I got a text from one of my media contacts earlier this week, asking if I would comment on a story about a woman who had been attacked and killed by a pack of dogs near Red Bay, Alabama, which is in Franklin County (which borders Mississippi). He wanted to know how frequent these attacks are, what criminal sentence the owner of the dogs could receive and wanted to talk about how dog owners are responsible for preventing attacks. I had not heard about the incident and told him I would get back to him. What I learned was not only had there been a tragic death, but it was a compounded tragedy and one which was preventable.
I learned the following, being mindful that many facts are still not known. On Thursday, April 28th, a woman was walking in a rural area early in the morning and was attacked by a pack of dogs. Someone heard her screams, intervened and was able to chase the dogs away. The woman was air-lifted to a hospital in Mississippi. The attack was reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health which investigates dog attacks as part of a dangerous dog law called “Emily’s Law” that was enacted in 2018 following the fatality attack of Emily Colvin in Jackson County, Alabama. On Friday, an employee from the Alabama Department of Public Health went to investigate the attack and was attacked and killed. It is not known why she went to the location in person or if she requested assistance from law enforcement authorities, which seems unlikely. Her body was found in her car after deputies went to investigate a report of a suspicious vehicle in the area. They were also attacked by the same group of dogs, receiving only minor injuries. Media reports indicate the dogs were “euthanized” on the spot. This most likely means they were shot.
The woman involved in the original attack remains hospitalized in Mississippi and is undergoing a series of surgeries. The reported owner of the dogs was arrested for manslaughter which is a Class C felony in Alabama. She will also be subject to the criminal provisions of Emily’s Law which include both felony and misdemeanor provisions. She could potentially face many years in prison if convicted and may be subject to civil suits. I would not be surprised to learn she did not actually own the dogs involved in the attack and was just feeding them to try to help them.
I did an interview with the reporter and shared with him the same information I’m sharing in this blog. The first and most important point I shared was that attacks like this are preventable. I understand that dogs who are family pets get loose for a host of reasons not all of which relate to someone’s irresponsibility. Children open doors, contractors leave gates open, dogs jump fences or dig under fences to escape. There are also dogs who are classified as “resident dogs” who are the dogs most often involved in that is commonly referred to as DBRF - Dog Bite Related Fatalitiy. Extensive research has been done on DBFRs by Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council and by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published the most comprehensive multifactorial study of dog bite-related fatalities in December of 2013. The study was based on investigative techniques not used in previous studies (which were first done in the 1970s). The study showed a significant relationship between these fatalities and a number of “potentially preventable factors." (A follow-up report combined the findings from the 2000-2009 study with information from 2010-2015). This study showed the following controllable factors were identified:
The study also showed that the breed of the dogs or dogs could not be determined in more than 80% of the cases. What was reported by the media and what was contained in animal control reports were inconsistent, casting doubt on the reliability of the breed of the dog reported by the media. The breed of the dog could only be confirmed in just over 18% of the cases.
(inforgraphic courtesy of the National Canine Research Council)
The second thing I shared with the reporter was that attacks like this are very, very rare. There were 46 dog bite related fatalities in 2020 in a country of more than 300 million people and a canine population estimated to be between 75 and 90 million dogs. There were 47 fatalities in 2019 and 38 in 2018. Although these incidents are exceedingly rare, it is logical to presume they are more apt to occur in places where the preventable factors are prevalent, such as in parts of Alabama where dogs are primarily resident dogs, not family pets, and where those dogs are allowed to run loose and are not sterilized. I live in the county where a woman was killed by a dog in 2017. Emily Colvin (the woman after whom the dangerous dog law was named) also died in 2017, approximately 30 miles from the fatality in my county. I see dogs running loose almost every day sometimes in small packs. I have written before about this wild west culture of allowing dogs to roam and some of the consequences for the dogs. Not every dog we see running loose in Alabama is a tragedy waiting to happen in terms of attacking and killing someone. But unless and until the people of Alabama and other rural areas of the country start taking responsibility for their dogs related to the controllable factors which contribute to attacks, people will continue to die needlessly.
