breed discrimination · Dog Safety

The Facts

Dear Mayor Degeeter, members of Parma City Council, Clerk of Council Ramser, Director of Public Safety Weinreich and Law Director Dobeck;

As of Monday, three council meetings are in the books for our initiative to repeal Parma’s 30+ year “pit bull” ban. Six full weeks since the official start of this cause; who knows how many more we’ll have to attend until the law gets replaced with a strengthened ordinance that actually does the job it’s supposed to do – protect the citizens from potentially dangerous dogs and reckless dog owners, including those labeled “pit bull”. One thing is for certain, it will in due time, but it’s going to take many, many more weeks before it does. We’re prepared to do that. We just haven’t done a good enough job thus far articulating why you should care enough to make this a priority. Or, at very least, instill enough doubt about the effectiveness of your current dangerous dog ordinance. It’ll happen eventually. I’m confident that a common sense approach will prevail with a little persistence.

After the first council meeting we attended as a group, I decided I would write an email to all of you after each meeting. The first in this series was to be completely transparent, and briefly outline the steps of our plans. Basically, to give you the playbook, so you aren’t caught off guard. That’s incredibly fair to me. It was firm, but professional. We are going to conduct this effort with professionalism, and make sure we’re respectful in our interactions with all of you. That’s a promise. If someone in our group isn’t being respectful, please notify me and we will correct it. This can be an extremely personal and emotional issue for many of us – on all sides of the debate, really. The biggest challenge is effective communication, which works both ways.

I take pride in the committed group of dog-lovers we have. We are normal everyday people, that could be your neighbor, family member, or friend. That’s the goal, I think, to be able to discuss these important things like this as friends. When you respect someone – like you would a friend, you’re more willing to sit down and listen to legitimate concerns, even if you may have a set stance or opinion. To add, the duty of an elected public official is to remain unbiased and neutral, and when information is presented that may contradict current laws, ears and eyes should be open to this new(er) science and data. To be a critical thinker in solving these social issues.

So, I’d like to begin by reiterating, we do want to work with you. We would much rather our interactions be memorable ones for all the right reasons. We are sincere. We don’t want anyone to be harmed by dogs. We just want all dogs and their owners judged fairly, as individuals. We have the intellect, dedication and resources to modernize and strengthen your existing dangerous and vicious dog ordinance to make it more inclusive, and when enforced properly, has the ability to identify potentially dangerous dogs who pose a threat before they have an opportunity to escalate in their behavior.

The second email sent in this series was about my personal story – “The Why” I am personally invested in seeing this through. I typically don’t discuss my personal life when interacting with public officials who I am trying to enlighten, but I did think it was necessary at this early stage. So you understand the deeper meaning of why this matters to so many people out there, who have well behaved family dogs of all different looks and personalities. I started an organization last year called WOOFobia, after I began to feel more like myself again. The organization’s mission is to celebrate and secure the human-canine bond, using the arts to deliver a powerful statement. The concept began when I realized how crucial my dogs were in my own survival. The physical, mental and emotional benefits we get by sharing our lives with dogs.

After that second meeting, I was incredibly touched by the unexpected kind gesture of Councilman Casselberry, who caught up and pulled me aside in the parking lot to tell me he was glad I didn’t go through with the plans I detailed in that email where I contemplated suicide during an extremely rough period where I battled with severe depression and anxiety of few years ago. I told him, this is why this subject is important to me – and, when residents of your city asked for help because we were able to be effective in other communities, I had to give what I can. So many others feel the same way as me. The human-canine bond is that crucial of a relationship. The fact is, if not for my dog Preston, I wouldn’t be here today being a thorn in your side. We learned that evening that Councilman Casselberry recently lost a couple family members in a short period of time, and I feel we had a good human moment in that parking lot – even if he and I may not currently see eye to eye in this discussion, we were able to empathize with each other. One human connecting with another.

