1.27.2014

Follow Up: Mitigating Circumstances Case Overturned.

Back in November, I wrote a piece entitled "Mitigating Circumstances" addressing my personal and professional concerns about a dog bite case in Somerville. The TL:DR version is that a 110 pound mastiff escaped through an open door on Halloween night and attacked a 6'3" man and his German Shepherd. The GSD suffered injuries that required medical attention, and the victim suffered level 5 bites to both of his hands, requiring five nights in a hospital, several surgeries, months of physical therapy to regain the function in his hands, and he's still not able to walk his own dog because he's not physically strong enough anymore to even hold her leash. The city ruled to have Rocco humanely euthanized, which I, and the dog trainer involved in the case, supported.

I got word last night that the Magistrate that heard the appeal (the appeal to reverse the initial ruling to euthanize Rocco) overturned the ruling. Rocco can go home.

As per the court order, Rocco has to be walked by someone over the age of 21. Rocco is on muzzle order every time he's outside. Rocco is deemed a dangerous dog. Rocco's owner is required to take out a $100,000 homeowners insurance policy. Rocco can still live in Somerville. Rocco still lives in Somerville.

Here is why this is more heartbreaking, and no one wins in this case.

The Officers That Are Trying To Protect Citizens:
 Both animal control officers and the police captain were on the record for saying that they have NEVER seen a dog bite this bad in Somerville. I have lived here for a decade and have seen some pretty nasty dog bites. I can say I've personally never seen anything this bad, either. They are trained to keep the city safe and go through extensive training to be the officers they are. Granted, they are not behavior specialists but I know that with a combined 13 years on the job in Somerville, the ACO's have a pretty good handle on what is safe and unsafe in this city. I feel that in this case, they made the right call, baring any decisions from a vet behavior specialist evaluating the dog. They did the best they could for the city with the resources and information they had.

The Victim Was Trying To Save His Dog, And Himself:
The attorney who was defending Rocco's owner stated over and over that Rocco redirected his aggression, that he wouldn't harm a person otherwise, and that it was the fault of the victim for putting his hands where they could "get bit." Redirected aggression is a real thing, but I use it as an indicator of stress in the biting dog. A dog has to be seeing red and be well over threshold to bite someone, grab a hand and shake it, grab and shake, grab and shake, grab another hand and shake. That is very different from "Bite - whoops - sorry dude, I didn't mean to bite you."

The victim was trying to save his dog, as many of us would, and suffered  catastrophic damage to both hands, nerve damage, and I'm confident if it were anyone smaller, he would have died doing so.

Used with permission. Level 5 bite wounds.


Rocco's Owner Was Also Trying To Save Her Dog
If I got a phone call saying that Sadie attacked a person who needed surgery and five nights in the hospital, I'd be absolutely devastated, as any of us would be. Rocco's owner fought, including sending out a petition to save Rocco, which received over 3,000 signatures. She loves this dog, and went to bat for him. Rocco gets a new lease on life because she loved her dog.

She just wanted her dog back. In most cases, that's not too much to ask. I don't fault her for loving her dog or for trying to save him. Not at all. If she lived in a different city where Rocco would have been taken and euthanized for something far less, she'd do well to go to bat for him. But loving a dog doesn't make it a safe dog, and I feel strongly that loving a dog isn't enough to undo the stress that Rocco demonstrated he is under.

My Concern: We're Saving The Dog, But To What End?
All the experts in my field, including the behavior specialist who wrote the bite scale that professionals in this industry use, that the two Animal Control Officers (who have gone through extensive training for their job), that the police captain used (to designate safety to the community) and that two other dog trainers used (to assess damage for behavior), and all of the respected behavior specialists in our industry (who have written on the topic), recommend that dogs who bite at level 4 only go outside to pee and go to the vet. Many behavior specialists, like Jean Donaldson, recommend euthanasia at level 4 because of an inability to learn bite inhibition at this stage. All of the literature I came across recommends a bite level 5 and 6 should be humanely euthanized.

