breed discrimination · Dog Safety

Part 2: When Things Go Wrong

If you are reading this, be sure to first read Part 1 – The Worst Part Of Dog Advocacy, to get a bit more of the backstory, and to understand why we feel it’s necessary to do this follow-up in the first place.

To begin, this is an update to the previously reported tragic fatal attack of a 22 year old Virginia woman, Bethany Lynn Stephens, by her own two dogs last week. When the story first broke, we were 60-40 that at least one of her two dogs committed the crime. But, this national story had massive holes that needed filled before we were willing to go along with that narrative…possibly bigger than many other fatal attacks by dogs in recent memory. I’m sure the viral nature of the story helped incentivize the need to make a push for and examine this further, but it also probably affected readers in profoundly negative ways – both dog lovers and non-dog lovers alike, more than most because of the way the vague events were told to us by Sheriff Agnew. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood horror film, like Stephen King’s Cujo.

How could her own dogs do such a thing? Especially when Bethany’s friends publicly came to the dogs defense about the bond they shared, stating how she raised them both as puppies. This would go against all we’re told about the loyal nature of our companion dogs and can be viewed as traitorish behavior by the only species worthy of being called “Man(kind)s Best Friend”. For this reason, and many others, here are our final thoughts on the Bethany Lynn Stephens case.

Our organization focuses strictly on the Human-Canine Bond, regardless of what type or breed of dog he or she may be. In our eyes, the conversation isn’t as simple as, there are good dogs and there are bad dogs, either. Because that can also have unintended consequences that reinforce and compound unnecessary stereotypes – such as, there are inherently dangerous breeds/types of dog, and others that won’t ever hurt a fly. Both are inaccurate statements, and that type of rhetoric gives the public a false sense of security. All dogs – like any animal in the kingdom, which includes humans, their behavior most often is dictated by their environment. Is it nature or nurture? It is both! So, naturally, we took exception with some of the out-of-line remarks made by Goochland County Sheriff, James Agnew, whose opinions about the dogs in question perpetuate and also create new stereotypes. In some ways, it felt intentional.

Judging solely by the comments made, our initial post was well-received and shared quite a bit on social media. It was almost unanimously praised for our position to question the circumstances further of what took place on that night, with the exception of one respected voice in the dog welfare community, who gave some well-intentioned criticism and thought we were being unfair to this law enforcement department. Her primary concern was that we (as dog advocates), must not be so defensive and reactive when it comes to defending dogs in Dog Bite-Related Fatality (DBRF) news. Dogs have, do and will continue to behave badly at times, or in ways we simply don’t understand. While we do agree, we also believe we must turn these unfortunate incidents into opportunities to learn why a dog who was raised as a puppy could do the unthinkable, and not just chalk this up as, “We can’t stop them all from happening…”. Every one of these can give us new insight that may help prevent others in the future, when we are able to apply research, while simultaneously being able to secure and celebrate the natural bond dogs have with us.

In Sheriff Agnew’s initial comments about the dogs, he immediately described them as 125lb “pit bulls”, but later corrected that published report saying collectively they weighed in that range, and the specific breeds of the animals are unknown. He also stated the possibility of them being “bred for fighting”, without any proof to make such claims. But, for this sake, we are not going to discuss what constitutes a “pit bull” dog…we will save that complex conversation for another day when more time can be appropriately spent on it. Debating that is, oftentimes, a very touchy subject to get into, and usually results in proponents as well as detractors of the “breed” or type of dog, arguing about the validity of their definition over the half dozen others floated around. The purpose here is to focus strictly on this case and this case alone, with the facts that we know or are being told.

After receiving heavy scrutiny, Agnew released additional graphic details initially withheld to spare the public some of the gruesome first person accounts of the severity of Bethany’s death that he and the other officers witnessed. This was done in an effort to put to rest the notion that an investigation wasn’t performed or still ongoing. There, he told the public the two dogs have already been euthanized, and explained when they arrived at the scene the dogs were found still attacking and consuming her body.

