Lessons to Learn from Tragedy

Neveah Angel Bryant

Lessons to Learn from Tragedy

On Friday, September 30, 2011, my home-town of West Haven CT experienced a horrible tragedy. Erica Hobdy was babysitting her 20-month old niece Neveah Angel Bryant. "I gave her lunch, gave her a bath, I layed with her when she fell asleep," said Hobdy. "When I went to get my son something from the store I told him just to listen for her because the only thing I was worried about was her waking up and seeing no one upstairs with her and start crying.” While she was out, her three pit bulls mauled her niece to death.

Story: http://www.wtnh.com/dpp/news/new_haven_cty/no-arrests-made-after-toddle-mauled

I was on the local morning radio show on 10/4, Interviewed by the New Haven Register Newspaper for the 10/8 story, and a guest speaker at the CT National Pit Bull Awareness Day on 10/15 discussing the case in an effort to help the community sift through all of the chatter and bring light to the lessons we need to take away.


I finally have a chance to put my thoughts into words here. First, I need to talk about the tragedy itself. What is relevant, what is not, and what details beg for more information. Then I will focus on the important things we need to learn, and where we need to focus our energy, in education of puppies, kids and the public.

Unsupervised Toddler:
The first detail that jumped out at me when I first heard about this story was that this toddler was left completely alone in the house with the dogs. She was asleep in one bedroom and the dogs had been secured in another, but no adult was in the apartment. The aunt went to the store. She left an 11-year old listening from the porch. This is a third floor apartment, and there is no porch or terrace on the third floor of the Leete Street houses.

Resident Dogs: The second detail that is important is that these dogs, according to the newspaper and television quotes from the dogs’ owner, were not socialized with people, and certainly not children. They were “house dogs” and did not have a history of aggression because Ms. Hobdy put them in her bedroom whenever she had guests. She lived is a small, third floor (converted attic) apartment with three pit bulls and her own child or children. She admittedly did not allow them to interact with kids or people outside of her immediate family. To me, this suggests dogs who do not get enough exercise, and do not know how to act around people, and almost certainly possess no bite inhibition.

Dogs & Child Unfamiliar to each other: Finally, the dogs were separated and confined in another room whenever there were guests. The child was also not permitted to interact with the dogs. Not only did the dogs have no idea how to act when they encountered a child, but the child would also not know how to act when she was face to face with a dog or three! Plus, having two children myself, I can attest to a child’s curiosity at about two years old. I can easily imagine her opening that door to see the doggies if she woke up to find no one watching her.

Irrelevant Facts: The various editions of the story as it developed contained loads of “facts” upon which the reader was led to focus.
#1: The dogs were pit bulls. This could’ve happened with any breed given the same circumstances...and it HAS! Small breed dogs bite far more frequently than large breeds like Rotties & Pitties, but we just don’t hear about them, because when a big dog bites, they do more damage IF THEY HAVE NOT LEARNED BITE-INHIBITION!

2#: There was speculation that they were “fighting dogs” or “guard dogs.” While it may help us feel like we can explain if the dogs attacked a perceived intruder, this is simply unknown. This could have just as easily been curious and playful behavior without bite-inhibition, which is just as dangerous. To ignore this possibility is negligent. It is incredibly irresponsible for anyone reporting this story to attribute that this happened because the dogs were pit bulls, and people train pit bulls to fight, and so therefore these dogs were trained fighters and that’s why they killed a baby. First off, real fighting dogs wouldn’t be trained to be aggressive toward a person (people need to stop the fights, and they don’t like to get bitten). It’s more likely that they fought over her than tried to fight with her. But, given that they were confined together, I’m guessing they weren’t fighters anyway. The guard dogs attacking the intruder is certainly possible, but again, to say that has to be the reason is irresponsible because it makes people think that as long as they don’t have ‘trained guard dogs’ it could never happen to them.