Three nights ago, at the third council meeting we attended (Monday, Oct. 15), I received back my first lengthy public records request, which contained all communications regarding the ban from 2014 to present. In it, I was able to read the messages Mayor Degeeter and City Council has received from a few people who represent a national “dog bite victims group”. Now is the time to reiterate our statement again – we do not wish anybody (human or other animal) to be harmed by any dog, regardless of perceived type or breed. That’s the difference in our messaging – we want to encompass all dogs and single-out reckless dog owners, they only want to single-out some by generalized looks. Our number one objective is enhancing public safety with dogs. It’s sad, and somewhat disappointing, that time has to be spent advocating against these laws, when that time could be better spent actually implementing programs that do make a difference in the community – another goal of WOOFobia. As mentioned in the first email, whenever anybody is harmed by a dog, we fail as a society…and the most vulnerable victims are usually children and the elderly. This is not a “pit bull” (even used in the most vaguest sense) specific problem.

So, you’ve seen the same few sensationalized things from this group of people they always do. You’ve seen the gross photos of disfigured children. I can produce some, too, if it would help. Only thing is, I won’t include the “breed” or type, because of the irrelevance, and because we don’t feel throwing other reported types of dogs under the bus is productive in the name of public safety. You’d see the same similar outcomes, though. Yes, it is true the size of the dog will determine the potential damage that can be done. Comparing a Chihuahua bite to a medium-large sized dog (which “pit bull” dogs are often described as) bite is not at all an accurate comparison to even entertain. The reality is, the human species is incredibly fragile. The average human can be taken out by a medium-sized dog. But, it rarely happens. If it weren’t for fear (oftentimes, irrational fear), that side wouldn’t have a single case to influence you with. It worked much better in the 80’s, but has become increasingly unpopular as a method for a city to protect the public’s safety, because of all the overwhelming modern day science about this debate. These laws are being shot down and repealed at a much higher frequency than they are being implemented (proposed and passed). The current ones in this country are eventually all going to be replaced in favor of a common sense approach that incorporates all dogs based on actual behavior, so the focus isn’t on subjective physical traits of how some look. It’s just not that popular anymore.

Besides the use of those photos, the predictability continues with that group. They share a thousand news articles about “pit bull” attacks on people and pets. We did a request on the records of the breed identification training for your animal control officer. In the returned request were five pages pertaining to her training, including three separate certificates of course completion by the National Animal Control Association – an organization that is publicly against breed specific legislation. The other two pages are – the National Animal Control Association training guide cover and the chapter (Chapter 5) page in the guide dealing with “Identification of Dogs”. In this chapter, one of the contents is “The Challenges of Breed Identification”. I’ve asked for the additional pages to show what specifically was in this training, but so far from here, it looks like this request only further validates one our concerns in enforcement. So, if the NACA expresses cause for concern on focusing attention on breed or type because of the issues with visual identification, how accurate do you feel news reporting is based on public opinion determining breed? I discussed my own three dogs in a previous email, and how each looks different and each has their own individual personalities. This is true for all dogs. The two things all three had in common, was someone somewhere labeled them “pit bull” in the shelter system, and all three were subject of being killed simply because of it.

Another common thing I’ve seen is the amount of very old cases this group presents in an attempt to support their claims. A rebuttal of my original email one of these people had, was an Ohio Supreme Court case heard in 1990-91 (State v. Anderson), which occurred when Ohio had statewide BSL. Of course the law would be upheld as constitutional – the state declared “pit bull” dogs as inherently vicious and restricted ownership! The original statewide law was passed in mid 1987, and subsequently repealed 25 years later in the 129th General Assembly with the passage of Ohio HB14 in May 2012.

The same above reasoning holds true for the rest of the examples she gave:

  • State v. Robinson (1989) – Ohio had statewide BSL…
  • Singer v. Cincinnati (1990) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Cincinnati took additional action – a ban. They repealed their ban in 2012.
  • State v. Smith (2008) – Still had statewide BSL…
  • Tarquinio v. Lakewood (2011) – Not only did Ohio still have statewide BSL, the city of Lakewood had a ban that was implemented in 2008, which was repealed earlier this year, as you know (2018).
  • Tellings v. Toledo (2008) – Not only did Ohio have statewide BSL, the city of Toledo had additional heavier restrictions. Their local law was repealed in 2010.

Since then, a new precedent has been created in the 5th Appellate Court of Appeals – Russ v. Reynoldburg (2017). When the state repealed its law declaring all “pit bull” dogs as vicious, this decision stated local municipalities are in conflict with the state law, thus are unconstitutional. What this means to you is, if Parma’s law should go to court, you will lose. I have cc’ed the attorney, Phil Calabrese, who represented this case, to this email in the event you may have any questions for him. He’s a very nice guy, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind responding if there are inquiries.

I have watched all the coverage done by the local news since our efforts kicked off. Two of you were interviewed – Mayor Degeeter and Director of Public Safety Weinreich, repeating the same method we should take if we want to get this change done – a petition to take to the people of Parma. Now, you and I both know why you are recommending this method. For Parma – a suburb of 80,000 residents, a petition would require a ton of signatures of registered voters, and an awful lot of time going door to door. You also know how terribly wrong things can go going the petition route – verifying signatures and deceiving verbiage on the ballot once the petition is approved. Even supporters of this change can be confused by the wording. But, we are actively organizing the petition as we speak, ensuring we get the proper and official protocol down before we take to the streets, in an effort to show we are going to do everything asked, but we still feel the you should do the right thing before our efforts increase in the beginning of 2019. At the moment, we are only organizing at the City Council meetings, so our voices are heard. We have even bigger plans being staged for after the New Year.

There’s been a couple things stated in the news that have made me question. Mayor Degeeter has said of the 30+ year ban: “From our administration standpointm we think it’s working, it’s been in place since I was in high school.” In this same news article, the city also stated Parma has forced out seven “pit bull” dogs in 2016, and another nine in 2017 (no stats were given for 2018). How? How is this law working if you have 16 dogs labeled “pit bull” in two recent years kicked out of the city thirty years after the ban was implemented. You clearly have a ton of dogs already living fine in your city that could be targeted as “pit bulls”, and “asked” to leave simply because a neighbor may have complained. To any person with a little common sense, this is absurd to think the law is working this far into its implementation, don’t you think? Wouldn’t be a better use of all our time if animal control spent their time on calls of dogs that behaviorally pose a threat to the citizens?

How well do you think you know your constituents? If you believe that the majority of them would vote to keep the law in the place, I feel you don’t really know them at all. Sure, there are going to be some who buy into the fear-based propaganda, but, the general public knows a lot more than we used to about this topic. In this political state of the times, when more and more people are becoming aware and being active on social justice issues, I’d place a wager that the vast majority of your residents do not want this – especially once presented with the current accurate data.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple other things I noticed in the records request so far. As I stated in the first email sent out, this law that spread like wildfire in the 1980’s began as a tool to use to legally harass lower income families and people of color. I gave a couple brief examples in that email. Parma has been scrutinized for questionable character in the past regarding race relations and classism. That chatter happens about your city. Statistically, it is not an inclusive and welcoming community, populated by 88% white. Now, I am not calling any of you a racist or classist, but there are residents who I would. One of those examples was in the records request, where a woman used these racist and classist undertones. I am not going to repeat what was said, but I am shocked, amazed and disgusted that in 2018 we have to explain inclusion is a good thing, and there is no place in this country for stereotyping and generalizing dogs or the human family members that share their home with them.

Last, it makes me sad that since the onset of this initiative I’ve observed some of you actively engaging in inviting people (some of whom are out-of-staters) to attend council meetings who share this short-sighted belief to combat our advocacy. Even in those earlier interactions, I feel most of you would have never given us an equal opportunity to present our case. Public officials – elected ones, especially, must remain open-minded and neutral. We are firm in our position, because we know there is literally no logical or rational reason for this law, short of fear and perceptions. We’ve been called out at least once, as being disrespectful and name-calling, which I don’t those accusations lightly, for the simple fact that they haven’t occurred. Perhaps this person was being defensive, but it’s not helpful, and frankly you have left us no choice but to be firm. If you have any input here, I would appreciate it. We know that the only way this is going to get done is if we have cooperation from the government, which means you, or the people we hope to help campaign for to get elected in the upcoming elections.

We want to be the people you go to for questions you cannot answer. We want to be the ones who provide the resources and solutions needed to make Parma a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone. Activism doesn’t end once a breed neutral law is implemented. It continues on. These are the facts. We hope each of you will consider sitting down face to face and discuss this further with us. We need to work together to solve this. My apologies, again, for another lengthy email….there is just to much to say at this stage. I will try my best to shorten them up in the future.

Sincerely,

Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director

breed discrimination · Dog Safety · Human-Canine Bond

Opinions Are Not Facts; Editorial Boards Are Not Experts

RE: “Pit Bull” Bans Are Still Justified

Dear Denver Post Editorial Board,

What exactly is the job function of an Editorial Board? Is it to express opinions based on well researched facts? Or, is it to continue sensationalizing a tired, nonsensical storyline in the name of clicks? We want to know.

And, what qualifications must one possess to be on such a privileged committee designated to be the official voice of the news organization, who are handed over the task to make strong, compelling arguments about complex issues and affect the mindsets of their audience? We’d also like to know.

On Monday, January 29, 2018, the Denver Post Editorial Board released an opinion piece titled “Pit Bull Bans Are Still Justified“, due to a nearby community, Castle Rock, considering a repeal of their 26 year old ban on “pit bull” dogs.

The article begins by casually sympathizing with those residents who live throughout the Denver Metropolitan area, affected by laws called Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which target certain types or breeds of dog – in this case, “pit bull” dogs, by restricting or prohibiting ownership within a municipalities jurisdiction, causing hardships for responsible families with good family dogs who have done nothing wrong.

By the time we get to the third paragraph, your position is quite clear in response to the repeal initiative in Castle Rock – “we must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.

Not only have the leading experts weighed in repeatedly against this type of ideology on numerous occasions, it’s become an increasingly unpopular opinion to have, as well. The reality is, there is no justifiable or rational reason in favor of Breed Specific Legislation. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch…none that wouldn’t apply to community safety with all dogs of all shapes, sizes, types and looks…that is, if we’re talking about actual undesirable behavior by an animal. But, oftentimes, the dogs are not even what this is all about…

By the fourth paragraph, you proudly pat yourselves on the back for actively supporting a proven failed concept, and applauded Aurora voters in 2014 for upholding their ban while it was on the ballot. It’s no wonder several communities in Denver metro still enforce BSL and attempts to repeal such legislation have fallen short, since the region’s largest news source – YOU, the Denver Post, have the mistaken point of view you publicly share, which starts at the top of the organization. You helped create this irrational fear.

There’s been a number of studies performed about the mass media’s power to shape public perception, especially about controversial topics. With attention spans seemingly getting shorter, and the advancements in technology with how ours news is delivered in bits, pieces and soundbites, it’s the primary way people get their information. But, the general public, for the most part, are impressionable to what they see and hear on the news, and you take full advantage of that with incomplete and careless journalism and editorials, ensuring we don’t take huge strides forward in public safety matters with dogs. It always starts with education, not legislation.

We must revisit why these breed-specific bans are justifiable rules in urban areas.
– Denver Post Editorial Board, 01/29/2018

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the term “Fake News” was introduced into our everyday vocabularies, and used back and forth by supporters of both political parties, in an effort to downplay the significance or credibility of the information (or propaganda) the opposition shares. That election, as well as the subsequent following year, the political climate is unlike anything we’ve seen before in American politics. And, in many ways, there was this side war being waged against many of these news outlets, deservingly so.

We remind dog advocates and those who fight this political war targeting certain breeds, historically one of our biggest challenges has been media bias, where attention on “pit bull” dogs (for example) outweighed similar stories with other types of dogs. We put together an example of this very bias several years ago on our former blog project: DogsByte.Org

We can sympathize with the demanding job a journalist has. They are required to find interesting stories to report on that appeal to their demographic, and aren’t given the proper time necessary to thoroughly investigate and decipher what is factual and what is not. But, that should no longer be an excuse, especially as highly publicized this ongoing debate has been for several decades, and how quickly its evolved and flipped in recent years. We know better now. And we have the majority of scientific proof to back it.

Along the way, the media has helped move the needle incrementally in the right direction, but some still hang on to outdated and poorly researched propaganda, and that has handicapped those more skeptical and unwilling to entertain the overwhelming amount of modern day science that exists today. Part of it is due to what the media has shown, which psychologists say, fuels that irrational fear, and can impact the way people view certain dogs, even if they never personally met one that they were aware of. The public’s perception and acceptance of “pit bull” dogs have done a near 180, but instead of channeling the available time and resources into more education programs that could potentially prevent an unfortunate mishap happening by any dog, those efforts have to be made proving archaic policies and legislation such as BSL wrong and reckless, and the primary perpetuator of this is your profession.