There are also issues related to the responsibility of elected officials and law enforcement authorities related to this particular attack. Alabama has a law about dogs running at large, but it has to be adopted by each county and then enforced. Franklin County has never adopted the law. There is also a state law that counties and municipalities with more than 5 thousand residents must operate a "pound" (related to enforcement of the rabies law) or pay a pro rata share toward operation of a pound. I'm aware of no such facility in Franklin County and it is not entirely clear if the county has an animal control officer. Is it possible that people reported this pack of roaming dogs and nothing was done about it. It is also possible that people did not report the dogs because they felt doing so would serve no purpose, they didn't know who to call or they didn't see anything wrong with dogs running loose. My hope is that the tragedy of this case will cause the county to adopt the state law about dogs running at large and develop some method to enforce the law to deal with dogs running loose and to also help prevent this type of attack from happening again.
As has been stated by the National Canine Research Council, “all dog owners have an unequivocal responsibility for humane care, custody and control: providing a license and permanent identification; spaying or neutering their dogs; providing training, socialization, proper diet, and medical care; and not allowing a pet to become a threat or a nuisance.” Or a weapon. And all municipalities have a responsibility to keep people safe.
*The phrase "unequivocal responsibility" is from a publication of the National Canine Research Council.
I got a call from a law enforcement contact of mine a few days ago. A 5 year-old child had been attacked by a dog and seriously injured. Details were sketchy at the time and some of the information didn’t add up. The child lived at one address, the dog was owned by a person at a different address, the incident occurred at 5:00 a.m. and it happened when the child entered the home where the dog lives. The child had injuries to his face and scalp which were severe but not life threatening.
Situations like this always make me wonder what really happened. Why was a child interacting with a dog belonging to someone else at 5 in the morning? Where were the adults? Had this child met the dog before? Did he know anything about how to interact with dogs? Was the dog sleeping, protecting puppies or protecting property? Was the child trying to kiss or hug the dog?
Don’t get me wrong. This was a tragic incident and it is terrible that a child was injured. I presume, but have not yet confirmed, that the dog was euthanized so that is the flip side of the tragedy for me. A life is perhaps forever changed - that of the child - and a life is ended - that of the dog - when this incident was totally preventable.
All dogs have teeth and all dogs bite. They bite other animals, they bite each other and they bite humans. Dogs use their mouths and teeth to communicate; sometimes they growl, sometimes they nip and sometimes they bite. Ninety-nine percent of emergency room treated dog bites are rated as minor punctures and lacerations. About half of the people who require medical attention as a result of a dog bite are children.
In December, 2013, The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published the most comprehensive multi-factorial study of dog bite-related fatalities to be completed since the subject was first studied in the 1970’s. Experts have recommended for decades that a range of ownership and husbandry practices to reduce the number of dog bite injuries. The 2013 JAVMA paper confirmed the multifaceted approach to dog bite prevention recommended by previous studies, as well as by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The researchers identified a striking co-occurrence of multiple, controllable factors: no able-bodied person being present to intervene (87.1%); the victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s) (85.2%); the dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s)(84.4%); a victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s) (77.4%); the owner keeping dog(s) as resident dog(s), rather than as family pet(s) (76.2%); the owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s) (37.5%); and the owner’s abuse or neglect of dog(s) (21.1%). Four or more of these factors were present in 80.5% of cases; breed was not one of those factors.
April 8-14, 2018 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. I encourage everyone who owns dogs, interacts with dogs or who has children to take some time to learn about dog bite prevention to keep your families safe and keep your neighborhoods safe. You can find a lot of great information published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA and HSUS. I’m also a fan of the information found on Dog Gone Safe, Good Dog in a Box and Stop the 77.
Even if you don’t have a dog, you can help keep your children safe by teaching them how to “speak dog.” It is common for children to try to kiss dogs, hug dogs, ride on dogs or behave in ways which may make some dogs nervous or anxious. Teaching children some basics about how to behave around family dogs and unfamiliar dogs can go a really long way toward avoiding tragedy. Once you teach your children the skills they need, they are apt to share that knowledge with other children to help keep their friends safe.
I suspect the little boy hurt on Monday had not been taught how to behave around dogs. I really wish he had.
February is Unchain a Dog Month.
I have a history with chained dogs. Snake was rescued from the end of a heavy logging chain in 1992. She had spent the first two years of her life chained to a tree, living outside with no shelter and limited socialization with the people who owned her. I suspect they were afraid of her. Rich worked hard to rehabilitate her and we grew to love her dearly. She always had issues due to those early years. We had to be careful with her around other people she didn't know and around other dogs. I'm no dog psychologist, but I presume that dogs have a developmental period much like that of children and when that development is not positive, it can have long term consequences. Snake had a wonderful life with us and I'll be forever grateful Rich saved her. She would have been destroyed in a traditional animal shelter. Had she remained on that property where she began her life, it's entirely likely that she would attacked or hurt someone at some point. She was a prisoner on the end of a chain on that property for almost two years and we'll never know the psychological toll that took on her.
