Content warning: Some readers may find the details disturbing.
June 17, 2017. It’s a wet, rainy morning in Yellowknife and Michael Barkhouse is gathering some items before heading to his worksite.
Normally he’d already be on the job, so his routine was a bit off-kilter.
Wanting to see the dogs at the SPCA, he swung by on his way, something he often did.
He looks through the fenced kennel at the SPCA and sees a woman on the ground in front of a black and white dog. At first, he thinks they’re playing, but then he hears her scream.
He gets on his phone and tells his workmates to call the police and ambulance right away — he can’t stay on the phone. He’s heading in.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen here, just get somebody on the way,” Barkhouse said.
He can see blood dripping from the dog's mouth and fur.
He pulls his work gloves on.
Looking for something to defend himself with, he checks his truck. Nothing in there, of course.
Without even thinking he grabs a stick, possibly a grade stake — he can’t remember.
He approaches the two-gate entrance into the kennel, jimmies the lever and is inside in seconds.
The dog has a firm grip on the woman’s arm with its teeth like a steel trap; he’s thrashing her around like a rag doll.
Barkhouse approaches the animal, yelling at it to get away. The dog ignores him and continues to bite. Continues to pull. The woman is unconscious.
“He was dragging her, throwing her, and wouldn’t let go,” Barkhouse said. “He noticed I was there but wasn’t letting go.”
With his heavy work boots on he kicks the animal in its side, he thinks he can hear some bones break.
March 26, 2019 - Ottawa
Dressed in a smart, navy blue suit, Barkhouse finds himself inside Rideau Hall in Ottawa, shaking hands with Governor General Julie Payette.
He’s sharing the room with several police officers, being recognized for saving people from a burning condo building in Winnipeg and stopping a couple of young people from drowning in Rawdon, Quebec.
A 10-year-old boy had saved another child’s life.
A father was honoured posthumously for saving his son’s life after he fell through the ice on the Bow River in Calgary.
Barkhouse finds it a little silly to be recognized in this way — he did what anyone else would have done, he hopes.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, I just reacted and did something,” he said. “I feel that she’s the brave one. She’s moving on, she made it through, she’s survived.”
He receives a Decoration of Bravery.
It’s a world away from Yellowknife. No work gear. No hard hats.
In the summer, his company works on water and sewer projects in the capital city as well as mass excavation on a contract basis. In the winter, they work on the ice roads leading to diamond mines.
It’s also a far cry from his home in Bramber, near the Minas Basin, a comfortable and cozy home where he relaxes for two weeks before returning to the work site for six weeks. Six weeks on, two weeks off.
But, the money’s good and when you’re home — you’re home.
“It takes a strong family, a strong woman to be behind you in order to do that,” Barkhouse said. “She’s here a lot by herself. It’s not easy.”
Bramber is his place to relax, take it easy, spend time with his wife and the kids when they come back to visit. He’s lived there for 25 years, originally from Pembroke, just up Highway 215.
The coffee machine churns and gurgles in the kitchen.
Kira, Mike’s dog, a senior, gives a few low barks before returning to his spot in the livingroom on a large, flat bed.
Barkhouse admits he looks at his own dog differently now.
June 17, 2017 - Yellowknife
Even after he kicked the dog a couple of times, likely breaking some ribs, it wasn’t letting go of the woman.
He continued to pummel the animal with his feet - still nothing.
“I hit him in the back of the head with my fist,” he said. “And he turned and came at me at that point.”
Barkhouse managed to get between the dog and the woman, still lying on the ground unconscious.
The dog is circling, Barkhouse maintains his stance between the dog and her.
“He made another lunge and I got him again with my boot in the side of the head. He fell over, backed up and it was like I gained control over him or something.”
The dog’s attitude, behaviour changed. Barkhouse yelled at him to ‘get back!’
“It was almost like the dog came back, and he knew he had done something wrong,” he said.
He lifted up the woman and brought her to the gate, shut the door behind him, and as soon as he did that the dog lunged again, biting at the fence.
The woman came to just as that happened, her face right at the fence.
“When she opened her eyes, that’s what she saw.”
The ambulance sirens get closer.
March 28, 2019 - Bramber
Back in Bramber following the medal ceremony, Barkhouse reflects on what happened after the horrific attack.
A day or two later, Barkhouse didn’t even know if the injured woman would make it.
He went to the hospital a couple of hours after she was taken away by ambulance, staying most of the afternoon, not even knowing that she was flown to Edmonton due to the severity of her injuries.
Somehow, the dog never touched him.
“The first thing that came to my mind was I have a 21-year-old daughter and if that was my daughter, I’d want somebody to do something for them,” he said. “I knew I had to get in there and help her.”
He took one day off work and was back on the job the next day. He needed to get back to work, going home then would only have made things worse.
“In my mind, before this, I thought I’d want to adopt one of those dogs from that SPCA, bring them home with me when I was done working for good,” he said. “After this? Probably not.”
Barkhouse later learned that the outdoor kennel, where the attack happened, is where they put the more aggressive animals, to separate them from the other dogs.
He was surprised the dog wasn’t put down sooner.
The dog, named Popeye, was a two-year-old husky mix. It was killed two days after the incident. Before the attack, it was listed for adoption.
Barkhouse had never come face-to-face with something like this before.
Since the attack, he has reached out to the woman a couple of times, and they talked over the phone, but haven’t connected face-to-face.
He didn’t want to identify the woman to protect her privacy but did say that she had a long recovery and has since moved to a different community. At the time of the attack, she was an employee of the SPCA.
“She thanked me for saving her life because the doctors told her that a few more seconds and things might have been different,” he said. “She had open injuries on her arms, thigh, and more. I applied pressure to try to stop the bleeding.”
According to reporting from CBC North, no charges were laid following the attack and mandatory training for handling animals for staff and volunteers was enhanced.
But for Barkhouse, the events of that morning will stay with him for a long time.
He said he likely has post-traumatic stress disorder for the incident; it’s impacted his sleeping. Sometimes he sleepwalks. Loud noises or screams can put him on edge.
“I will never forget the sound.”