The threat of a $50 fine is clearly an insufficient deterrent. And while Hudson is nowhere near as bad as New York City in the 1970s--I remember skipping through the minefield that was Central Park in those days--it’s a problem that is clearly getting worse.

My wife and I are enthusiastic curbers. We use special biodegradable poop bags that we ordered on the Internet. Sometimes I tie these electric-green bags to the leash for all to see. These badges of virtue send a clear signal: listen folks, I will scoop my dog’s poop. We care about Hudson and are actively involved in our community. Curbing our dog is more than an act of legal compliance for us; it’s a matter of pride.

Anyway, we finished our chores on Warren Street at around 10:40 a.m., cut over to Union Street on 6th Street, and began our fateful walk down the 500 block of Union Street.

About three-quarters of the way down the block, our progress was interrupted by the loud bellow of someone behind us shouting, “Hey man! Hey man!” I looked behind me to see a man getting out of a car farther up (east) the street. As I had no business with anyone on that block, I assumed he was shouting at one of the other pedestrians on the block at that moment (there was at least one other).

I turned to continue on our journey, but my wife didn’t move. Characteristically more observant than me, she realized this loud person was shouting at us. The man continued his shouting and walked quickly towards us. I noticed two things: first, he was tall, maybe 250 pounds, and muscular. I had never seen him before; I didn’t (and still don’t) know his name; I didn’t (and still don’t) know where he lives. He had a bright green shirt on, almost as electric as the cherished poop bag that was still in my pocket, crumpled and unused.

Second, he was an “active talker,” by which I mean that he punctuated his shouted words with athletic, aggressive shoulder-jerks and fist-jabs.

Even though I held the dog’s leash, he went after my wife first. That’s not too surprising. Bullies generally choose physically smaller victims. He screamed something about how the “dog was shitting on my lawn!” and how “I’m sick of this!” and “keep your dog out of my yard!” He subjected her to that for about 5 seconds.

And then he left her--we were both standing petrified and confused, about 8 to 10 feet apart--and then went after me. He came very close and screamed his accusations directly into my face, emphasizing each word with jabbing motions with his fists (not raised, I should emphasize, but to his sides). He screamed at me for a terrifying 20 seconds, during which time I vainly attempted communication, saying “My dog didn’t do that” several times. But I don’t think he was interested in dialogue. The screaming continued and he moved even closer, so I put up my left hand defensively to my own chest, palm outward, and said “Wait, just calm down.” His huge barrel chest was heaving so close to me at this point, that his chest and my hand touched (a soft cotton T-shirt, I recall. Pretty high quality, I think. Funny what you remember.)

Asking him to calm down only made him more furious. His gesticulations became more violent. To the false accusation about the dog was added another one--that I had “raised a hand” to him. He rushed at me and shoved me pretty hard in the chest, sending me stumbling backwards a few paces.

The most terrifying part came next. He went back to my wife. I saw what ensued in profile, and it’s an image I will not soon forget: a seething attacker looming above my wife, screaming down at her and now punctuating his words with raised hands, jabbing finger-points menacingly towards her face. And I won’t forget the words: “I’m going to kick his ass [jabbing a finger towards me] and then I’m going to get my 13-year-old daughter to kick your ass!” The latter threat was directed, with more menacing finger-pointing, towards my wife, who was standing motionless and terrified. Tears were streaming down her face.

Fearing that he was about to hit her--after all, he had just hit me--I situated myself between them and tried to tell him “not to talk to my wife that way.” But he wasn’t done. The screaming and gesticulations, now directed at both of us, continued for another 10 to 15 seconds. He never paused to listen to anything we had to say. Reunited with my wife, knowing that physical self-defense was not an option and realizing that dialogue was impossible, we tried to flee. I handed the leash to my wife and told her to get away. She stepped off the curb with our dog and the two of them started crossing the street.

I turned to follow. I did not see what happened next, but I felt it. Something made an impact powerfully against the middle of my back; the impact flung me off the curb, face-first, into the street, where I landed between two parked cars. I looked back and saw the man being restrained by--I believe--his own daughter and perhaps one other bystander. My “flight” instinct had already been triggered, so I dusted myself off, and we walked quickly home.

It turns out that one of key legal differences in New York State between an assault (potentially a felony) and harassment (a violation, little more serious than a traffic ticket and punishable by a fine) is the extent of injuries caused to the victim. Mine were so minor that I did not seek medical treatment. Later that afternoon, I saw two red welts on my back, evidence of a cowardly and childish gesture--he hit me in the back as I turned to leave, either with his fists or open palms. I sustained a sore neck, a bruise on my shoulder, two cuts on my right hand, and a mildly traumatized psyche that kept me up for several sleepless nights thereafter. I was lucky. These injuries could have been far more serious.

This whole incident was observed by three adult witnesses: my wife and two bystanders. One of the bystanders, I believe, tried to restrain the attacker; the other neighbor called 911. The police responded quickly, but when they arrived, no one was left at the scene except for the attacker. The police took his statement then and mine a few minutes later; my wife was interviewed by another responding detective.