#3: Who let the dogs out? It is always convenient to have someone to blame, but this family has lost a child and three dogs. It doesn’t matter if the 11-year old didn’t shut the door, or if the 2-year old woke up and let them out, or any other possibility. Management always will fail at some point. When children are in the home, ADULT supervision is required 100% of the time, and everyone needs to be educated in how to interact. It has no bearing how the dogs got out of the room. It is only important that there was no adult present to supervise the situation. If I left my kids in the car while I ran into a fully-windowed gas station to pay for gas, even if I could see them from inside the store, I would be arrested and my kids would be taken into custody until DCFS could decide if I was a fit mother. Ask any CT police officer, watching from behind a window isn’t even considered supervising, and this is a zero tolerance policy. The adult in charge left a baby sleeping on the third floor, an 11-year-old listening from the first floor, and she went to the store.

Irregularities: There were a few details which just beg for more information. Catch Poles and Tasers were required to gain control of the dogs. Really? West Haven has three full time, experienced Animal Control Officers. This is the first time I’ve heard of local police using tasers on a dog, and definitely the first i’ve ever heard of when they actually had catch poles too! The other instances of tasers being used on dogs I could find on the web involved police being attacked by roaming or loose dogs and caught off guard. Also, all three dogs were immediately euthanized. I found this to be unbelievable at first. I’ve worked on many dog bite cases in my nearly 15 years in this business, and I’ve never heard of any case where the dogs weren’t held at the very least until the investigation was complete. This investigation hadn’t even really begun yet and the dogs were euthanized. I still would like to know more about how and why this decision was made, and by whom. No photos of the dogs were taken. The stories all say they were pit bulls, and I’m not saying that they weren’t, only that there is no way to confirm this since the dogs were destroyed and no photos (or pedigree) have been made public. The dogs’ names were not published. Some of us in the dog world can tell a lot about an owner’s relationship with their dog(s) based on the name(s) they choose. When a golden retriever makes the news for alerting his family to a fire, we learn his name. I would like to know what Erica Hobdy named her dogs.

RECAP: The VAST majority of dog bites to children are unsupervised children with unfamiliar, resident dogs (NCRC). This could’ve happened anywhere, to anyone. This family has lost their little girl, AND their three dogs. This was a horrible lesson to have to learn. Since there are other children in the home, I sincerely hope they have learned it.

Puppy Socialization:
Puppies are learning from day one. The socialization window begins to close at twelve weeks old. Off-leash puppy classes are the best way for puppies to learn bite-inhibition and impulse control. Bite inhibition, also known as a “soft bite,” means that even if or when they do bite, they do not do damage. Impulse control is the ability to stop playing, sit and stay on cue, and to not simply grab anything they find the least bit interesting, which translates into stopping an exciting behavior before it gets out of hand. Puppy classes also ensure that pups get early positive social experiences and interactions with other dogs, people, and children if you’re lucky enough to find a class with kids in it (almost all of my puppy classes have families with kids). Puppy classes teaches household manners, such as ‘go to your place,’ ‘sit,’ ‘wait,’ ‘leave-it,’ ‘come,’ ‘settle,’ and more. In my puppy classes, the dogs and the people in each family learn how to appropriately play with each other: fetch & tug with ‘drop it,’ do not grab people, lots of tricks and games like puppy push ups, ‘touch’ for greeting people, go to your place, play dead, speak & shush, and more. When you start a puppy of any breed in a class like this, they are learning the life skills to set them up for success in the human world. If puppy owners and their puppies do not have this experience and develop these skills, puppies of any breed are much more of a risk around strangers and children.

Kid Safety: ALL Children need to be taught how to be safe with dogs, even those who don’t live with dogs, and ESPECIALLY those who visit homes where a dog or dogs reside. I teach preschool-aged kids, including my own, that FIRST they need to ask me (or my husband or the adult in charge) if it is okay to say hello to a dog. NEXT, they need to ask the dog’s owner if it is okay to say hello to their dog. Then, they should NEVER take the owner’s word that it is, in fact, okay. The owner’s “yes” is simply permission to THEN ASK THE DOG if s/he WANTS to say hello. My kids present their hand for the dog to investigate and they wait for the dog to approach them. If the dog does not initiate contact, we say “thank you” to the owner and we walk away. They are taught that if the dog doesn’t ask for a pet, then they do not reach for the dog. If the dog is eating, sleeping, chewing on something or focused on something or someone else, they are taught to not approach. They also learn that they should NEVER hug or kiss a dog, especially a dog who isn’t theirs.

