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How to react if dogs attack

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This pit bull is accused of killing a smaller Maltese in Spotsylvania on Jan. 12. / Photo by Reza Marvashti

This pit bull is accused of killing a smaller Maltese in Spotsylvania on Jan. 12. / Photo by Reza Marvashti

A pit bull is accused of attacking and killing a Maltese—a dog a fraction of its size—and then reportedly chasing children through a Spotsylvania County neighborhood.

Some people react by defending pit bulls, while others just as vehemently criticize them, both sides making generalizations about the dogs, which aren’t, in fact, an actual breed.

But the larger issue is what can be done if you, your child or your pet faces any attacking dog.

Stafford County dog trainer Laurie Williams owns three Maltese ranging in weight from 3 to 8 pounds. She reeled at news of a Jan. 12 incident in the Lancaster Gate subdivision in which a pit bull pulled a Maltese from its owner’s arms and killed it.

“My heart goes out to the dog owner and that poor little dog,” Williams said. “In all of my years involved with dogs, I can’t even imagine that.

“I’m angry because it’s so senseless.”

Knowing that not all people train, much less properly socialize, their dogs, she advises owners of small dogs to never take them anywhere a large dog could run loose.

“It is just not safe and their small dog does not stand a chance,” said Williams, who owns Pup ’N Iron Canine Fitness and Learning Center.

The same could be said for a child, or even an adult, as Spotsylvania Commonwealth’s Attorney Bill Neely said in recalling a case from nine years ago.

Dorothy Sullivan, 82, was killed on March 8, 2005, when three pit bulls attacked her beloved shih tzu, Buttons, as Sullivan was walking the small dog on a leash on her property in the Partlow area of Spotsylvania.

Sullivan apparently tried to reach down to protect her dog but was attacked by the other dogs. She and Buttons were killed.

The owner of the Maltese in the Jan. 12 incident reacted similarly, according to authorities. She was walking her dog in the neighborhood and picked it up when the pit bull came charging in her direction. But the pit bull jumped up, grabbed it and then killed it, Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jeff Pearce said.

Sullivan’s death demonstrates the risk of that reaction, said Neely, who successfully prosecuted the owner of the dogs in the 2005 case on a felony involuntary manslaughter charge.

“I know it’s your first instinct and probably what I would do, but it’s dangerous,” Neely said.


Latoya Johnson, 32, of Hastings Court is the owner of the pit bull officials allege was involved in the Jan. 12 attack in Lancaster Gate. She has been charged with two misdemeanors: letting her dog run at large and not having a county license for the dog, according to Spotsylvania Animal Control Capt. William Tydings. Each charge carries a possible $250 fine.

On Feb. 28, a general district court judge is scheduled to consider those charges and whether her pit bull should be considered a dangerous dog.

State law classifies a dangerous dog as “a canine or canine crossbreed that has bitten, attacked or inflicted injury on a person or companion animal that is a dog or cat, or killed a companion animal that is a dog or cat.”

If declared dangerous, the dog must be listed on the Virginia Dangerous Dog Registry, which makes basic information available online for the public. The owner also must comply with a list of requirements if he or she wants to keep the dog.

The state distinguishes vicious dogs from dangerous dogs. A vicious dog is defined as a canine or canine crossbreed that either has killed a person, inflicted serious injury to a person or continued to exhibit the behavior that got it classified as dangerous. Dogs declared vicious are euthanized.

Johnson’s dog has been held at the Spotsylvania County Animal Shelter since the incident and will remain there until the court hearing.

Virginia’s law regarding dangerous and vicious dogs was split into two distinct statutes during last year’s General Assembly session to eliminate confusion, said Tydings, who was involved in getting the change enacted.

In 2006, then-Sen. Edd Houck of Spotsylvania led the effort to pass the Dorothy Sullivan Memorial Bill. That change in the law allowed felony charges to be brought against a dog owner if a person is seriously injured by a dog.


Neely has two small dogs and said he carries a walking stick with him when he walks just one.

He, along with animal experts Williams, Tydings and Fredericksburg Animal Control Officer Thomas Worthy, said a walking stick is useful for scaring away approaching dogs or beating them off if they attack.

It’s also legal to use pepper spray to ward off a dog and openly carry a gun and use it if a dog is threatening someone’s life or animal, especially on the person’s property, Neely said.

He cautioned, however, that people should be careful that no one is injured if the weapon is fired.

“You’re entitled to protect yourself without putting people at risk,” Neely said.

Tydings, the county’s chief animal control officer, said people shouldn’t try to run from a dog. They also shouldn’t try to break up a dogfight because of the danger.

And, while the normal reaction is to try to protect your dog, it can be risky if the attacking dog is already in front of you—as the Sullivan case showed. That’s why Tydings recommends that people immediately call authorities any time they see a dog that is loose.

“Whether you think it’s dangerous or not, call the Sheriff’s Office and we’ll come pick it up,” he said.

Williams agreed that being proactive is critical.

“If I see any dog running at large, I’m going to assume it’s dangerous,” she said.

That means, before the dog gets close, people should start using pepper spray or something similar, wave a large stick, scream, and, if they have a small dog, lift it as high overhead as possible, she said.


Natatia Bledsoe, spokeswoman for the Fredericksburg Police Department, passed on advice from the department’s animal control officer, Thomas Worthy.

He suggested people firmly and loudly shout a command such as, “No,” “Stop,” or “Go home” before an approaching off-leash dog gets close.

The goal is to establish your dominance, Bledsoe said.

Worthy agrees with picking up a small dog if the approaching dog is still at a distance. However, if the approaching dog is unavoidable, Bledsoe said, people should use anything available as a weapon such as a stick or rock.

Attack it by targeting the animal’s most vulnerable areas, such as punching it in the nose, poking your fingers into its eyes, striking the side of its head or choking the dog, she said.

If nothing else works, she said to protect yourself by getting down on the ground in the fetal position and guarding your throat with your arms, because dogs go for that area.

“We recommend it for a child that’s alone and can’t run away,” she said. “But the majority of dogs are aggressive toward dogs, not people.”

Williams said it’s rare for an animal to show deadly aggression without earlier indications.

“Usually, the people know the dog is aggressive,” she said. “I don’t know that enough people take it seriously.”

She works with dogs that have behavior problems and said some can’t be changed. That’s why she advocates starting to socialize dogs with other dogs of all sizes as early as 3 weeks old.

“The younger you can start this, the better. It’s harder when you get an older dog or a rescue,” she said.

She added that the issue is not about pit bulls or, more accurately, the many dogs that can fit under that general term.

“It could be any breed,” Williams said. “However, people need to start understanding the liability of having a large, powerful dog.”

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972


Below are tips compiled from local dog experts for protecting your family and your pet if a loose dog approaches.

  • Call authorities about any dog that is loose.
  • React before a dog gets within striking distance.
  • Carry pepper spray (or something similar) or a large walking stick when walking in case a loose dog appears.
  • Speak loud, firm commands to order a dog away before it gets close.
  • Use a stick, rock or anything handy to scare off or strike an aggressive dog.
  • Scream for help.
  • Don’t step in the middle of a dog fight.
  • If in the midst of a fight with a dog, punch its nose, pokes its eyes with your fingers or choke it.
  • If all other options fail, curl up on the ground and protect your throat.