So, now we get to the obvious question. Why wasn’t the assailant charged with anything? This whole incident has been an education for me. I’ve learned three things.

First, when a bully assaults you without provocation, in broad daylight, in front of several witnesses, don’t dust yourself off and leave the scene. Sure, no one likes playing the 90-pound weakling to a mountain of muscle, but resist the temptation to pretend that you’re all right. Stay on the ground and allow yourself to be interviewed by the police and tended to by EMTs. You’re probably more seriously injured than you realize.

Second, if you want to press charges, don’t wait. Unless you’re lying bloodied and prone where you fell, it probably won’t be considered an assault. And unless you’re willing to make a complaint right away, a prosecutor may not be interested in interviewing any witnesses or pressing any charges at all.

I’m not complaining about the Hudson police. All in all, I found them to be about as responsive and sympathetic as an overworked urban police force can possibly be. Ex post facto harassment complaints are just not at the top of their priority list. I can understand that. If you want to put yourself at the top of their priority list, do what I didn’t do and file a complaint--immediately, and at the scene of the crime.

Third, I’ve learned that the single most powerful weapon that we can use in Hudson to defend ourselves is the cell phone. 911 response times are fast in a city of only two square miles. If you’re verbally assaulted by someone who is trying to alarm, intimidate, and/or threaten you with bodily harm, call 911 right away.

Finally, to answer the question that I’m sure you’re curious about: no, our dog left no poop on anyone’s yard that morning. None of her activities--which included trotting along good-naturedly and sniffing various spots of grass looking for Lord knows what--were out of the ordinary or in any way injurious to public health or safety.

Our attacker was clearly angry about something he thought he saw. Did our dog walk a couple of steps on his sidewalk or yard? Was he attacking us on Saturday for something he thought he saw earlier? Was this a case of mistaken identity? We honestly have no idea. If he had spoken to us rationally, I’m sure we could have worked it out.

And ironically, while our assailant snarled at innocent pedestrians, our smallish dog was the picture of calm and serenity. She did absolutely nothing during the attack. Not even a bark! It’s official, we have the world’s worst guard dog. Good thing, too. Had she tried to defend us, the man’s violent rage would surely have been directed at her.

So, it could have been worse. Ultimately, I’m most grateful that my wife was not injured. Her safety is my biggest priority and anxiety. I shudder to think what would have happened to her if I had not been there; or if it was nighttime; or if there were no witnesses. I’m also concerned about other bullies lurking in other neighborhoods in this city. I doubt that our attacker is the only wounded, unstable man in Hudson who is angry about perceived injustices and is ready to lash out at a woman, even if it means doing so in public.

I’m not sure what lessons to take from all of this, besides avoiding the 500 block of Union Street for a while. Perhaps other dog owners have similar experiences. Perhaps this was an isolated incident or part of a more generalized problem. Perhaps it could start a dialogue to keep our city safer. I don’t know. I’m just grateful that we all walked away relatively unscathed.

Many thanks to Gossips of Rivertown for the opportunity to share my story pseudonymously.

--Sotto Voce, a resident of Hudson


  1. I really wish this was not anonymous, as it reads as so extreme as to be hard to believe. It almost sounds like an urban legend sort of thing. If true, the bully really should be prosecuted, this is not acceptable. But we will all keep an eye out for a 250 pound tall bully on the 500 block of Union St!

  2. Tom--The person to whom this happened wanted to protect his identity, and I agreed to that. I, of course, know who he is and can assure you that he is a very credible reporter of his own bad experience.

  3. P.S.: Had this not been the case, I wouldn't have agreed to publish it.

  4. Gruesome & very tragic.Can this info be broadcast to a wider base of people? It should be.

  5. What a terrifying story!

    Now I always carry a cell phone. In Hudson, I carry a can of pepper spray too.

    Last week I was accosted by the same staffordshire terrier-and-owner that I had officially complained about a year ago. At that time the officer merely instructed the other fellow to leash his dog. The officer added privately that I might avoid the other man if I saw him out with his dog. After then I pretty much stopped walking at my favorite place, around the landfill at the old fabric (button-) factory.

    But since then there have been repeated incidents with this affluent bully and his unleashed 4-year old, mostly at the waterfront park. My 12-year old, defenseless dog is always leashed, which is an unfair situation for a dog. Each time I left the scene to avoid problems.

    Last month the staffordshire was off-leash again, and still out of the owner's control (who was not even in sight), circling us energetically but growing increasingly aggressive, which is the dog's manner.

    Last week, another incident with the same unleashed staffordshire.

    I phoned the police, then waited at some distance. After 10 minutes a squad car appeared and the dog was still, visibly unleashed. I explained the situation to the officer, and referred to the last year's officer by name. I told him that I required that the man be fined, with no excuses.

    In retrospect - now that I more fully comprehend that the other dog owner is a bully - I wish that he had been fined from the first. The mistake I won't let myself make again is neglecting an initial incident. For now on, no second chances either. I recommend that everyone phone the police immediately, at the very least for statistical purposes.