It's not because we don't wish to work with these dogs. The suggestion exists because of the unpredictability of the dog, the dangerous nature, the proven inability to cope with stress related to one or more stimuli, the likelihood that this will happen again with similar or more devastating results, and the amount of stress that the dog was suffering in order to cause such a tragic event. The above considerations can only escalate with less exercise and more restriction - putting Rocco into a higher state of stress while trying to keep citizens safe.

We are using stress indicators and science as well as our education relating to animals in order to strike a balance. No one wants to put a dog to sleep, but in the city where a dog is constantly bombarded with stressors, that dog HAS to cope in some way. If that dog can't cope, then it's on the owner to find a way to help the dog cope by seeking out a behavior specialist, a trainer, or re-home the dog before something catastrophic happens.

The time to save Rocco has passed. The time to genuinely save him was months to years ago when he started demonstrating that he was stressed around dogs. That was the time that we might have been able to sincerely help Rocco.

A Muzzle Order Doesn't Fix It:
Here is my main concern, of which I would have voiced had I had the opportunity to speak at the hearing (which I desperately tried): Even if Rocco was on a muzzle order on the night he attacked, he wouldn't be required to wear a muzzle in the home. Rocco got out through an open door, so unless he is muzzled 24/7, this attack still would have occurred. This ruling does nothing to alleviate Rocco of the daily stress of dogs (and their handlers) walking by his home.

Muzzles still are incredibly painful if you are attacked by a muzzle wearing dog.
Ask Officer Tam and any of the officers who help him train K9 Max for police work: Even when muzzled and wearing the bite suit, the officers and training partners still get bruised. My concern is that an average person, perhaps my height and weight (5'4", 120lbs) walking an average sized dog in the city (between 40 and 50 pounds-like Sadie) is jumped by a dog like Rocco, even muzzled, could cause significant harm with his weight and ability to use the muzzle like a weapon. If Rocco was that "hot" seeing another dog just walk by his apartment, I'm really concerned, and justifiably so, for every person who walks by Rocco's home with a dog.

Below is a video of a TRAINED police dog, against a TRAINED partner with protective gear. Look at how this dog still uses his muzzle to punch the "victim." This trained "victim" lays down and plays dead. If this were Rocco, nearly twice the size of the Shepherd in the video, and the victim were someone my size and weight, there would undoubtedly be serious sustained injuries. Plus, most people would instinctively thrash, try to get up and run to safety which would trigger the prey drive in the already excited dog, exacerbating the potential for more serious injury.

A kid or small dog would not have a chance.



So if Rocco gets out again, jumps through an open window, or a closed window, an open door, or he finds another way out, the victim likely will not survive if they are of average size. If he breaks his leash, collar, or pulls the leash out of his owners hand to get to a dog across the street while muzzled, she will not be able to call him off.

 Even muzzled, serious damage can occur. If he truly is dog aggressive and won't normally go after people, it's still a lot to expect an entire city to never walk their dogs. Because leash laws exist in this city, every dog needs a handler. This dog has proven that he really can't handle dogs, or people attached to the leash of a dog.

 In essence, by the arguments the lawyer made to defend Rocco, he can't tell if the sidewalk is his territory or not, and he won't go after people, unless they have a dog. So if you have a dog and walk on a sidewalk, the onus is on you to not get attacked. But it's ok - a muzzle order will save you, and keep Rocco calm as a cucumber.

Sorry, but it was about this time in the courtroom that I literally threw up my hands and pleaded to be heard, which I was denied the opportunity.

 Let me add that if the muzzle order was in place on a dog in the country, in a place where there isn't so much overstimulation, the dog has a training plan in place, and is functioning at a level 3 bite or lower, I'd feel much better about the muzzle as a tool to help the dog, handlers, and community. When a dog is biting at level 4 and over, there is way more to the story. However, this massive dog, this type of bite, and this environment are just not a good fit for this order. It's too small a band-aid and too big a liability.

