Condemned to Death

It’s the policy everywhere to put to death dogs who bite. It doesn’t matter why. You can beat your dog, torture him, tie him up, starve him, let kids tease him without mercy from puppy-hood through the remainder of his life. No dog is ever – no matter how severe the provocation – allowed to fight back. Usually, the dog can’t even run away. For reasons I don’t understand, the courts don’t find anything wrong with this picture.


When my granddaughter was 5 or so, it was Thanksgiving dinner and she was on the floor playing with our beloved (adored, maybe even worshiped) Norwich Terrier champion (yes she was, really). Divot was retired from the show ring, but she was Garry’s champion of the heart. The two of them had a serious thing going. He was her devoted love slave. I’m glad he never had to choose between us because I know I’d have lost the toss.

As the gathering concentrated on passing the turkey and cranberry sauce, a shriek loud enough to breathe life into the dead bird arose from under the table. Divot had bitten Kaity. No blood. Some red indentations. And Divot had not bothered to run away or hide. She was still sitting next to Kaity, calmly and quietly. Whatever had happened, the drama was all coming from Kaity’s side.

“She BIT me,” wailed my granddaughter.

“And what,” asked her father, “did YOU do?”

We are very doggy around here. We all knew Divot (aka Her Majesty). And we knew Kaity (aka Drama Queen). Divot wouldn’t bite for no reason and if she intended harm, even at her advanced age, she would have done more damage than that.

It turned out Kaity had been teasing Divot, offering her pieces of turkey, then pulling them away. She’d been playing the game for a while. How long? Five-year olds are not good about time and Divot wasn’t saying. Whatever time had passed, it proved long enough to convince Divot this pup (Kaity) needed to learn some manners. So she bit Kaity. She didn’t savage her, tear her to pieces. It would have been hard for an 11-pound terrier to wreak life-threatening havoc on any human. The bite was a statement, not an attack. Divot just wanted to make a point. She couldn’t give Kaity a time out or have long talk. So — she used her jaws.

The outcome for Kaity was a rebuke for teasing Divot — rather redundant since Divot had made her point. Kaity never teased Divot again, though she was caught teasing other dogs. Now, at 16, she’d be humiliated to admit teasing a dog, but kids tease animals. Even good kids who love animals. They tease each other too and occasionally bite although I’ve never heard anyone suggest we kill a kid for biting another kid. Nor do we murder cats for scratching.

How come we kill dogs so swiftly and mercilessly? If we had foolishly taken Kaitlin to the emergency room, the incident would have been reported. They’d have taken Divot from us and killed her and done it without a second thought. Rules are rules after all. A dog bites, a dog dies.75-KKandTinker The legal definition for “vicious dog” is:

1 – The dog bit? Yes?

2 – The dog is vicious.

3 – Kill the dog.

A bit simplistic? You think? It’s a legal relic. It comes from back when the term “mad dog” terrified everyone. Mad dogs bite; kill them.

In our modern society, “vicious dogs” are usually frightened dogs. Abused and mistreated dogs. Dogs that have been trained to attack because someone finds it funny — or is trying to protect a stash of illegal whatever. A few dogs are genuinely bad seeds, but it’s rare. Some dogs get nervous around children or noise or just too many people. These dogs should live in homes that don’t have children, a lot of noise or many people. Duh.

The long incarceration and brief trial of Phineas, the yellow Labrador Retriever

In the news right now is the story of Phineas, a yellow Labrador retriever. He has been locked up in his home town of Salem, Missouri for a year. Last June, he bit a 7-year-old girl. The bite wasn’t severe but it drew blood. The mayor ruled the dog was vicious and ordered him put down. Exactly how the incident unfolded has yet to be clearly determined. Probably because Phineas has been strangely silent in his own defense and as far as I can tell, most of the people around him are none too bright.

Phineas is (was?) owned by Patrick and Amber Sanders. They got two pups from a friend in 2010. The kids named them after cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb. Ferb went to live with an uncle. Phineas stayed . He was kept on a long lead in the fenced-in backyard and played with the kids. A family dog.

The Sanders’ had no particular trouble with Phineas. Police had no reports of problems. On June 22, the dog bit a friend of one of the Sanders children as they played in the yard. She went to the hospital for treatment. Police were called. They issued a report that indicates the girl’s mom didn’t want to press charges. She just wanted to be sure the dog was healthy. The town’s animal control and nuisance officer took Phineas for a 10-day hold in quarantine. No rabies. Patrick Sanders was cited by police for his failing to keep Phineas’ rabies shots up to date. He paid an $86 fine.

A couple of weeks later, the town’s mayor held a brief hearing to determine Phineas’ fate. He looked at photos, read the report. By now, the report had expanded to include two previously unreported dog bites by Phineas, one involving the same 7-year-old girl and an incident involving the same girl’s older sister. No one had mentioned either incident to the police until after the June 22 bite.

