Update 10/30/19: Calaveras County Animal Services Director Evan Jacobs confirmed on Oct. 30 that the two dogs suspected in the Oct. 14 killing of the two horses were released to another unnamed owner last week and returned to Stockton. Due to insufficient evidence linking the dogs to other killings in the area, Animal Services did not have legal grounds to file a potentially dangerous dog petition under state law, according to Jacobs.
A Valley Springs man who was at home while his partner’s two miniature horses were tormented for hours by a pair of neighborhood dogs did not hear any sound to alert him to the “bloodbath” he discovered later that morning in the backyard.
The Oct. 14 incident, which was captured on surveillance footage and resulted in the death of the two horses, captured the attention of the media and the community.
Days later, the dogs’ owner was tracked by Calaveras County Animal Services to Stockton and arrested for an unrelated probation violation, while his two reportedly pit bull-type dogs were impounded.
The event inspired a response of public outrage on social media and shined light on a widespread plight, with dozens of locals coming forward with their own stories of free-roaming dogs – usually in groups – attacking pets, humans and property, and a perceived lack of response from Animal Services.
As one commenter put it, “This is Calaveras County. Everyone has a story. What would be newsworthy is if someone did not.”
‘I try not to remember’
Marylin Denney, owner of miniature horses Silver and Izzy, said her home surveillance footage showed the pair being “tortured” for two hours before a bite to the jugular killed Silver, and Izzy was left incapacitated.
Denney, who adopted the horses six months ago after they were rescued from an abusive home, had to spend nearly $1,000 to have Izzy euthanized and the bodies hauled away.
“Izzy was skittish. She had just started warming up to me and letting me groom her. It kind of ticks me off because she already had a crappy upbringing and had to go out this way,” Denney told the Enterprise shortly after the incident.
Denney's boyfriend, Rob Hughes, called the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office as soon as he discovered the scene in their backyard on Oct. 14. There was no response, Denney said.
They then tried contacting Animal Services, but their office was closed, she said. The following day, Denney said she received a response from the department’s only animal control officer.
“(She said) there have been complaints about these dogs, and they’re pretty sure they know who the dogs’ owners are. They (were) afraid to approach because the owners are armed,” Denney said.
Unsure what to do next, Denney took to Facebook and local media to share her story.
From the responses she received from the community, Denney learned the same two dogs may have killed as many as 10 pets and livestock in the Valley Springs area.
Three days after the attack, the animal control officer tracked the dogs’ owner to Stockton, where he was arrested by the local police department for unrelated charges. The two dogs were impounded.
Calaveras County Animal Services did not respond to inquiries regarding the current status of the dogs by press time.
Hughes told the Enterprise on Oct. 28 that he does not know the status of the dogs, but he is considering filing a lawsuit against the dogs’ owner.
John Leonard, an employee at Rising Sun Nursery in Burson, recalled a similar incident he witnessed last year that left him trying to forget.
Two large, roaming pit bulls broke into the nursery and killed the business’ beloved cat, Diamond. Leonard had caught the dogs earlier that day and tied them to a fence. They were friendly toward humans, he said, but once they broke free and got a hold of the cat, it was “horrific.”
Animal Services representatives arrived following the attack and impounded the dogs, which were still at the scene, Leonard said.
However, he said he was later informed by the department that the animals were microchipped and returned to their owner.
“I think they fined him,” said Leonard, who recalled that the owner came into the nursery days later and apologized. “He said he was out of town, and the daughters were going to school by themselves.”
Though he is a self-professed animal lover, Leonard said that he believes the dogs should have been euthanized after demonstrating deadly behavior.
“But that’s not for me to say,” he concluded.
In 2010, the death of Jerry Yates on his Mountain Ranch property confirmed fears that aggressive dogs can also target fully-grown humans.
Though there were no witnesses, two neighboring pit bulls were believed to have escaped their enclosure and mauled Yates while their owner was away.
The owner was initially charged with a felony for knowingly having a mischievous animal, letting it be at large or keeping it without ordinary care, resulting in the death of a human being, but the charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.
The role of Animal Services
According to Calaveras County Animal Services Manager Evan Jacobs, local animal control officers respond to at least 1,000 reports per year involving strays, animal abuse, dog bites and aggression.
Overseen by the county’s Environmental Management Agency, Animal Services handles an average of 12 to 15 vicious dog hearings per year. If an animal is determined to be vicious, the outcome of those hearings usually results in the owner choosing to euthanize their dog, Jacobs said.
An animal is eligible for a vicious dog hearing if aggressive behavior continues after being declared “potentially dangerous” by a judge or if a bite to a human results in serious injury or death.
There are state-regulated criteria that must be confirmed by an animal control officer in order for a dog to be considered potentially dangerous. Factors include an unprovoked bite to a human, two or more attacks on a domestic animal within a 36-month period, or a person needing to take two or more defensive actions against the dog within a 36-month period.
However, if an aggressive dog is impounded and not retrieved by its owner within 10 days, petitions and hearings are not necessary, as the dog is usually not put up for adoption by Animal Services, according to Jacobs.