My experiences with Snake cause me to have soft spot for chained dogs. It was years later when I learned about an organization called Dogs Deserve Better founded by Tamira Ci Thayne that I began doing slideshow work to help nonprofits. Tami had been arrested for taking a dying dog from a property in Pennsylvania who have been left to die in the end of the chain in a family's front yard. The family was never charged with cruelty or abuse, yet Tammy was arrested, criminally charged, tried and found guilty for having stolen the dog. Doogie (formerly called Jake) was not returned to the family and lived the rest of his days with love and care prior to his passing. Dogs Deserve Better later went on to purchase the former Michael Vick property in Virginia and it was transformed into the Good Newz Kennels.
In 2014 the law firm from where I work got involved in defending the City of Leeds, Alabama in the civil wrongful death lawsuit brought by the widow of World War II veteran Donald Thomas. Mr. Thomas have gone out to check his mail one day and was attacked mauled and killed by two neighborhood dogs. Police arrived on scene and shot and killed the dogs. It was soon discovered that the owners of the dogs had 33 other dogs chained in their backyard inside city limits. Law enforcement authorities and city authorities knew nothing about this, but the situation was not news to the neighborhood. People had been terrorized by the dogs for years and never reported it because they really felt like nothing would be done about it. The owners of the dogs were nice and apologetic each time the dogs got loose. They were later convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. When I interviewed the neighbors they all told me that they felt an incredible sense of guilt that they didn't complain about the dogs running loose in the neighborhood, wondering if Mr. Thomas his death could have been prevented. This was the most gruesome case I have ever worked; some things can't be unseen.
As a result of my involvement in the Thomas case, I decided to seek local legislation in the city where I live to prohibit chaining of dogs and to provide for humane tethering of dogs to keep them contained. It took a while and it was a struggle to a degree. I live in a somewhat rural city with different cultures regarding how dogs are cared for. I took the subject to my city council in July of 2016 and our new ordinance was enacted in January of 2017, a point about which I'm particularly proud.The ordinance prohibits chaining, only allows for humane tethering and provides basic standards for dogs who live habitually outside. It's not perfect by any means. I would have liked it to ban perpetual penning which I also see as creating psychological problems in dogs, but in the end there was no real way to make that enforceable. When I drive around my city now I see dogs being cared for better and provided with basic standards. I would like to think that the odds of our city being the next Leeds, Alabama with a fatality attack are at least lower now that we have an ordinance and basic standards are being enforced not through the criminal provisions (violations are a misdemeanor), but primarily through public education.
When the time came for us to adopt a dog recently, we ultimately chose a formerly chained dog. His name was Shaggy when we first met him. We have since changed his name to Rusty due to the color of his fur. His Petfinder listing said that he was a two year old German Shepherd Husky mix and that he have been found running loose with a chain around his neck which was so tight that it had to be cut off of him. There were other dogs we considered, but ultimately we decided to pick Rusty because we knew he would have behavioral challenges and he may be at risk of being destroyed. He's been with us for almost four months and thanks again to Rich's skills rehabilitating dogs, he's made a lot of progress. He still has some of the behaviors of a formerly chained dog, but he lives inside and is making progress with each passing month. I shudder to think what may have happened to him had he not been adopted by someone ready to rehabilitate him. He's a very sweet dog, but some adopters may lack the patience to work through his issues and it's possible he would have ended up outside again or even chained again.
When I implore people to unchain dogs and to find other ways to contain them, my primary concern is about public safety. It is well documented that the dogs most apt to be involved in fatality attacks are dogs who are "resident dogs" who live outside and are not kept as family pets. Chaining dogs is opposed by every national animal welfare organization. The Humane Society of the United States, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association and numerous animal experts have spoken out against chaining and tethering because it is inhumane and can lead to aggressive behavior. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concluded in a study that the dogs most likely to attack are male, unneutered and chained.
