Rachel Newcomb, 63, says she is still terrorized by dreams of a dog’s snapping jaws in front of her face.
Unlike some, her dreams spring from a real nightmare.
A relaxing Sunday afternoon trip for Newcomb, her son and her dog, Tiny, at Patterson’s dog park turned serious Nov. 1 when they were attacked by large male pit bull. The result was bite marks, bruises and thousands of dollars in veterinary bills for their near-paralyzed animal.
Newcomb said the near-100-pound pit bull broke away from two young children and grabbed her 12-pound female American terrier in its jaws.
“I asked the children if the dog was friendly, and they assured me of it before they brought him in,” she said. “It happened so fast. I remember seeing Tiny in its jaws and the blood dripping from her little stomach where her intestines were showing, and then how it went after my son.
“I don’t still don’t know how I had the strength to pull him off.”
Newcomb’s son, Ron Toscano — just days out of the hospital after heart surgery — said he went after the dog when it snatched Tiny and tried to run off, before the dog turned and bit him on the wrist.
“All I could think of was a segment I had seen during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, and I started punching its eyes until it dropped her,” he said. “I don’t want to see this happen to any other dogs, or let alone people. If I had been a child, for instance, this could have turned out a lot worse.”
After a trip to an emergency pet hospital in Modesto and more than $3,000 worth of surgery, Newcomb said, the vet is unsure whether Tiny will walk again. The small dog is confined to a pillow in an upstairs bedroom of Newcomb’s house and eats a diet of baby food, with a tube inserted near its legs to drain fluids and a morphine patch for pain.
Breed or owner to blame?
While pit bulls have developed a reputation for being aggressive, many advocates of the breed — once known as the “nanny dog” because they were used to watch out for small children — say the breed is often misunderstood.
Donna Reynolds, executive director of San Francisco-based B.A.D. R.A.P., a nonprofit that specializes in educating the community on responsible pit bull ownership, said the size of a dog can cause more problems than its breed.
“What needs to be clarified is that this type of behavior is not a ‘pit bull thing’ but a ‘large and small dog thing,’” Reynolds wrote in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, small dogs are not always safe around larger dogs — especially in dog parks, where dogs excite each other as they run in packs, strict supervision is impossible, and chaos rules. Aggression can happen within any breed.”
The number of dog bites has continually risen in the past 20 years — with pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios and their mixes found to be responsible for 74 percent of dog bites in the U.S and Canada, according to a November 2006 study by Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People.
But attorney Kenneth Phillips, author of the Dog Bite Law (dogbitelaw.com) and a noted authority on the subject, wrote on his site that the dog bite epidemic is a broader problem than just a few breeds.
“While pit bulls and Rottweilers inflict a disproportionate number of serious and even fatal injuries,” Phillips wrote, “the dog bite epidemic involves many different breeds, and results from many different causes.”
After the attack
Efforts to find the pit bull responsible for the Nov. 1 attack and its owner have been unsuccessful, according to Sgt. Dorothy DiGino of the Stanislaus County Department of Animal Services.
“At this time, we haven’t had much luck tracking down the owner or the dog,” she said. “However, even if they were found, because the park is off-leash, it could throw a wrench in things. It’s really an unfortunate thing that happened.”
According to California law, the owner of any dog is automatically liable for any harm inflicted on a person who is bitten while in a public or private place, but not necessarily for injury to another dog, Phillips wrote in an e-mail. However, in the case of pit bulls — often bred for aggressiveness — he said fault for all damages would most likely fall on the owner.
Newcomb and her son, once regulars at the dog park, said they are unsure whether they will return again any time soon, but they hope others will learn from their experience.
“People need to be more responsible with their pets,” Toscano said. “The rules of the park are there for a reason, and it’s important to follow them to keep everyone safe. The dog park can be a great thing, but what happened with us is proof that things like this can happen.”
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Stay safe with your pooch
Liam Crowe, CEO and master dog behavioral therapist for SPCA International, offers the following tips when taking your dog to a dog park.
• Know your dog. Not all dogs enjoy meeting new dogs. Don’t let your dog get overwhelmed by meeting too many new dogs at once. Instead, test your pet with another dog in a controlled environment first.
• Closely supervise your dog. Don’t get distracted by talking to other owners. Instead, keep a close eye on your dog at all times and monitor its body language with other dogs to help avoid trouble before it begins.
• Learn body language. Educate yourself about dog body language and communication signals so you can distinguish among fear, play and anger.
• Never physically intervene in a fight. Instead, use a water bottle to squirt the dogs in the face or try to distract them by throwing something near them. Never put yourself in the middle.
• Know when to leave. Remove your dog from the park if it is threatened or bullied and seems fearful; begins to display aggressive behavior by becoming overexcited or threatening toward other dogs; pants heavily or seems too tired. Keep your dog’s welfare a top priority.
• Learn more. Read more tips at http://www.spcai.org/learn/animal-care-advice/item/123-dog-park-safety-tips.html.