The mauling death this month of a 9-year-old Yuba County boy by his sister’s three pet pit bulls has fueled heated discussion about the often uneasy mix of children and domestic dogs.
Some people maintain the breed of the dogs was a key factor in the death of Tyler Trammell-Huston, arguing that pit bulls are genetically programmed for slaughter and don’t belong in a civilized society.
“These are dogs that have been meticulously bred over hundreds of years to have qualities that have to do with fighting and killing,” said Kenneth Phillips, a Beverly Hills lawyer who handles dog-bite cases nationally. “If you have a pointer, the pointer’s going to point. The pit bull has been hardwired to be a fighting animal that will fight to its death.”
Others just as passionately assert that breed is irrelevant. Pit bulls can be fine family pets, proponents insist, provided they get the ample exercise and training they need, and are treated with care.
“It’s more important to deal with individual dogs and hold reckless owners accountable regardless of what breed dog they own,” said Delyse Gannaway, who heads a group that helps socialize pit bulls and other large breeds at the Sacramento County Animal Shelter in preparation for adoption.
Experts and credible studies don’t offer a simple resolution. While pit bulls are responsible for a large number of dog-bite fatalities, experts will tell you that there are common contributing factors in dog attacks that transcend breed. They say, in general, the public needs a better understanding of how children can interact safely with dogs, whether the family pet is a pit bull or golden retriever.
A study published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that the 256 dog-bite-related fatalities from 2000 to 2009 had a number of factors in common but that no particular breed of dog could be identified as a prime culprit.
Most of the fatalities “were characterized by coincident, preventable factors; breed was not one of these,” the study’s authors concluded.
The most common factor, present in 87 percent of fatal dog attacks, was the absence of an able-bodied person to intervene, that study found. In the Yuba case, the boy’s sister left him alone with the dogs for a few hours while she went to work early in the morning. Another common factor was the owners’ failure to neuter their dogs. All three pit bulls in Yuba, one male and two females, were intact.
A third common element, the study found, was the victim having had only infrequent contact with the dog. In the Yuba case, the boy was in foster care in Sacramento County and visiting his sister on weekends.
That doesn’t mean that breed is irrelevant to dog behavior. Dogs bred for aggression and protection require special handling, experts said, and their size and build can affect their ability to do serious damage.
A study by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2000 showed that more than half of the 238 fatal dog attacks over a 20-year period involved pit-bull type dogs or Rottweilers. Both breeds are known for their strength and tenacity.
Colleen Lynn, who runs the website dogsbite.org, was attacked by a pit bull while jogging in 2007. She said the attack came without warning. The pit bull was on a leash, being walked by another woman. It lunged for Lynn’s face as its owner struggled to get it under control. Lynn blocked with her arm; a single bite crushed a bone in her forearm and required surgery.
Lynn isn’t a pit bull hater, but said she started her website to provide accurate information about the danger they can present. Breeders of fighting pit bulls have traditionally selected animals that were capable of “inflicting the maximum injury possible,” Lynn said. And pit bulls can do more damage than other breeds because they tend to hold and shake, not bite and release, she said.
Gannaway, who heads the group working to socialize pit bulls at the Sacramento County shelter, doesn’t discount the idea that some dogs may be too dangerous to adopt. But she said breed is not the defining factor.
Gannaway lives in Fair Oaks with three pit bulls and four children, and said she’s made a point of teaching them to respect each other’s space.
“My children are not allowed to crawl on top of the dogs. They do not pull tails. They do not pull ears,” she said. “I keep my children safe. My children come first. I keep my dogs safe, too.”
She and her fellow volunteers with the Pit Bull Socialization and Obedience Crew take careful note of the signs that dogs display before they approach them at the shelter on Bradshaw Road. Is a dog relaxed or lunging? Is its mouth open or closed? Are its eyes fearful or calm? Is its tail tucked or loose? Are its ears back, forward or neutral?
“All of these signs tell us if we can open a gate or not,” Gannaway said. “If we didn’t have those signs, it would be dangerous what we are doing.”
In Florida, Joey and Carrie Perk have set up a foundation dedicated to ensuring children are safe around dogs, with a special focus on understanding dogs’ behavior prior to biting. The Perks’ 2-year-old son, Liam, was killed by a well-loved family pet. Their Weimaraner, Loyd, snapped at the toddler, apparently in annoyance, slashing one of the main blood vessels in his neck.
“My little boy’s life drained right out of him,” Carrie Perk wrote on the Liam J. Perk Foundation’s website, liamjperkfoundation.org. The site has simple icons with images signaling signs of stress in dogs: licking lips, yawning, showing the whites of their eyes.
The foundation’s efforts sprung from the couple’s realization that they had not recognized the signs of discomfort in their dog until it was too late. Among other behaviors, it had turned its back on their rambunctious son, in essence saying it had had enough. The boy’s father was in the same bedroom when the lightning-quick attack happened.
Many people report that dog attacks occur without warning, but the Perks say it may be that the humans involved didn’t see or understand the dog’s signals. “It is important for dog owners to understand what their dog’s body language is saying to them and intervene when necessary,” Carrie Perk wrote on the couple’s site.
In the Yuba County case, what happened between 9-year-old Tyler and his sister’s three dogs in her small travel trailer on Jan. 3 may never be known.
The sister, Alexandria Griffin-Heady, 24, has said she went to work for two to three hours early that morning, leaving her brother in bed with her oldest dog, Coca, the mother of the two younger dogs in the trailer. Griffin-Heady said she returned to find those two dogs, a brother and sister, loose from the crate she’d left them in, and her brother savagely mauled.
One dog, an adolescent male, seemed to have been the main attacker based on his condition when she got home, she said. She signed forms allowing all three dogs to be put down at the Yuba County animal shelter.
Animal experts who have monitored the story said the situation was a disaster waiting to happen. Children should not be left alone with a dog, regardless of how gentle the dog may seem to the owner, they said.
“I wouldn’t do that even with my golden retriever and small terrier,” said Rick Johnson, head of the Sacramento SPCA. “That kind of lack of knowledge of a dog owner is disturbing.”
He recommended pit bull owners take the SPCA’s pit bull training classes, offered regularly, and take advantage of the group’s free spay-and-neuter program for pit bulls.
Others said that having three related dogs in the same household, including two siblings just reaching sexual maturity, was a serious error likely to lead to fights among the dogs.
Perhaps the boy let the dogs out of their crate and a fight ensued, with the animals redirecting their aggression toward him, Johnson said. Maybe he played with the dogs, and got them too wound up, or hit one of the animals, provoking it, others suggested.
“So many questions that never will be answered came to light,” Johnson said.