Objection! The defense never heard about these incidents during discovery!

It goes to motive, your honor.

Mayor Brown sentenced the dog to death.

The fight to save Phineas became a local and then a national cause célèbre. Maybe, with all the publicity, the pooch will win a pass. Maybe not. Most of the time, the dog loses no matter how much effort is put into saving him or her.

Would I keep Phineas if I had children and knew the dog snapped or bit sometimes? No. I would have re-homed Phineas to a child free environment or one with older children who knew how to behave with dogs. I would also never keep my dog tied. That’s asking for trouble. Big dogs who nip shouldn’t be with children, certainly not unsupervised. Any dog bite from a 100 pound retriever could be serious. There’s a lot of power in those jaws. Obviously Phineas’ owners were clueless about proper care and training for a large breed pup. But hey, this is America. We sell guns to people who are even more irresponsible. Why not let them have big dogs too? You mean it’s not in the Bill of Rights? Of course, dogs have no rights, so if anything goes wrong, we just kill them.


Any dog will bite if tormented enough. Some will bite when startled or frightened. Abused dogs sometimes try to fight back against their tormentors. We kill them too. The dog is always wrong.

Intentional bites by otherwise good canine citizen are usually gentle, a reproof. Puppies nip all the time when they play. They nip each other, their owners and their moms. She bites them back to remind them to keep their teeth to themselves. It’s the obligation of puppy owners to teach their pets to not bite, even in fun. Many owners don’t seem to get the connection between letting them bite when they are little and the dog thinking biting is okay when they grow up.

Small dogs bite more often big breeds, but people don’t report being savaged by a Chihuahua. Little dogs are less patient and protective of children than big dogs. Maybe they are aware of their own vulnerability. Over all, a family dog will opt to protect the kids. It’s DNA, their job. Hard-wired into the system. When something else happens, there’s a reason. Personally, I’m inclined to presume the dog is innocent until proven very guilty.

Summer Memories: Divot at Riverbend

Summer Memories: Divot at River Bend

And now, for my final anecdote

I was raised with Doberman Pinschers, wonderful smart dogs who get a bad rap in popular media. One day, my mother was yelling at my sister. The dog — never trained as a guard dog — was sometimes over-protective of we kids. She was very protective of the family as a whole, but where me and my siblings were concerned, she was hyper-vigilant. At that particular moment, her judgment was tested. From her doggish point of view, my mother was threatening my sister. Poor Rusty had to make a choice and she nipped my mother.

Considering how powerful a Dobie’s bite can be, it wasn’t much of a bite. I do far worse things to my hands cutting veggies in the kitchen. No one punished Rusty, though she slunk around looking guilty for days. But we understood: she had felt she needed to protect the younger, weaker child from the big strong mommy. She was just a dog and her ability to figure out the situation was limited.

Should we have had our dog put down? Of course not. It was our fault. My mother learned a lesson: don’t yell at the kids in front of the dog. It upsets the dog. Rusty was miserable at having hurt one of her charges.

People will continue to buy dogs and mistreat them, sometimes with malice or cruelty, often through ignorance and stupidity. People will buy the wrong breeds, will fail to provide ample training, socialization, exercise, or even a reasonable degree of supervision. Dogs will continue to pay with their lives for their owners’ ignorance and errors and the bad things done to them.

– – –

Categories: Animals, Family, Legal Matters, Nature, News, Pets, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. I have a story that’s been in my drafts folder, finished, since I started the blog. It’s about how I got the dog-attack scars on my face, (from my much larger dog trying to save me, but ending up just scratching me across the face)… but I’m always afraid someone will say “you should have put him down!” or other nonsense. It’s a weird piece anyway, but this blog made me think of it again. You’re right. We’re unfair to dogs, and we don’t take responsibility for our own actions. Sad. 😦


    • You’re so right. Humans are big on blame, not so big at accepting responsibility. I get more upset at the cruelty we inflict on animals than on people … probably because they trust us so completely and we fail them so often. They are the most loyal and loving of creatures … yet so often discounted and discarded as “things.” I like dogs much more than most people.


      • I’m not even really a “dog person”, but I never understood how people could be so quick to diminish the life or take away the innate rights of any creature just because… why? because he/she doesn’t speak? It just doesn’t make sense.


        • No, it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps that’s how come one of the early signs of sociopathic behavior is cruelty to animals. But you know, we are as a species very casual about the taking of life … not only of animals, but of each other. How many other species murder each other?