You actually state a scientific fact in paragraph five, which completely contradicts much of the rest of the editorial. Yes, behavior of an individual animal – which includes humans, is heavily influenced by their environment. And, all individuals will respond to said environment in their own individual ways. The question that probably should have been asked –  Is it nature, or is it nurture? And the answer to that – It’s both! Across the board.

Immediately following some common sense, you revert back to unsubstantiated claims that border myth in paragraph six, while also acknowledging one of the many reasons Breed Specific Legislation is severely flawed by defining your definition of what constitutes a “pit bull”. Literally, ask ten people, and you’ll likely get around ten different answers of what a “pit bull” is to them.

Breed identification has always been the number one issue pertaining to the real life individual dogs affected by these draconian laws. They’re incredibly subjective, as they are usually first identified through visual identification, by someone who is not qualified to make those determinations or is not a breed expert of any kind. Animal control officers and other law enforcement aren’t trained in breed identification, because it’s simply not relevant to the actual job function of keeping their community’s safe. Nor do they possess a special power that tells them the genetic ancestry of a dog by looking at him or her. No magic crystal balls to predict how an individual dog will behave in the future, either.

The primary problem with the two studies in paragraphs seven and eight are breed identification! Without getting too in-depth about the meaning of the term “breed”, we will pretend we are all talking about the same thing when we play this game and we will conform to your definition for this purpose; The generic term, as you state, “pit bulls”, are American Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. So, we admittedly aren’t talking about just one breed then, are we? Those are three separate breeds, recognized by different kennel clubs. If we agree on that, each deserves to be looked at individually, and not lumped together with a generic (your word, not ours) label of “pit bull”. And then, what about mixes? Where do they fit in this charade? Where is the cutoff in a mixed-breed dog, where the “pit bull” percentage doesn’t matter? What dogs are we talking about that are inherently guilty of birth?

One of the most glaring problems with breed labeling is, many households obtain dogs through shelter or rescue organizations, where there are no papers or documented lineage of the dog from a reputable breeder, and the dogs arrive with completely unknown histories. The person(s) doing the identifying is usually someone on the shelter staff, the rescue, and/or the adopter.

There has been studies done about the reliability, or lack thereof, with visual identification. One such study was done by Maddie’s Fund, where animal industry professionals guessed the predominant breed(s) from images of shelter dogs DNA tested at a miserable success rate of 27%. These are people who are in the animal field as their profession, and that’s their combined accuracy. What do you think yours would be?:

Maddie’s Fund Breed Identification Study.

Paragraph nine – more baseless claims with no scientific facts to back it up. Please show us what you have.

Paragraph ten – We actually want to thank you for bringing up the infamous CDC study, because – as you mention to begin the paragraph, they have verbiage at the conclusion which explains exactly why their position on breed specific regulations are a waste of time and resources – reverting back to the difficulties of breed identification, and the rarity of fatal attacks by all dogs. Additionally, the CDC stopped tracking data years ago pertaining to breed/type involved in dog attacks and Dog Bite-Related Fatalities (DBRFs), because of its irrelevance in the equation. Our time would be more wisely spent, dissecting the environmental factors to see if there are the same consistencies usually present in investigations where dogs have behaved badly (family dog-vs-resident dog, for example). Dogs generally do not attack out-of-the blue. There is always a reason, even if it cannot be explained in a “rational” way to human beings.

CDC Study: Conclusion

Your eleventh paragraph, you lean towards logic and common sense once again, by discussing the realities of dog related incidents, and the rarity of those fatal ones. If you think about it, this is pretty remarkable, considering how many people and dogs there are on this planet, living in close proximity to each other, and more times than not – Nothing. Ever. Happens.

We push dogs into situations where they are routinely forced in uncomfortable settings and they attempt to tell us with their body language (tongue flicks, yawns, position of ears and tails, etc), but nothing happens. Dogs deserve a lot of credit, more than we give them. Dogs are extremely resilient, and do more than their fair share of compromising in this relationship. And it’s time we start acknowledging that fact, so we can move this conversation to productive grounds that truly have a level playing field for all – dog and human. We can have equality and safety. One doesn’t cancel out the other.

Now repeat after us – There is no logical, rational and/or justifiable reason for BSL.

—————

Links:
Media Bias – https://dogsbyte.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/media-bias-study/

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