    But about the HPD, you have to be persistent. In our effort to get another owner of an unleashed dog ticketed after we were viciously attacked on Cross Street, one HPD actively discouraged us every step of the way from pursuing the matter. We persisted, and spent an hour at the station filling out a complaint. A week later we were told that we would have to come down and do it all again; it seemed that the officer had filled in the wrong time of day on the form. So we went down and did it all over again.

    Two years ago I was bitten while on the Promenade by an unleashed dog. Then I was yelled at by the dog's owner: it was my fault. I immediately phoned the HPD and was asked by the dispatcher if I was sure that Hudson had a leash law!

  6. "I really wish this was not anonymous, as it reads as so extreme as to be hard to believe. It almost sounds like an urban legend sort of thing. If true ... "

    Tom, you're a great believer in the better side of human nature, but the author of the story above describes a reality of Hudson that we ignore at our peril.

    T. O'Connor

  7. Blogger was being annoyingly uncooperative when First Ward Alderman Sarah Sterling tried to post a comment, so I'm posting it for her:

    "As a member of the Common Council and a resident of Hudson I urge you to press charges against this person. This is the same situation as a rape where the victim is too humiliated and doesn't want to go through the hassle. The next time could be worse. I'm sure this is not the first time this person has been abusive. I simply don't buy the argument that our "overworked urban police force" isn't up to doing their job. OVER HALF of your tax dollars are going to the police department. I urge you and all dog owners and lovers to come to the police committee meeting on May 24th and discuss the situation. Yes, there is a poop problem with owners that let their dogs run loose, but let's not blame the victim.
    The fine can be raised and solutions can be found and the committee meeting is a good place for open dialogue with the police department.

    "There is also a policeman/woman assigned to each ward so it's a good idea to find out who has your back."

  8. Hi Sarah,

    I share your concern about potential future victims. But the problem is that while the crime of rape is a felony, harassment in the 3rd degree is not even a misdemeanor in New York State. It's a code violation, involving a fine and no jail time. Just as traffic tickets rarely deter speeders, a fine is not enough to deter behavior. But it is enough to make an angry man angrier.

    The moment to charge the individual with assault (a more serious offense that could entail behavior-changing consequences, including jail time) was at the scene of the crime. Which, silly me, I walked away from.

    I had a good conversation with a sympathetic police officer who I trust. He said that the individual in question was known to the police, but had never been arrested for any violent offense. He also encouraged us to call 911 and make a complaint should we be harassed again. That promise--combined with a one-year window to file a harassment charge related to the incidents of May 1--is a satisfactory measure of protection for me.

    So, we agree. I should have made a complaint. That's a mistake that won't happen again. I would encourage others not to make it either.

    As for blaming the victim: I am most certainly not blaming myself for being attacked! The responsibility for the attack falls on him. However, nothing occurs in a vacuum. I suspect that irresponsible dog owners in Hudson (of which I am not one) have contributed to an environment of hostility in which such outbursts are more likely to occur. I can't exactly prove that contention, but it's a fair guess.

    Thanks for the invitation to the police committee meeting. However, I'm not sure if we've identified that problem that we're talking about: is it how the police respond to harassment complaints? or to dangerously unleashed dogs? or to dog owners who don't scoop? I suppose we're trying to gauge the extent to which these issues are related, and if they are, just exactly what it is that we want the police to do about it.

    I'd rather figure those things out first than just show up and make generic complaints, if that makes any sense.

    Anyway, thanks to all for the supportive comments, and again, to GossipsofRivertown for providing the forum.

    - Sotto Voce

  9. It sounds like this person has some other problems aside from dog poop. Since we are on the topic, lazy dog owners are a problem, dog poop is also a health hazard as it can carry disease like roundworm that can infect humans with little symptoms but can eventually mess up your brain. No one should be allowed to use violence or threats of violence on anyone, and should be dealt with, but the police should also patrol and enforce fines for lack of clean up after dogs. Some areas, like cherry alley below 1st street, are seen as a local toilet by dog owners, a no scoop zone so to speak.

    Tim Slowinski

  10. Sotto Voce writes:

    "I suppose we're trying to gauge the extent to which these issues are related, and if they are, just exactly what it is that we want the police to do about it. I'd rather figure those things out first than just show up [at the police committee meeting] and make generic complaints, if that makes any sense."

    Our thinking exactly. I'd even say that this makes so much sense that some of us have long since despaired of anything practical coming out of these meetings anyway.

    T. O'Connor

  11. I believe Sotto Voce's story, but in defense of Union Street, I'd like to say that for the four years I've lived in Hudson I have walked my dog (and religiously cleaned up after her) on Union Street between Worth Avenue and Courthouse Square at least twice a week. And we always have a good time. We chat with friends, greet neighbors, nod to strangers. I don't think this madman lives on Union Street; I think he happened upon this innocent pack of three and something inside him triggered this insane attack. I'll take the advice to heart, however, and start carrying my cell phone, turned on, when I walk Lulu, and know that if anything happens, to report it right away.