          • So true. Well, the best we can do is spread the word. Sometimes people aren’t being deliberately cruel… sometimes they just don’t stop to consider their actions. 🙂 We just need a few hundred thousand more posts like yours! 🙂


  2. Very well said!!


  3. This is an absolutely awesome blog, Marilyn. We, as you know, are owners of 2 Chihuahuas and 1 big Siberian Husky. The challenges of being a furry parent definitely can be present in our happy family. The Chihuahuas were here first and the Husky came later. I had MANY reservations about the Husky but she has joined this crazy group and is doing much better than I’d anticipated. She now spends her nights cuddled up with her mommy and daddy hogging the bed and enjoys my entire front lawn for her enjoyment each day. She is incredibly sweet and very loving. She is also, thankfully, very patient with my 2 year old grandson. Jace has been taught since Keira first joined us that he is NOT to torment her or the Chihuahuas and so far so good. I hope this trend continues, but as you said ANY dog could bite. We keep that in our minds daily. Dogs can truly enhance our lives as long as we teach our human family members to respect their furred family members. However, we must stay diligent.

    My son Matthew, was playing ball with a friend at another friend’s house. The ball ended up in the bushes and my son went to retrieve it. With his back turned and he bent over, the family golden retriever attacked him right between the legs. He was ripped open on the inner thigh right next to his genitals. With my son face down on the ground the dog then turned to his elbow cutting clean through each side to the bone. He tried to push the dog away with his feet and was then bitten on both ankles. He finally had to hit the dog to get it off him. Fortunately, the attack ended. All of the witnesses said it was a completely unprovoked attack. However, to the golden retriever my son presented a threat in the bushes and it took the actions to protect it’s territory. Many stitches and bandages later we took Matt home from the hospital.

    This dog was quarantined for 10 days and returned to the owner. We later heard that the dog attacked another child and finally the owner’s own child. Needless to say, the dog was then euthanized. We also found out that this dog had attacked another child previous to Matthew. In this situation it took several attacks before the dog was put down. Unfortunately, I think this dog should have been in a family without children but he did seem to have some serious territorial issues.

    I guess my point is, dogs are a man’s/woman’s best friend and need to be treated with love and devotion. However, always keep watch on children who might be more than the dog can handle. A quick pull of fur or yank on a leg can end badly resulting in stitches, bandages and the death of the dog just trying to defend itself.

    I enjoy your blog so much, Marilyn.



    • I never suggested (I hope!) that dogs that seriously bite should be kept and allowed to keep hurting people. Sometimes such dogs can be retrained, but almost always they need to be at the least rehomed into an environment that better suits them. Most of these problems — excessive territoriality, for example — could have been overcome or prevented by proper puppyhood socialization and training, but people are lazy. If they can teach their dog not to poop and pee in the house or chew the furniture, they figure their job is done.

      There are dogs that are the canine equivalent of criminals. Unfortunately, the law makes no distinction in dog behaviors. A nip and a savage attack are legally identical. The difference is how many people complain to the authorities. A dog can get a away with a lot if he/she is not reported or the victims get paid off in exchange for silence. It’s true with human criminals too. Money talks.

      The law needs to reflect the 21st century, not medieval Europe! Any dog who nips someone is not the same as a dangerous dog. I’ve never owned a dog who seriously attacked anyone, though I had a couple that I think were sufficiently protective that had someone provoked them, could have. But that would have had to be an actual intruder … and that is what the dog’s job is! I wouldn’t keep a dog I didn’t trust.


  4. Reblogged this on Films and Things and commented:
    Couldn’t have put it better myself!


  5. Couldn’t’ve put it better myself! Completely agree!
    It makes me angry how flippantly people kill dogs just for being dogs, and usually they are forced to act ‘viciously’ because of human ignorance.
    When I was a kid, I wound up my dog (a springer spaniel) and got bitten in the face, only a small pinprick cut…I still have the scar! She did it to warn me, she was behind what we lovingly called her ‘naughty chair’ because she’d hide behind there when she nicked things to chew, and she thought I was going to take her toy. It happened twice because I was an idiot child and I thought it was funny that she bared her teeth at me. I know better now of course! It was actually a valuable lesson, kids need to know not to get up in a dogs face like that.
    One of my pet hates is when people that don’t really like dogs get a dog because it’s cute or it makes them look ‘cool’. Those are usually the kinds of people that either abuse and neglect their dog, or dump it at a shelter.
    Someone I know, who had come to my house and almost refused to step over the threshold because they were ‘scared’ of my dog (who’s slightly bigger than the average lab) has since gone and got a Tibetan mastiff, which grow to the size of a small bear! Ridiculous


    • This is a battle I’ve been fighting as long as I can remember. There (really) are none so blind as those who will not see. You can educate (or try to educate) people, you can do what you can to sensitize people, but freedom belongs to the ignorant and sometimes evil as much as it belongs to the intelligents and caring. It’s a two-edged sword and I don’t always like that. In fact, it drives me nuts. Thank you for the reblog. If reading it wakes up a person or two, that’s worth something.



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