Comment on the Dog Attack in Tampa

A December 30th, 2016  news report tells of a pit bull mix that attacked his owner as she reportedly attempted to put a sweater on the dog.  Two other family members were also injured trying to stop the attack.  One began stabbing the dog to try to get him to stop.  All three were finally able to escape the dog by running into the house. The dog was subsequently euthanized.

Incidents like these always bring out Monday morning quarterbacks – including us! – weighing in on the “why” of what the dog did.  Part of this is human nature, to try to understand catastrophic events.  Not only so we can hopefully learn from them and similar incidents can be prevented, but also because we want reassurance that something similar couldn’t happen to us.  So if the factors in the “why” are things we have never done, or think we would never do, then we feel safer.

The media is always after answers as well.  So they ask experts, and others, about the “why”.  The best experts will give the most objective opinions they can based on the best evidence available to them.  Others will use a particular case to advance a cause or a way of thinking.  Having been in court as expert witnesses, we can tell you first hand that the easiest way to dig yourself a hole and be jumped on by opposing counsel is to advocate for a position instead of maintaining your objectivity.

So, what could have caused this dog to attack his owner, and two other family members who tried to intervene, requiring them to stab the dog to get him to stop?  That is decidedly NOT normal dog behavior and very unlike the majority of the 4 million or so dog bites it is estimated occur in this country every year.  Based on news reports, it appears this was more like the type of attack that results in a fatality – something that possibly could have happened in this case had not family members intervened, or if the victim was a child.

One of the theories is that this dog was either previously abused or subjected to painful, forceful, and/or intimidating, so called “dominance” training techniques. Being restrained to have a sweater put on frightened him, and he reacted to protect himself from all these bad things he thought were going to happen to him again.

It’s possible the dog found that sort of restraint and handling to be scary.  Many dogs do. Do most of these dogs attack their owners to this degree in response?  No, definitely not.  Just look at the pictures everywhere of dogs in Halloween costumes.  Many of them are showing clear signs of fear or anxiety.  Yet they tolerate their owners’ nonsense patiently, but probably not happily.  And society oohs and ahhs and remarks how cute they look.  And then we turn right around and blame victims of dog attacks for missing signs the dog was anxious.  Huh.

Maybe there were no signs for the owner to miss. What kind of warning did this dog give?  Did the dog struggle to get away, growl, show his teeth, and/or snap, and the owner persisted?  Did the dog show much more subtle signs such as pulling his ears back, tensing up, yawning, or licking his lips?  Did he show no discernable change in behavior at all before he attacked?  Nobody knows.

Reasonable people have enough sense to stop what they are doing when a dog growls or snaps.  There are others who take a more confrontational attitude and become more forceful with the dog.  That obviously is asking for trouble.  What about the more subtle signs?  Many dog owners – and even professionals at times – miss them – OR would never think that after just licking his lips the dog is going to launch an uninhibited attack.

So something was different about this dog.  Maybe he had experienced previous trauma.  Maybe the owner was inappropriately rough with the dog when putting on the sweater.  Maybe the owners had either actively encouraged or passively allowed previous displays of aggression.  Maybe the dog had an extremely low threshold for aggression because of his breeding history.  There are inherently nasty dogs out there, because that’s the way people want them to be. Maybe this dog was very fearful, or maybe he wasn’t and had a more “make my day” type of temperament.  There are many possibilities, including that not all the facts about this case have come out.

There seems to be more sympathy for the dog than for the owner and the other family members who were bitten.  That’s sad.  It could be that those bites will result in permanent disfigurement to the woman.  She didn’t deserve that outcome for merely putting a sweater on her dog.  If indeed, those are shown to be the facts of the case.

It’s sad the dog lost his life.  It’s sad that the combination of his breeding and environmental experiences created a dog who chose to maim a person rather than trying another strategy (assuming he didn’t, another unknown) when put in a situation he didn’t like.  As one of the commenters on this case said – there are no winners here.


  • Suzanne-Dan

    January 7, 2017

    Sure Christy – from just the press reports we don’t know what the dog’s history was. But his name does make you wonder. And emotional injury as well.

  • Christy Paxton

    January 7, 2017

    This dog’s name was Scarface, and I found that significant. Could he possibly have had an incident earlier in life that caused both physical and traumatic injury?

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