Beyond the safety ramifications of chaining dogs, there is the obvious and very important issue of quality of life for those dogs. A dog is not a security system. If you want to use a dog to protect your home, bring the dog inside so that he or she will form bonds with your family and will consider your home his or her territory. If you have trouble house training your dog, get help. There are a variety of resources on the Internet to help you with this process and you can also interact with a trainer or behaviorist to get tips. If your dog wants to be outside or needs to be outside for parts of the day, take steps to keep him or her contained in a way which does not involve a chain. You can install a fence, use a pen (for short periods of time) or use a run or trolley line suspended between two points and property installed with stoppers at each end. Dogs who live outside for large portions of the day - or all the time - must be socialized to your family and to other people. If you don't have time to care for your dog, you really should not have a dog at all. If you still love dogs and want to have a dog in your life, consider fostering a dog for an animal shelter or a rescue group to help a dog learn new skills and to prepare that dog to be someone's beloved pet.
It happens every day. Pets get lost or go missing, people frantically try to find them and in some cases, they never do. As the go-to animal person at my office, I hear about this regularly. The family cat who was scared by fireworks on New Year’s Eve and bolted through an open door. The newly adopted rescue dog who was let outside to relieve herself and ran because she was scared by a car. Maybe the worst one I heard at work was about an elderly dog with limited vision who slipped out a door when some contractors were doing renovation work. The family felt she could not have gone far and did all the right things: searched the neighborhood, knocked on doors, put up flyers, put a “lost” ad in the local paper, put food and her bedding outside. They even went to the municipal animal shelter with photos in hand to look for her, only to be told, “sorry, your dog is not here.” They searched and knocked on doors for days. After almost a week of anguish, the family went back to the shelter one more time on a hunch, only to discover their beloved dog had been there for a week and was scheduled to be euthanized the next day. This family was both lucky and incredibly relieved. Some are not so lucky.
I know that animals end up in shelters for a host of reasons and that some of those reasons have to do with public irresponsibility. But not every animal in a shelter is there because of someone’s fault. We do better at a society to treat each and every shelter animal as someone’s beloved pet who is lost than to presume that “the irresponsible public” does not care enough to keep them safe. Gates get left open by children, contractors pay more attention to ladders and tools than to cats and animals are displaced due to traffic accidents and bad weather. Life happens. It is a reality of our animal sheltering system that healthy and treatable animals are destroyed every day and in most cases these are simply lost pets who could not be identified in order to be reunited with their families. It is a national tragedy.
I’m a huge proponent of microchipping all pets whether they live inside of not. You simply must prepare for the possibility that they may end up outside and while collars and tags are also advised (with breakaway collars for cats for safety purposes), nothing can really take the place of what amounts to a barcode for your companion animal to help them be identified if they get lost and end up in a shelter, with a rescue group or at a veterinary office. Most microchips cost very little, including lifetime registration, and really can make the difference in ensuring your pet can be identified if he or she is lost (or even if they are stolen).
If you do a simple search on social media using the words “lost found pet” you will come up with a variety of groups and pages all trying to help people find lost pets or trying to reunite found pets with the families searching for them. As valuable as these pages may be, they all have one thing in common. They are geography specific. Just because your dog goes missing from your home in X city doesn’t mean he or she will stay in that city. He may very well end up in Y county for whatever reason and you may never know that. Animals don’t know geographic boundaries and the reality is that once your dog or cat is outside of your control, you really never know how far they will travel either on foot, in the back of a truck bed or in a vehicle or even taken an unknown distance by a good Samaritan who is simply trying to help them.
All this leads to an announcement about a wonderful new tool in our animal lover’s toolbox I learned about recently: a website called Helping Lost Pets (HeLP). The website has been active since 2010 and is used across Canada and the United States. The site is the brainchild of Rob Goddard of Goddard Information Systems Limited and is currently funded by his company (with hopes to be funded by sponsors and advertising at some point). I learned about Helping Lost Pets just recently and I’ve been telling everyone I know about it because it’s just such an incredible tool.
The concept is simple: the website is a map-based site and is free to use for shelters and animal owners alike. If you run a shelter or animal control department and you pick up animals running at large or found animals reported to you, you enter them on the site with an image and some basics about where they were found. This allows pet owners to look for their lost pets. If you are an animal caregiver and your pet goes missing, you enter them on the site with an image and some basics about where they belong. This allows animal control personnel and social media platforms to help reunite lost pets with their families. Helping Lost Pets describes the website this way:
HelpingLostPets.com (HeLP) is a FREE nationwide database for lost and found pets that connects shelters, veterinary clinics, rescue groups, the public, and volunteer groups across the nation to effectively reunite lost pets with their owners. What makes HeLP unique is it is mapbased and fully searchable by breed, location, size, color, gender, and other identifiable information, making it easy to match lost and found pet listings. To ensure our listings stay current, our system automatically contacts owners/finders for status updates at defined intervals. This allows our system to remain uptodate and display only pets that are still missing and truly need our help getting home. We have found that flyers are one of the most effective ways to reunite a lost pet. When someone list a pet, free flyers are instantly generated to provide an effective tool in getting a pet home.
