When dogs break the law

It's not all kibble and pats when canines meet humans

Friday, Oct. 16, 2009

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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Employee Laura Durner lets volunteer Stephen Fouche, 12, of Prince George's County pet Rags before they give the dog a bath at the Tri-County Animal Shelter in Hughesville.

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Rob Maguire of Broomes Island holds a picture taken the day after he was attacked by a Staffordshire terrier on April 9 in Dunkirk when he was delivering fuel oil. He received 100 stitches to his face.

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
Nine-year animal warden veteran John Miedzinski of the St. Mary's County Animal Control unit greets a furry friend at a farm in Mechanicsville earlier this month. This dog was friendly, but some canines have clashed with Southern Marylanders all too often.

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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Ibonne Henriquez, office associate at the Tri-County Animal Shelter, takes Duke, a boxer mix, out of his kennel at the shelter in Hughesville last month.

Too shocked to immediately react, Rob Maguire only started mopping the blood from his face after someone pointed out his injury.

Seconds before, the heating oil deliveryman had been attacked by the dog of a Dunkirk customer.

Maguire had delivered to the home before without any problem; he didn't even know a dog lived there. But last spring, as he was handing a receipt to a resident, a 2-year-old pit bull mix ran through the home's front door, hurled itself at Maguire and tore at his face. The deliveryman needed more than 100 stitches to repair gashes to his upper and lower lips.

While working as a deliveryman for 10 years, Maguire has been chased and barked at by dogs. But this was the first time he was bitten. The experience left him nervous and hesitant to approach large canines.

"Now when I hear a dog, I stop and try to assess the situation. I'm a little more defensive now," Maguire said.

Most of the time, dogs are the friends who never fail to greet you at the door and are always up for a game of Frisbee. But on the flip side, canines can sometimes turn vicious and attack other dogs or even people.

Other times, it's the people who are the problem. Fear of a large breed or a boil-over with the people next door can result in bitter, dog-related arguments.

All kinds of heated confrontations can erupt involving dogs and humans, polarizing neighborhoods and species alike.

Out of the blue

On April 9, Maguire was on the front porch in the Apple Green neighborhood when a dog dashed out of the home and leaped at him, tearing at his face.

The home had a split foyer, and the American Staffordshire terrier, weighing in at 56 pounds, was able to get a running start up the stairs before hurling himself at Maguire.

"It was already airborne when it hit me," said Maguire of Broomes Island.

In shock after the attack, which was over very quickly, the resident and Maguire were frozen in place for a few seconds. A woman came from the home and held the dog down as Maguire discovered he had been injured.

"I put the cuff of my sleeve to my face and saw I was bleeding profusely," Maguire said.

Maguire said it took two and a half hours to stitch up the wounds to his lips, and he had to take 10 days off from work to recover.

The county put the terrier on a dangerous dog list, and its owners can no longer walk it without using a muzzle, according to Maguire. He said animal control workers handled the situation well, except that they at first ruled he had provoked the attack because he was a stranger and on the dog's property.

"It was a scheduled delivery," Maguire said. "So we had that overturned, and that kind of left a bad taste in my mouth."

The dog's owners didn't return calls seeking comment.

Trying to make peace

Making the big decisions about people's pets is no easy task.

In Charles County, an animal control board has the responsibility of deciding whether a dog is dangerous or not. Under the law, a dog that has wounded someone without provocation or injured or killed a pet without provocation could be considered vicious and dangerous. An animal that was used for fighting could also fall into the category, according to the code.

If someone were injured while trespassing or were being abusive to the animal, the dog may not be ruled dangerous, the rules state.

Meeting twice monthly, the board of nine members not only conducts hearings involving animal control citations but also listens to disputes between neighbors.

But the board's power is limited, especially regarding compensation for a dog attack, according to Assistant County Attorney Amanda Hill, who provides legal counsel to the Charles County group.

"A lot of people want vet bills paid, but we can't order people to fix a neighbor's fence or pay their vet bills," Hill said. For financial compensation after a dog attack, complainants have to file a civil suit in the court system, according to Hill.