If you are a dog owner, have a trick that you can have a child ask your dog to do. ‘Paw’ or ‘touch’ (sniff hand) are probably the easiest.

Parents need to discuss all routines and concerns and make a plan with dog owners for visits. Nap time, meal time, potty/diaper change time, play time, etc, should all be planned, managed and supervised at all times. There should be a ‘Dog Zone’ where no kids are allowed and a ‘Kid Zone’ where no dogs are allowed, because supervision is almost never 100%.

Both dogs and kids need to be actively taught appropriate games and tricks for when they are together.

NEITHER kids NOR dogs should ever be forced to be in the company of one another if they are tired, nervous, sick or uncomfortable.

Public Education: ANY dog and EVERY dog will bite given the right circumstances, regardless of breed. Yes, dogs can be bred and trained to be aggressive, and that may increase the risk, but that is not a known factor in most cases of bites to children, nor in dog bite fatalities (NCRC). It is known, however that a dog can bite and damage, and even kill a small child, even if they have not been bred or trained to fight. Ignoring that is irresponsible.

Puppies need to be socialized as early as possible with all kinds of dogs, people and children, and the public needs to know this before they bring that puppy home!

Kids (and adults) need to be taught dog safety.


What not to do:
BSL - Breed Specific Legislation, or banning certain breeds will NOT make any difference in preventing these kinds of tragedies. First, the pit bulls who are bred & trained to be aggressive toward people are generally done so by criminals who have a reason to keep a trained guard dog because they are involved in illicit activities. If the current laws do not prevent them from dealing drugs, for example, why would a new law prevent them from owning a dangerous dog? These particular people, if their dogs are taken from them and destroyed, will just raise another one, either of the same breed or a “mix” or simply another breed which will then become a target. Finally, pit bulls, which are the most targeted breed for BSL, are not traditionally bred to be aggressive toward people. The fighting lines have been bred to be aggressive to other dogs, but extremely docile with people...remember people needed to be able to safely stop the pit fight at some point. If a dog is bred to be aggressive to people, that is not a fight dog. That is a tormented, abused and dangerous dog.

Do not jump to conclusions with blame. It is very easy to get emotional. Even I found myself reading between the lines and forming possible scenarios (and corresponding opinions) when I heard about this preventable accident. But that is not going to bring this angel back, and it is not going to help this family or any other family learn the important lessons here. The fact is, we do not know what happened because no one was there. The family has to live with that guilt already; we do not need to point it out, except so that others can avoid the same mistake.

Conclusion: 71% of fatal dog bites happen to children who are left unsupervised with unfamiliar, resident dogs at a place where they are visiting. (NCRC, 2009)

If you have children, educate yourself and teach your children how to be safe (Resources: Doggone Safe, Dogs & Storks, Dog & Baby Connection, Living With Kids & Dogs-Pelar, etc).

If you have a dog, or plan to purchase or adopt a dog, of any breed, but especially a targeted breed, socialize your puppies as early as possible, preferable in off-leash puppy classes. Ideally your puppy should meet 100 new people, including children, in the first 100 days of life. Ideally your puppy should engage often in off-leash play with as many other puppies as possible to learn bite-inhibition.

If you have a Pit Bull, you have the added responsibility of having the world watching you through the media’s cynicism. This is a heavy burden.

If your dog is anxious, fearful, or showing any concerning behaviors, call a professional as soon as you can so that your dog does not become the next headline. (www.iaabc.org, www.apdt.com, www.ccpdt.org)

Be persistent with the wonderful stories and accomplishments of public services performed by the pitties you know. Write a press release when you visit a nursing home or a school...keep sending them in to the newspapers and TV stations, post it on local media personalities’ FaceBook pages...get the word out about this wonderful and noble breed!

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