Ban The Deed Not The Breed:
This is the rally cry of those who don't want breed bans in communities. When a dog like Rocco attacks someone, we need to separate the truly stressed out dogs who have proven dangerous to a community from the dogs who happen to be a bully breed but can cope in the city with other dogs and the people. I support Ban The Deed, Not The Breed, and in this case, the deed was tragic. We also recognize that sometimes a dog will bite once to protect itself, property, is stressed, or is in pain. We need to know why a dog bit, and what can be done to make sure the dog has a good quality of life, and the communities are safe. We need to take each case individually, and I feel strongly this case is the poster child for Ban The Deed, Not The Breed. It's emotional, it's hard on everyone, and there are tough questions to take individually.

Rocco didn't bite once. He had one event, but he bit multiple times, bi-lateral tears and shredding to two hands and injured a GSD. That is different from a dog who actually bit once.

Final Thoughts:
Rocco should not be euthanized as punishment for what he did. That wouldn't be justice. Dogs don't understand punishment as it relates to our court system and I'm not interested in punishing him. I think he's a deeply troubled dog that snapped. He suffered well above threshold stress for a period of months or years. Causing injury to this degree can not be trained out of him.

Rocco should be euthanized because every day is a great stress for him, which culminated in one tragic event. An event that went to court, not because he killed someone or a dog, but because they survived by sheer luck of size. He endured enough stress that he saw red and almost killed a human in his efforts to attack a dog who was not barking, who was not peeing, who was not staring at him. They were just walking, which every person in this city has every RIGHT to do safely.

Both Rocco's owner and the victim did everything they could to save their dog over the course of the last few months. For that, they both will have to live with the events of that night.

I feel awful for the victim, with 5+ full mouth bites and shredding wounds to his hands and forearms, not to mention the mental and emotional anguish that he undoubtedly will go through. He's always going to have to look over his shoulder and worry. Every time he walks at night, or hears the jangling of dog tags (or keys, or anything else that sounds like a fast approaching dog) will likely be a trigger back to that night.

I feel awful for Rocco's owner for the constant stress her dog is under, and the fear that he'll get out again and do more damage to someone else. She will also spend the rest of Rocco's life looking over her shoulder, making sure she can control his outbursts, and prevent him from attacking. It's emotionally challenging to care for a dog who is reactive, but this is something extreme and my heart goes out to her. It's going to be tough on her and on Rocco.

Personally, I don't think it's enough to keep him from biting, but to genuinely help him feel less stress overall so he can have a good quality of life. If you were exposed to an environment in which you were completely stressed every day of your life, you're eventually going to snap. It's a matter of time. Some people walk away and try something else. Some people explode and yell but can get help. Some people make the nightly news by doing something drastic. Rocco isn't a bad dog - he found a way to cope because he was stressed and the signs of  his stress were either ignored, not interpreted correctly, "I can handle it" or "I will call for help tomorrow" never happened.

Every bark, lunge or sign of stress by a dog is a cry for help, and to have an event this extreme, points to a long road of asking for help that never came.

In my estimation, no one really wins here.

If you are one of the victims or the owner of either of the dogs, I really do wish you the best of luck. I hope that the victim feels better going forward and he heals emotionally and physically. I hope the owner of Rocco is able to give him a quality life and keep everyone safe. I hope that I'm wrong and that Rocco will never be stressed out again because someone was in his corner. I hope the ACO's continue to do what they think is right for this city and know that there are resources and behavior experts that will come to help however they can in future cases. I hope that the Police Captain sticks by his moral compass in other cases like this. 

I'm not writing this to be "that guy who pisses people off", but I'm using this case to explain why we sometimes make tough calls and to point out all of the different angles of each case. This case, though it was very public and heard in a public forum, I decided not write the names of any of the people involved. If I work a case directly, I don't use any names - dogs or humans - or write about them publicly. Those are confidential. This, because of the nature of the case and it was heard in a public forum, lent itself to some thoughts and hopefully serves as a testimonial to train your dog or seek help before things escalate. When a trainer or behavior specialist says "things can get bad, and here is my recommendation," please know that we are saying these things because we really do care about the community, the emotional state of the dog and of the people. Sometimes we make really tough calls, and in some cases, like this, there is no easy answer. This is one of those cases. I wish you all speedy emotional healing, because this has been a long road for all of you.