However, if a dog is ruled vicious and dangerous, the panel can order its owners to build a kennel, post signs identifying their dog as dangerous and only walk their pet using a leash shorter than 6 feet and a muzzle.

In extreme situations, the board can order an animal to be euthanized, but Hill said she has seen only two such cases. One of the dogs had sent two people to the hospital with injuries from an attack, while the owner of the second dog agreed to euthanize the animal, she said.

At times, Hill said, concern over dangerous animals leads neighbors to complain to animal control about dogs whose only fault is their pedigree.

"Citizens are a lot more likely [than animal control officers] to say a dog is dangerous and vicious when it just barks or is just a big dog," Hill said.

Rarer than at first look

In Calvert and St. Mary's counties, the regulations governing pet ownership are similar, but there is no animal control board, and appeals of citations are made to the district courts.

Tony Malaspina, animal control supervisor in St. Mary's, said the county sees about 10 to 12 dog attacks on people each year. And, he said he's never seen a situation so dire that the county had to order a dog's owners to euthanize their pet.

"We've never had to take it that far," he said. "By that point, most people have given their dog up."

Most complaints have to do with dogs roaming off their property or not being taken care of, Malaspina said.

However, one dog attack last year on a 6-year-old boy at his aunt's home landed a St. Mary's family on opposite sides of a courtroom.

The boy, dressed as a mummy for Halloween, was carrying a flashlight that made a growling noise. His aunt's Doberman-Rottweiler mix, spooked by the sound, bit the child's face and tore his upper lip, his nose and the skin around his left eye.

The dog had been adopted from a shelter and never showed violent tendencies before the Halloween attack, a judge was told at a court hearing. He urged the family members to reconcile their differences.

People not the only sufferers

Many times, it's other dogs that fall victim to aggressive canines.

Joy Morris, a former resident of Indian Head, said last summer two of her neighbor's pit bulls attacked her West Highland terrier, who was saved by a surgical procedure. She called animal control, and several days later, after the neighbor's dogs got into a fight, one of them was euthanized.

But in August, Morris' poodle was attacked in her backyard and died shortly afterward.

She decided there was only one thing to do: Leave.

Although Morris still owns her Indian Head home and rents it out, she's moved out of the state.

"I couldn't even walk into my backyard because of the horror that had taken place. I felt forced to move from Southern Maryland," she wrote in a letter to the Maryland Independent, adding that she hopes to work for change so vicious dogs won't be able to attack repeatedly.

A skewed perspective

While there's definitely a human cost to dog attacks, Calvert County resident Christopher Carey said the canine cost is often overlooked.

The former owner of a pit bull named Chaos, Carey said he has firsthand experience of the fear people have for the breed.

"People would take their dogs to the other side of the road or tighten up their leashes," said Carey, of Huntingtown, who owned Chaos for about 14 years.

Carey said his dog was friendly and gentle to small children, but some of his neighbors always regarded Chaos with suspicion.

The publicity given to pit bull attacks is somewhat to blame for the fear, Carey said, adding that he wishes the dogs took less blame and the owners took more.

"Any dog, especially a dog as strong as a pit bull is, that is unsocialized, kept in crates, abused, not around people … it's gonna end up a dangerous dog," Carey said. "Nine times out of 10 it's not the dog's fault. It's the owner."

In the next few months, Carey is planning on buying an American Staffordshire terrier, which he plans to train as a search and rescue dog.

At the Tri-County Animal Shelter in Hughesville, supervisor Kim Stephens said pit bulls and other "bully" breeds — dogs in the bulldog family once bred for fighting — cannot be adopted. Instead, the shelter relies on local organizations to rescue the breeds.

Fear of pit bulls and similar breeds makes it more difficult to get them rescued, according to Stephens, and some local organizations will no longer help find the dogs a home.

The shelter accommodates about 6,000 dogs every year, and about 75 percent of the canines are adopted, rescued or reunited with their owners, according to Stephens. The others have to be euthanized, she said.

However, if shelter workers come across a particularly sweet dog of a bully breed, they will "try really hard to get it rescued."

Staff writers Carol Harvat and John Wharton contributed to this report.