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.

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