Beyond holding dogs, filing petitions and issuing infractions and tickets to owners, Animal Services has little prosecutorial power.
Although Jacobs advises calling 911 in the event of an in-progress dog attack, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office forwards all other animal-related reports to Animal Services, Jacobs said.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment regarding its protocol for dog attacks. Likewise, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook did not respond to inquiries regarding the prosecution of aggressive dog owners.
In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office gave up management of Animal Services and its aging shelter, which has been described as underfunded and “obsolete” by past Grand Jury Reports.
Sheriff Rick DiBasilio stated in a previous interview with the Enterprise that his agency would be willing to take over the department again if more funding was provided by the county to hire additional animal control officers.
Currently, there is one animal control officer patrolling roughly 1,000 square miles in Calaveras County, according to Jacobs. Two other officers are out on leave, and the department is in desperate need of two temporary extra hires to help fill in the gaps.
“We are a rural community … If we’re in Arnold and something happens in Valley Springs, the response time is not going to be there. It’s going to be slower,” said Jacobs, who also referenced low rates of dog licensing and enforcement within the county.
In September, Animal Services relied on the assistance of rescue groups and volunteers to confiscate and care for more than 100 chickens and a herd of approximately 60 horses.
However, even within the realm of animal confiscations, there are state and county guidelines with which the department must comply.
“There are very defined rules of how we proceed,” Evans said. “We try our best.”
As with the gruesome case of the two miniature horses, there is often little to alert pet owners of an ongoing attack until it’s too late.
The reason lies in the different types of aggression displayed in dogs, according to Certified Dog Behavior Consultant Lisa Mullinax, who specializes in fear and aggression.
“Most of the stories involving humans or livestock being killed by dogs involves predation, not a threat response,” Mullinax told the Enterprise.
Instead of the barks and growls that usually accompany threat-response aggression, predatory behavior is silent and often resembles play.
There are few detectable warning signs prior to a dog’s predatory attack, though the behavior is often a reflexive reaction to a trigger, such as the victim making a sudden noise or running away.
“Predators don’t warn their prey that they’re about to attack,” Mullinax wrote in an article about predatory behavior. “Predatory attacks often target the legs, throat/neck and abdomen of the victims, and the wounds are deep and involve more than one bite, often with severe tearing or even missing chunks of flesh. Attacks may involve violent shaking of the victim. Think about the way your dog shakes a stuffed toy (don’t worry, this sort of play does not encourage predatory behavior).”
According to Mullinax, predation is a natural response that manifests at different levels in most dogs, with genetics largely determining how aggressive or predatory a dog might be due to selective breeding along the spectrum of behaviors.
Contrary to widely held beliefs, a dog’s breed is never the reason for its aggression, Mullinax said.
“Some rat terriers can live with cats, some can’t. Some border collies are good at herding sheep, others aren’t. Now that more purebred dogs are bred for appearance than working ability, behavioral traits can vary widely,” she said. “The idea that pit bulls (now an umbrella term that encompasses more than a dozen breeds) are more prone to aggression than other breeds is a myth. It’s also a myth to say that they are all safe. Every breed, including golden retrievers, beagles and other popular ‘family’ breeds, can exhibit mild to severe aggression or predation.”
As predation is a natural response in many dogs, there is no way to “rehabilitate” the behavior, according to Mullinax. However, responsible owners can prevent and manage the behavior through early socialization of puppies and constant supervision.
“A dog that has bitten will bite again if nothing is done to manage the dog or modify the behavior,” Mullinax said. “The owner always has total responsibility. An exception might be a recently acquired dog, where the owner may not know the dog very well. But they always have the responsibility to safely contain their dog. When in public, a dog should be restrained by a leash (especially if the dog is new) and not permitted to approach strangers or strange dogs.”
Mullinax recommends very early, continuous socialization and positive reinforcement training of puppies and dogs to prevent the development of predatory behavior. She strongly warns against isolating dogs in cages or on chains, or using aversive training methods such as pain or fear, which can make a dog more dangerous.
For those hoping to protect their families and pets from roaming dogs, Mullinax advises homeowners to keep their pets in secure enclosures that prevent other animals from getting inside. Electric “hidden” fences will not keep roaming dogs out, she emphasized.
Those walking with or without their dog should avoid visiting areas where dogs are known to roam freely, Mullinax said. When encountering a strange dog, walkers can try throwing treats to distract it from approaching.
“If a loose dog is approaching, yell, wave your arms and throw objects at the dog, much like you would with a cougar,” Mullinax said.
Once a predatory response is activated in a dog, it is extremely difficult to intervene. Therefore, Mullinax recommends avoidance of triggering situations above all else.
Always follow leash laws, keep dogs contained at home and never leave a dog unattended with children, she advised.
“Never trust that your dog’s training is 100% effective at preventing predatory attacks. Dogs are animals, and instinct can always override training, regardless of methods used,” Mullinax wrote. “I am compelled to cover all precautions because of the nature of this behavior. Some dogs may need this many precautions. Some may not. I have had clients who would rather go back and live with the inconvenience of these precautions than live with the guilt and the changed relationship that is inevitable after their dog has killed someone’s pet.”