As other behavior professionals have repeatedly stated, we may never know exactly what happened. But, as one expert said best, this incident didn’t just happen out-of-the-blue, and the two dogs definitely didn’t pre-plan this by giving a wink to the other as if to signal – “now is the time to attack her“. Behavior is on a continuum – it either grows or it dissipates, depending on a threat level or how the animal feels. With these specific dogs, there were most likely a series of changes and other variables that occurred in their life through time before this became the inevitable outcome or even a remote possibility.

Since, there has been reports about the living conditions and environment drastically changing. To preface those changes, the two dogs were 2.5 years old – right smack in the middle of the average maturation for dogs, when their adult behavior becomes more apparent. While this alone probably didn’t contribute, it should be noted that the dogs previously may not have exhibited any form of noticable or obvious aggression, because they were still growing and analyzing their world around them. Possibly more noteworthy, is they were moved as family dogs living with her in her home, to on her father’s property, where they were kept outside and allegedly not given their proper diets (and possibly starving). An even greater in-depth analysis by some behavior industry professionals shed more light in this Washington Post article, rationally discussing the what-might’ve-beens in this case, applying science and their research to back up their claims. This was indeed, the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Hidden in all this, is a discussion that seems necessary about why we expect dogs to be better mannered and behave better than us, humans. Proof of this argument can be found in the countless stories where mothers and fathers kill their own child – their own flesh and blood. Or, the homicides and pre-mediated murders that occur in the U.S. every single year. We force dogs in some of the worst situations where incidences should be expected, and most often don’t ever happen. Dogs are extremely resilient and do more than their fare share of compromising in this relationship. It’s about time that we pay this forward to them, by understanding our dogs limits better, and putting them in positions set up to succeed, so we continue securing and celebrating their vital positions as parts of our families.

Dog Safety

The Worst Part Of Dog Advocacy

Unfortunately, the worst part of dog advocacy is the fact that sometimes things can and do go wrong, and a human sustains severe and, at times, fatal injuries due to dogs. This puts us in a unique and very sensitive position, as we do not want to diminish the impact dog bite victims and their families go through, but still have to present the valid reasons why this important relationship of man(kind) and dog outweigh any of the negative risks associated with them, so to not disrupt the laundry list of benefits the Human-Canine Bond offers physically, mentally and emotionally to so many.

With an estimated 325 million people and 89 million dogs in the United States, the vast majority of dog bites don’t require any medical attention whatsoever. Even rarer – on average between 25-35 deaths by dogs occur annually. In 2014, 40 deaths nationally were caused by injuries inflicted by dogs – the highest number of fatalities in years. The most common demographic affected negatively are children, the elderly and postal/parcel delivery workers. The sad reality is, there will always be incidents involving dogs. But, the takeaway should be, we can do better to protect the public safety by analyzing these unfortunate incidents with a fine-tooth comb, while also enjoying the companionship of our canine best friends.

Just a few days ago, on Friday, December 15, 2017, a repeating headline appeared in hundreds upon hundreds of news media outlets across the country and around the world – a 22 year old Virginia woman was attacked and killed by her own two dogs. The commonalities to most of these articles we’ve read are – the victim, Bethany Lynn Stephens, was walking her dogs in a rural, wooded area outside of Richmond, Virginia, and had been missing for a day or two, before her father went out and searched for her. When he discovered her body, the two very large brindle dogs – described as “pit bulls”, were “aggressively guarding her”, and had several gruesome wounds. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

In most of these articles, the headline included the dogs were “pit bulls”, identified by Goochland County Sheriff, James Agnew, and were estimated to be around 125 pounds each, followed by, “although the specific breeds of the animals are unknown“.

Several dog advocates, including us, have pointed out in comment sections and social media posts, what appeared to be some inconsistencies, raising questions about this quick open and shut case by investigators, for lack of information pertaining to the unconscionable act allegedly performed by her own two dogs.

First, we should point out that these can be extremely complex situations to find some clarity, due to no alive eye witnesses (as of yet, at least)…we are oftentimes left with nothing but to speculate based on facts and science. We have seen some comments – especially from anti-dog groups, saying this was a predatory attack, and the aggressive dogs were guarding “their kill”. But, dogs typically do not attack their owners “out of the blue”, and this specific case can probably best be summed up that the dogs were most likely protecting their human. Even friends of Bethany have come forward to defend her dogs and her bond with them, believing they were not responsible, and admitting she recently has received death threats. But, Sheriff Agnew is shutting out the idea of homicide, due to no strangulation marks and the fatal wounds being consistent with a dog mauling in the preliminary report by the medical examiner’s office. And, for the record, the body was found Thursday evening, and these remarks by the Sheriff’s office were made less than 24 hours later. Not much time to conduct a full and thorough investigation, before making such bold, conclusive statements like this.

Did they perform bite tests to ensure the impressions matched the ones on her? And, how could an autopsy have been completed in that short of time to determine and basically conclude her cause of death?

Sheriff Agnew had initially chimed in about the themselves, saying he believes they were bred for fighting. On what grounds, and with what proof? Is he also a breed and dog behavior expert? We’d like to see his credentials that allow him to make these baseless declarations. From these comments and some of the shoddy detective work by law enforcement thus far, it makes this whole case seem so suspect and anything but closed. Two cases immediately come to mind from our hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, for reason to have additional doubt, that changes the way we see the case when the facts are present…even if the end result is the same culprit – the dog:

On September 2, 1992, Angela Kaplan was bitten over 100 times by her husband, Jeffrey Mann’s “pit bull” dog, Mack, which ultimately killed her. It was deemed an open and shut case, until Cleveland detective, Michaelene Taliano, grew suspicious when she observed some inconsistencies. Besides the manner in which she was attacked – where her wounds were found, she became wary of Mann’s story as well and whether or not he was telling the whole truth. The two apparently were verbally fighting, and that’s when Mack attacked “unprovoked”. A few months later, it was proved that Mann trained Mack to attack on-cue using commands in a foreign language. Through discussions several years ago with Det. Taliano, Mack initially defied Mann’s demands, but reluctantly followed through with the orders to attack. Because of that, Jeffrey Mann was arrested and charged with murder, and is paying for his crime.

And, finally, in February of 2010, Carolyn Baker was found in her driveway with severe bite wounds on her shoulder made by her Rottweiler dog, Zeus. Zeus was labeled aggressive, taken into custody and put into quarantine. Carolyn’s kids emphatically stated, Zeus did not kill their mom, and wanted him back. After Zeus was killed, the autopsy came back with the evidence proving he was actually a hero who was attempting to pull his human to safety after she collapsed from a heart attack. But, they killed him, even after her family begged them not to. A hero is dead. In a day, a family lost their mother/wife and the only other thing that mattered to her.

There has been more than 60 pieces of evidence collected in the death of Bethany Lynn Stephens. Sheriff Agnew concluded that the dogs are at the Goochland County Animal Control, and set to be euthanized. Earlier today, a more rational article in the Richmond Times Dispatch about the incident was made public, with interviews from dog behavior professionals, attempting to get some clarity on the events that lead to this unfortunate death. But all they can really do is use their knowledge of the field and speculate. Regardless of what the ultimate final findings are – whether the dogs are found to be the killers he claims them to be, or scapegoats in the name of laziness, we feel each and every case deserves better detective work, and decisive remarks should only be released to the media and public once all the known facts become scientifically apparent.

We are requesting public records for this case, and hope others will also demand a better investigation as well. If Bethany were alive, I’m sure she would want the truth to be the deciding factor on their lives in this tragic incident. And with this, if one or both of the dogs turn out to be the culprit, perhaps we can learn better from these tragedies, to educate the public about safety with dogs.

Goochland County:
Goochland County Sheriff’s Office/James Agnew – http://www.goochlandsheriff.org; or send a message via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pg/goochlandsheriff/about/
The Goochland County Animal Control department – tclough@goochlandva.us