What makes the website even more powerful is the many volunteer groups across the country that also use the website to help pets get back home. Lost Dogs of America is their largest partner with chapters in over 30 states now.
If you manage or are affiliated with an animal control agency, rescue group or veterinary office which often takes in lost pets, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to learn about this wonderful resource. If you are a pet owner, I encourage you to take all the normal steps to find your pet: talking to your neighbors, putting up flyers, putting an ad in a local paper, posting on social media, putting food and bedding outside, etc.
Having a pet go missing to never be found again can be a life-altering experience for you and can be a life-ending experience for your pet. Please use HeLP. It’s quick, it’s free and you just never know when using that one extra tool in the toolbox will help you be reunited with your beloved companion.
Lost Dog Recovery Tips:
Lost Cat Recovery Tips:
I was on my way to work and stopped at a light when I detected movement to my right. I looked at the vehicle next to me and that's when I saw it. A small white dog, sitting on the lap of a woman driving a mid-sized sedan. She was talking to the dog, stroking his ears and just before the light turned green, she kissed his head. At a glance, the image was sweet. She clearly loves her dog. But inside I was seething and mentally trying to find a way to communicate with her before the light changed.
I am the first to admit that I have strong opinions on a lot of issues and that I sometimes use my blog to rant. Well, - Rant Alert.
Traveling in your vehicle with pets, dogs or cats, is the same as traveling in your vehicle with small children. You would not hold a baby in your lap and you would not put a toddler in the bed of your pick-up truck. When you take your pets with you in your vehicle, it is your responsibility to ensure they travel safely from point A to point B. You may be the best driver on the planet. But the drivers around you are not. We have seen time and again how the increased used of phones and electronic devices while driving can lead to disaster in the blink of an eye. You can engage in defensive driving and situational awareness all day long, but you cannot control the driver next to you who is sending a text or who is so caught up in a phone conversation that only 20% of their focus is actually on driving.
There was a time when I really didn't give a lot of thought to how pets travel in vehicles. I am old enough to have grown up at a time when there were no seat belts and no such thing as a car seat for children. I often wonder how we all survived, but we did. I completely changed my mind on the topic of pet travel safety about 15 years ago and as a result of the tragic loss of a co-worker. I will spare you the specific details. I will say that when you are in an accident with your pet in your vehicle and your pet is not restrained, her or she becomes a living projectile. You can do your best to react quickly enough to try to keep your dog or cat from flying forward, backward or to the side, but is it unlikely that you will succeed. If your pet is anywhere near an airbag, he or she will probably be killed. If your pet is unrestrained in a back seat, as was the case with my co-worker's dog, he or she is likely to be thrown toward either a window or windshield, causing catastrophic injuries.
If you really love your dog or cat, as the woman I saw this morning surely does, do not travel with them in your lap, standing up with their head out of a window, in a seat near and airbag or unrestrained in any way. A split second can mean the difference between life and death for both you and your pets and since you surely will be wearing a seat belt, your pet should be safely restrained also.
Because of the size of our dogs, I am partial to the Sleepypod Clickit Sport Harness. It comes in sizes to suit most dogs and is the only harness approved by the Center for Pet Safety. If your dog is smaller or you are traveling with a cat, you can use a travel carrier that is designed for inside of a vehicle. It took Aspy a couple of trips to get used to his harness, but once he figured out that he could stand, move around and put his head out the window, he stepped into it easily. I dare say that he enjoyed wearing it because he knew he was safer and he could lean just a little further out the window and smell the life going on all around us. I know that I always felt safer knowing he was restrained. He might have broken a bone in an accident, but I knew I had done all I can to keep him safe and with no regrets.
I hope the woman I saw this morning made it safely to her destination with her dog unscathed. As long as she continues to carry her dog in her lap, she is risking the life of her dog with every mile traveled. Should something happen to that dog, it will surely change her life forever and that's just incredibly sad to me.
Be safe. Be responsible. Please.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson