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Thoughtful Thursday: Expert Witness in Dog Bite Case

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The American Staffordshire Terrier--aka "pit bull."

I’ve always described myself as a pet owner advocate, one who figuratively speaks for dogs and cats and translates for their owners. But I never realized that I’d serve as a spokesperson in the more literal sense.

Last August I was contacted by a local defense attorney about a dog bite case that happened many months earlier. At first, he simply wanted my opinion about dog behavior. Ultimately I was appointed by the court to be an expert witness. I learned this background about the case.

The day of the event, the 4-year-old pit bull named Buddy (yes, one of THOSE!) owned by the home-owner’s friend had been placed on a tether hooked to an overhead runner-line outside the fenced yard. This was only the first or second time the dog had ever been tethered, because the home owner (“Grandma”) felt sorry about confining him in a very small dog run. Home owner’s 5-year-old granddaughter loved Buddy and had often been around him, and the dog had never (to their knowledge) growled or offered any indication of aggression to anyone.

Apparently Grandma was babysitting the grandchild, and a number of adults were in the house on the day in question. Strangers with car problems also crossed back and forth through the fenced yard within sight of Buddy, leaving the gate open as they worked on the car.

When the toddler wanted to go outside and play with her tricycle (outside the fenced yard and near the tethered dog), Grandma asked her to wait so Grandma could first visit the bathroom. Other adults inferred they’d go outside, too, and watch the girl. But when Grandma left the toilet, nobody knew where the toddler was. Normally the gate would have been locked closed, but the car problems meant it was left open. They ultimately found the child unconscious, nearly scalped, on the ground within reach of Buddy who sat quietly watching.

Any case of dog aggression and child injury is horrifying. It doesn’t have to happen—and families naturally are outraged and devastated when such things take place. The Grandmother was of course mortified—and the child’s mother upset—but all agreed it was a horrible accident.

Good news—the little girl survived but will need reconstructive surgery. Bad news—the men beat Buddy to death for his crime. Tragic news—the child cried when she learned Buddy’s fate (and she still loves dogs, thank god!) Even worse news—the State (DA) decided to prosecute Grandma as negligent, charged with criminal injury to a child, saying she should have recognized Buddy was dangerous simply because he was a pit bull. Grandma faced a potential sentence of 20 years.

The case was postponed twice. Finally last week on March 2, I offered expert testimony to educate the jury about 1) normal dog behavior 2) definition of “dangerous dog” 3) predictive situations for aggressive behavior, and 4) media bias toward APBT “type” dogs. During my 2+ hours on the stand, among other things I explained the importance of puppy socialization and dog training, why tethering a dog can be dangerous, translated common misunderstood “dog language” warnings, and debunked breed-specific “bite statistics” based on my own experience and information from CDC, ASPCA, HSUS, AVMA and many other sources. I was the last witness.

The next day, the jury was out 5 hours. They came back with a Not Guilty verdict.

RIP, Buddy.

amy

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About amyshojai

Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified animal behavior consultant, award winning author, and spokesperson to the pet industry.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Monday Mentions & National Dog Bite Prevention Week « Amy Shojai's Blog

  2. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Poor Buddy. You just can’t leave a dog alone in a strange situation and expect him to know what to do. Dogs are very protective of their territory, and having people wandering in and out must have had the poor thing going nuts.

    As for the Crown/District Attorney, he/she should have been charged with malfeasance.

    Wayne

    Reply

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