San Diego His name is "Scat." Sounds like the name for an annoying cat, but Scat is a dual champion Shetland sheepdog. Not only was he deemed worthy of the title as a representation of his breed, he proved himself worthy of the distinction in obedience trials as well. His partner and trainer is North Park resident JoAnne Griffin, who owns the Camera One Canine Actors dog talent agency. From a storefront office on 30th and North Park Way, where she also teaches obedience and trick-training classes, Griffin holds auditions, screens talent, stores photos and bios, and arranges a variety of jobs - from commercials and live appearances to movies and television - for her dozens of canine clients. Scat himself has worked as a feature actor in a TV ad for Cox Cable. Scat, at eight years old, should be in the prime of his career. But Scat's future is uncertain, in all likelihood his ability to compete or work in the entertainment industry prematurely taken away. Last February as Scat and Griffin worked in Morley Field, gearing up for the American Shetland Sheepdog Association's yearly national specialty show, Scat was ripped from his partner's arms by a marauding rottweiler. As he was twirled and shaken in the rottweiler's mouth, Scat's hip was dislocated, and the muscles of his abdomen and one flank were shredded.
In a pilot project, San Diego designated several areas in Balboa Park as sites where dogs are allowed to run free. One of these "leash optional" locations is a back-lot section of Morley Field, off Upas Street between the tennis courts and Florida Canyon. Other areas include a plot of grass west of Laurel Street and the west end of Grape Street beside the golf course. Before allowing unrestrained dogs in these sections of Balboa Park, the only places in the city where dogs were allowed to be off a six-foot lead were flea havens in the sand: "dog beach" beside the Ocean Beach jetty and Fiesta Island. San Diego seems unique in affording dog owners leash-free areas in Balboa Park, considering some North County cities don't allow dogs in parks, period. Dog trainers, however, have not welcomed the "leash optional" parcels with perfect relief. Many are hesitant to attempt to train in these areas. Most trainers have been disturbed by an off-leash dog being exercised by its (usually) well-intentioned owner. Such dogs may approach the trainer's dog either playfully or threateningly. The dog being trained is expected to ignore this type of distraction, but it can be unfair to expect attention to task when the trained dog may feel endangered. The loose dog, who is interrupting the trainer's work, ignores its owner's desperate calls to return. Worse, some owners think it's "cute" that their undisciplined dog is either seeking a playmate or expressing aggressive dominance.
Professional trainer Griffin usually drills her dogs on their routines in her storefront training center without disturbance. It is necessary, however, to help dogs who must perform in distracting locations to become accustomed to ignoring all manner of interruptions, from pungent hamburger booths to other dogs playing in an adjacent ring. So Griffin was in the practice of bringing her dogs to Morley Field once or twice a week. She trained weekdays in the mornings and presumed, usually correctly, that loose dogs would not be present in significant number at that time. Otherwise, she used to welcome distractions near her training area, as natural disturbances help her instruct and remind her dogs to pay sole attention to her.
But as demands at her canine talent agency grew, Griffin began training at Morley Field on weekends as well. On a February Sunday afternoon around one o'clock, Griffin was set up in the leash-free zone southwest of the Morley Field tennis courts. The area she needs to train is not much more than 40 by 50 feet, the size of a dog show ring. The parcel of leash-free lawn at Morley Field is considerably larger.
Griffin and Scat became aware of a loose rottweiler. Dogs read canine body language like neon signs, and Griffin is experienced enough that she recognized the danger signs of aggression in the rigid posture of the approaching male dog. With male dogs the concern for trainers is often that the visiting dog is going to want to urinate on the trainer's jumps. But it became apparent that urination was going to be the least of Griffin's worries. The rottweiler was interested in Scat himself. To remove her dog from the rottweiler's temptation, Griffin gave Scat his command to jump into her arms. Ordinarily this would defuse the problem as most domestic dogs have learned a healthy respect for human beings and won't try to assert their dominance against anything except another dog.
Unfortunately on this day in this situation with this dog, the menace was not diffused. Instead it accelerated. The 70- to 80-pound rottweiler lunged to tear 25-pound Scat from Griffin's arms. She turned her back, and the force of the charging rottweiler pushed her to her knees. Struggling to her feet again, still clutching her dog to her chest, Griffin was still under attack by the massive rottweiler. He was bearing down on Griffin's back, growling directly into her ear. In fact, Griffin's neck was the only barrier between the assaulting rottweiler and his intended quarry. Griffin has been training dogs since she was a teenager; before that she trained for and rode her pony in shows. This was the first time in her life Griffin had been in fear of an animal.
Somehow the rottweiler succeeded in extracting Scat from Griffin's embrace. With the rottweiler's jaws clenched on one of Scat's thighs, the smaller dog was shaken and thrashed like prey. The quiet of Sunday morning at Morley Field was shattered not just by the thunder of a dogfight, but by the screams of the smaller dog being tossed and torn. Griffin managed to straddle the rottweiler and pull him off her dog. After dragging the rottweiler away from her writhing, injured sheltie, Griffin handed the rottweiler's collar to his owner who had, by this time, joined the fray. As she began to tend to Scat, however, the rottweiler broke away from his owner and resumed his attack on both Griffin and her dog. Griffin received a full, uninhibited bite on her shin - two canine-tooth rake-wounds three inches long that will permanently scar.