A Fatal Dog Attack – How Missing Key Signs Led to Tragedy

images-1Yet another tragedy!  A poor little boy lost his life to a dog bite.  According to newspaper reports about the incident, he was 'engaged in some kind of horseplay' with the dog and 'may have attempted to climb onto the dog's back.' Media outlets are highlighting the fact that the dog was a pitbull mix and have quoted one behaviorist who states that it’s common for pitbulls 'to show no signs of aggression' until some kind of trigger makes them attack.  I wonder how many pitbull types this 'expert' has actively come into contact with, because I know of no dog breed or mix of breeds, including the pitbull, that doesn’t give warning signs during times of discomfort, irritation, annoyance, anxiety or fear.  Yes, these signs can be very subtle and easily missed - especially by those that don’t understand canine language.  These signs can happen within a split second before the dog reacts.  But there are environmental and situational signs in this tragedy that need to be taken into account and they are very clear:

  • The dog was a two year old unneutered male.  Unneutered males are responsible for many of the severe attacks and human deaths because the presence of testosterone can cause heightened reactivity, intolerance and sensitivity.  Most responsible owners will spay or neuter their dogs unless the dogs are used for police or military work, showing, competition or responsible breeding.
  • The dog was an outside dog – ‘he was never allowed in the house’.  Dogs that are kept outside are generally less socialized than dogs that live closely with the family unit.  Outside dogs are often purchased to protect property.
  • The child was engaged in what appears to have been highly physical ‘play’ including trying to ‘ride’ the dog before the dog turned and bit him.  I write and speak constantly on the importance of educating parents and caregivers to monitor their children around their own dogs and dogs of friends, relatives as well as dogs they don’t know.  But just go online and see the hundreds of YouTube videos that parents post of their kids doing all kinds of things to their dogs, including standing on them, holding onto their faces, riding them etc and thinking that it’s cute!

There are some people who don’t like it when I speak out about punitive training methods and say that because I’m a positive trainer I don’t work with aggressive or ‘red zone’ dogs.  Well that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I work extensively with canine aggression in private homes and shelters.  I work hard to rehabilitate dogs that have bitten and get them to a place where they no longer feel the need to bite.  I do it without yanking, jerking, hitting, kicking, poking, restraining or using shock collars.  I believe in giving every dog a chance but I am also realistic in the fact that some dogs are just too dangerous to be around humans.  I work with all kinds of breeds and mixed breeds, from Pomeranians to pitbulls. I also work with my colleague, retired police lieutenant, canine aggression and forensic expert and VSPDT trainer Jim Crosby.  We are brought in by police departments if they need help investigating severe maulings or human fatalities by a dog that has happened in their communities.  I help Jim physically evaluate dogs that have killed people as well as working through crime scene pictures or going to crime scenes to determine what happened.  The work can be very distressing but it’s needed in order to find out the truth of what happened and why and to assemble data to educate dog owners everywhere so these preventable tragedies never happen.

So the question comes up yet again:  who was to blame for this horrendous attack? The dog, the child or the parent or relatives that were responsible for the child’s care?  Yes, some attacks are simply tragic accidents while others could have been prevented.  But the plain facts are these:  bites, severe maulings and fatal attacks do not happen ‘out of the blue.’  They are often the result of a perfect storm of environment, situation, misunderstanding and human failure.

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27 thoughts on “A Fatal Dog Attack – How Missing Key Signs Led to Tragedy

  1. Helen McCann

    Stories like this fuel my desire to do my bit. I believe a break down in canine-human communication has resulted in tragedies such as this and (if the statistics are to be believed) an increase in dog attacks overall in recent years with children under 10 being the population group far more likely to be bitten than any other group.

    We expect so much of our hounds and I feel like a stuck record in discussions when a repeat :

    If a dog hasn’t been taught or learned that a situation/experience is pleasurable/safe than why are we surprised by their fearful/aggressive response?

    Why do we expect dogs to tolerate so much bad behaviour on our part and not respond in a negative way at times?

    I have my first dog safety talk planned (age range 4-6 yrs) in July. Researching the subject has been intriguing and scaling the information I want to impart back to the basics for my target audience has been so interesting.

    I applaud the work you do with Jim Crosby in the aftermath of a dog attack and wish this process was introduced to Great Britain. Its soul destroying to hear of an attack on the news with the usual negative ‘out of the blue’ soundbites and wish the results of the sort of investigations you’re involved with were sensitively used as a follow up story to explain and educate.

  2. Kelsie

    What a terrible story. I could not agree more with what you have said here. What a sad, preventable tragedy. We have to keep educating people about canine language and that NO dog is a toy, nor should it be expected to act like one.

  3. lauren

    I agree that dogs should be socialized and that parents should supervise small children around dogs that they don't know well. I'm sorry this happened and hopefully it will happen less often with proper HUMAN education and dog socialization. Thank you for writing this article

  4. Diana

    I think the blame lays with a combination of people. The parents of the child who allowed their child to "play" with a dog that way and did not teach their child to respect animals and the owners who did not have the dog neutered and did not socialize the dog nor give him the love, attention and training he should have had. I get so tired of people blaming breeds for being vicious. It is the owner, not the dog/breed who is to blame. I used to do dog behavior at our local humane shelter, and the pit bulls and pit bulls mixes were some of the sweetest dogs that came in (Chihuahuas were the worse for biting). In fact, while he was with us we used a huge pit bull to teach our teen volunteers how to get dogs in and out of their pens.

  5. Jade Thompson

    i loved what you said about this you are so true and i just wish and hope that more and more people will start to understand this, your my role model and i want to become a canine behaviorist and trainer and help dogs have a better life like you do, i love your work and what you do for these animals sometimes i think they need the most help.

  6. Tamara L. Keegan

    Right on! Dogs ALWAYS show signs before they attack! I see the videos on youtube and the dog is almost always showing "whale eye" which is the first sign the dog is stressed and beginning to become agitated. It is the fault of the dog owner for not properly socializing/training their dogs AND children.

    Forceful training methods: hitting, kicking, shock collars, etc. on a dog whom has already shown aggression towards people is ridiculous. You're only furthering that particular dog's earned distrust of humans.

    Thanks for this informative article.

  7. Patricia Zulaica

    Parents are to blame. They need to educate themselfs and their kids. Small children can be very anoying, Iam sure the dog did not mean to kill the child, but the diferece in streinght with a 2 year old kid and a dogs is quite large.

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  9. Liz Senteney

    Really great take on this, Victoria. Thank you for a sensible approach to the situation.

    It should also be noted, that it was reported the bite occurred at 11:30am, and the child was not taken to the hospital until 2pm. I feel like that is a key factor in the death of the child.

    Only the ADULTS who were there at the time are to blame. The child did not know better, as well, the child also had mild autism.

    Many don't understand that this was NOT "out of the blue" and was not an "attack," it was a single warning bite. This does not make the dog human aggressive, as many are claiming. Any dog, of any breed, would bite given the circumstances. This is not a breed issue.

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  11. terry

    Absolutely well written explanation to the so often story we read weekly... When are we going to be able to get jon-q-public to listen. how many video's have to be on u-tube with a baby, toddler, slapping, jumping on, pulling jowls , and the most common statement , "well good dogs will tolerate that".. would they?? Thank you for writting this piece.

    Terry Kordulak,

  12. steven

    As a pitbull owner this really angers me.. I adopted a 5 1/2 month old pit and we treated as if he is a baby.
    He is the most gentle dog I've ever had. Happy go lucky animal. And this was my first large breed.
    Pitbulls definitely get a bad wrap, but until you own one you don't and can't really
    say that these gentle giants are bad. When I walk Vito (that's our pits name) thru my neighborhood
    its always the little dogs that are barking biting and being aggressive. My lil buddy doesn't even bark
    if the door bell rings or if someone knocks. In the 80's dobermans were bad dogs
    then in the 90's it was the rotweilers turn to be the aggressor, now in the 00's its the pitbull..
    Ignorance is bliss to some, but they should interacting with one before critizing them.

  13. Julia Jester

    This was the kids fault or should i say the parents because they never taught the kid to respect animals.You don't ride dogs you ride horses.I hope the parents know that if they had taught the kid to not abuse animals that this would have never happened.I don't care what kind of dog it is if you abuse it ,it will defend itself just as we would defend ourselves.This dog sure does not need to die because of defending itself.I think all animals have the right to defend themselves.If they hurt someone doing it so be it.Teach your kids to respect animals and stuff like this won't happen!

  14. theresa kjjær

    its a terrible accident, and that could have been avoided
    what i also notice is the socalled experts always lash out and even if the dog is not a pitmix it still goes on the headlines it is
    in denmark they use the word fighting dog, and i find that very problematic
    as you may or may not know, we have a ban against 13 breeds including tornjak,sarplanic,pit,amstaff etc, but this fall we hope to get i removed
    unfortunately its still hard for us to get the politicians to listen to TRUE experts and true stories and what we should do about aggressive dogs... simple...teach the owners nomatter the breed

  15. kirsty edmunds

    Hi victoria, I just want to say thank you for this post. Theres so many people who dont think your techniques work as well, especially with 'aggressive' dogs. But I thank you soooooo much!! After more and more dog attacks more people are blaming dog breeds, it hurts to see how many people avoid you when you walk something like a rottweiler down the street. I see so many dogs every day who are being misunderstood, and its the owners of the dogs that are unwilling to look deeper at them selves to find the problem. My dog (lab retreiver) was aggressive after a dog attack afew years ago but after alot of hard work trying to understand what he was saying to me, I managed to help him be a great dog, and now he helps me be a better person. Also like this post said getting my dog the snip was THE most rewarding thing for me. Thanx again victroia xx

  16. KJ

    I live just east of the area in California where this happened. It is a terrible tragedy, but all I can think of is how stupid it was to let any child, especially a toddler climb on any breed of dog like that. Many dogs would react that way to a child climbing on it. Sadly, the child lost his life due to the ignorance of the adults.

  17. Nancy Byron

    I loved this post. As the owner of 8 dogs, 6 of them off the street, I have witnessed first hand both how signals are sent out and how positive rehabilitation causes change; Most notably with my Pitbull, Tyson. Tyson was found on the street in pouring rain, truck chain padlocked to his neck and battery acid scars down his entire back. To say he has baggage is an understatement. When we first took Tyson in he couldn't be within 100 yards of another dog without wanting to kill it and, though he still cannot be socialized with strange dogs or go to dog parks, with patience and a great deal of daily pack walking, he happily lives in the house with 7 other dogs ranging from 5l bs to 55 lbs. Tyson will likely always be a work in progress but we have learned to read his signals and never, ever leave him unsupervised with the other dogs. He also never leaves my front door without a well-fitting muzzle strapped onto his face. Dogs are certainly not people but their feelings are every bit as valid and anyone interacting with them in any way would do well to acknowledge that and respect it. Thanks Victoria for all that you do. Watching your show has made an immense impact on my life.
    (side note) It would be GREAT if you would add share buttons to your site so that stories like these could be easily shared via social networks. Educating people on the treatment of animals is something I rty to do regularly

  18. Diane Little


    I have your latest book and love it. We adopted a chihuahua mix rescue. Our first dog training class was a disaster. Our chihuahua actually tried to attack a pitbull who was so gentle.we realize that the trainer was using the old methods and treated our dog horribly. We were glad to get out if there.

    Reading your latest book and getting help from those on your Positviely forum, we realize that our dog is acting our his fears.

    In this case, I believe that it is the fault of all I involved except the dog and child. Neither of them were trained properly. In the case of the dog, not socialized. In the case of the poor child, parents didn't teach him the right way to treat a dog.

    Sad to say, these incidents are always blamed on the dog. People need to look at themselves, just as guns don't kill people, people kill people. Here the people involved led to the child's death. The parents and the dog owner should be brought up on charges of endangering the life of a child. Not the dog.

  19. Ashley

    I Know what you are saying is true, but all the comments sayings dogs ALWAYS show signs is false. If you look at dogbite.com and acctually read some of those tradgic stories of older and younger people taking walks when a pack of dogs "pit bulls in the news report" attack and kill these people for no reason. Also they have numerous reports of were "pit bulls" grab 2 and 3 DAY old infants out of bed and pratically bite their head off yet again what did that baby do to provoke this behaivor?? I myself own 2 very large German Shepherds and a Bloodhound, but I would NEVER trust them alone with my son even though they have never shown any aggression to a human! In my opinion NO dog deserves all your trust because just like a human they can just snap and turn on you in the blink of an eye without showing any signs.

  20. Sylvia

    This is such a true article, well written. Parents need to educate their child(ren) before they come close to a dog. I also think that it's the parents responsibility to learn the body language of a dog so they can quickly react when needed.
    Thank you for sharing this with us Victoria, you do a great job !

  21. Dave Hardman

    Very well put. Unfortunately too many people do not understand their dogs body language and therefor miss the warning signs completely. We have two Dogue de Bordeaux and whenever we have friends children at the house they get a lecture on how to treat the dogs and what not to do. We're fortunate in having two dogs that love kids and will happily role around on the floor with them.
    Most importantly though, the children are never left on their own with the dogs. After reading up on UK fatal dog attacks there seems to be one common denominator, that being that the owner was not present. So I urge all dog owners to never leave your dog alone with children and learn to read your dogs body language, you might just save a life.

  22. The Good Fight

    Since, even other dogs cannot read the cues from pit bull type dogs how can you expect people to. Of course parents should teach children how to respect a dogs space but errors such as these should result in a warning bite only. Companion animals that do not show any bite inhibition which is common in pit bull type dogs and their mixes is a very difficult trait to manage. Most pit bull owners reject and are offended by the fact that they should own and know how to use a bite stick. It is simply a manageme tool specifically designed for pit bulls and recommended by BadRap.org. Being a responsible owner included using all the necessary tools available to manage anticipated behavior.

  23. Jan Smith

    The Myth:
    Most people believe that a “dangerous” dog is a dog that barks, growls or tries to bite consistently and predictably.

    The Reality:
    Some dogs that bark and lunge at people are actually anxious or fearful. In most cases they are bluffing until they can safely find a place to run and hide. These dogs may inflict a minor bite or grab a pants cuff, but are not known for initiating serious attacks.

    The “obviously aggressive” dogs who deliver multiple puncture wounds in their first year frequently result in euthanization by the owner, a shelter, or Animal Control.

    As with human serial killers, the most dangerous dogs are the ones who lead apparently normal lives and interact normally with 99% of people they meet. These dogs may visit the dog park every day for years with no incidents, then suddenly grab a small dog at a picnic and shake it to death. Or the dog may be a repair shop mascot who greets children all day, but then launches an unprovoked attack on the owner’s visiting niece the same evening.

  24. Bob Cole

    'pit bull type dogs' have large strong jaws that do horrible damage. 'pit bull type dogs' don't do warning bites, they go for the kill. I 'm sick and tired of people acting like it's ok to have those dogs as family pets. Every single day in this country someone is attacked by a 'pit bull type dog'. Its time to breed them out of existence. They were bred to be fighters. Anyone who abhors Michael Vick but thinks it's ok to have and breed these dogs is as much a part of the problem as he is . Why would you selectively breed for these characteristics? For what reason? So you can wave a loaded gun around your house for 10 -15 years? It's stupid, it's irresponsible and criminal as far as I 'm concerned.

  25. Rivka

    All the things you stated are urban legends. If people were attacked every day by a dog that always "goes for the kill" (that always going for the kill is a total falsehood) there would be hundreds of dog-caused deaths in the United States every year. The actual number of humans killed each year by all breeds combined in the USA is 20 to 30. That's fewer than almost any other cause of death. If you want to save lives, focus on speaking against something more dangerous, like texting while driving (responsible for 1,300,000 crashes in the USA in 2011).

  26. Wendy

    My 17 year old son is going to be dog sitting a pit bull terrier (and another smaller family dog) sometime this month while the family is out of town... For two weeks. We don't spend much time with dogs on a regular basis. So what are the specific warning signs and what do you do when you notice them? This article doesn't elaborate. I admit I personally am afraid of dogs. My son, however, despite being bit across the face (with no apparent warning) when he was 7, loves dogs, but he is clueless about them. Also, this family adores our son and would never knowingly put him in harm's way.

  27. Julie Perry

    But the plain facts are these: bites, severe maulings and fatal attacks do not happen ‘out of the blue.’ They are often the result of a perfect storm of environment, situation, misunderstanding and human failure.

    Human failure being the key here. Three of my children as well as I have been attacked by my irresponsible neighbor's loose (very aggressive) dogs on my own property, even in my driveway. They come upon you so quickly that there is nowhere safe to go. They are allowed to roam freely, which makes them believe that my yard and the whole neighborhood is their territory. Some people should not be allowed to own dogs. No one should have to be afraid to stand in his own yard or driveway, or to take a walk in the neighborhood. Pet owners, please be responsible!

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