Canine also means teeth

Traditionally man's best friends, dogs can be a threat to old, young and postal carriers

February 03, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Cathi Webster sometimes sees it when she walks the streets of Canton, the raw fear in their eyes. Mothers clutch their children a little tighter. Grandmothers sidle off the sidewalk, and grown men scuttle across the street.

At first, she didn't get it.

"I mean, it's not like it's a bomb on the end of the leash," she said.

Actually, it's a Chihuahua mix with bright friendly eyes, her diminutive pet, Scout.

But "the size doesn't matter," said Webster, president of the Friends of Canton Dog Park. "If you're afraid of dogs, you're afraid of dogs. That's it."

When a toy poodle named Jacquelyn nipped at the heels of a jogger in Anne Arundel County last week, and the man responded by booting the 4-pound animal into the road, the news spread in dog parks and running clubs across Maryland.

Most people from both camps agree that it's extreme to kick a dog that could pass for a celebrity accessory; Jacquelyn suffered serious injuries and can barely move. Charges are being considered, as is a change in laws governing animal cruelty.

But the canine-wary also say they have to walk the streets armed to the teeth with whistles and walking sticks and water bottles, which they might use to squirt an unruly pooch in the eye, no matter its size.

"Oh, heck, yeah," said Dan Warnick, the co-owner of Hunt Valley Bicycles in Timonium, whose wife was once bitten in the calf by a Labrador retriever, and who sometimes has cycled through the countryside with hounds in hot pursuit. "You have to defend yourself. Do you want a dog to maul you up? The blood starts pumping, and it's fight or flight."

Warnick - who is 6 feet 5 and weighs 200 pounds - can't see himself punting a poodle.

"But if I was a guy in my 60s, or a woman in my 40s," he said, maybe. He once watched a fellow cyclist kick a "rough-looking" collie in the shoulder in mid-pedal and thought: More power to him.

The man vs. dog fight has claimed victims on both sides.

Each year, Baltimore's Bureau of Animal Control collects the bodies of dogs that were stabbed or beaten with boards by the people they allegedly attacked. The Police Department alone shoots about a dozen a year, usually in the course of search-and-seizure activities, said the bureau's director, Bob Anderson. He noted that most of these are Rottweilers and the like, with the occasional German shepherd or great Dane. Never toy poodles.

But dogs - particularly unleashed dogs such as Jacquelyn - are a legitimate safety concern. Somewhere between 600 and 800 Baltimoreans a year report being bitten, Anderson said.

"Most of the time a child is pulling a pork chop bone away from a dog and he gets nipped," he said. "But I've also seen a boy get 200 stitches in his leg."

Annually, about 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites, and an average of 12 of these victims die, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The most vulnerable are small children, the elderly and U.S. Postal Service workers - in that order, according to USPS statistics.

Joggers are tempting targets, too - their speed can activate an animal's hunting instincts, according to Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA.

Brett Harvey wasn't thinking like prey while running on the trails of Robert E. Lee Park in North Baltimore two years ago. He was footloose and fancy-free.

So was the poodle.

This one, please understand, "was a giant poodle," 23-year-old Harvey said. "A really large one. Not a normal-sized poodle."

Harvey saw the look in the furry behemoth's dark eyes. He then glanced at the owner, who indicated that the situation was under control. Harvey turned to run.

"The next step I took, it was on me," he said. "It got me right in the butt."

A dog person himself, Harvey didn't press charges. Of course, in Jacquelyn's case, it's the jogger who might be in trouble. Prosecutors have not decided whether to charge him and have expressed frustration that some of the state's current animal cruelty laws are aimed at abusive caretakers, not random passers-by.

The Anne Arundel County prosecutor's office is considering trying to expand the law to cover all people.

Janice Tippett, owner of Jacquelyn, called the current laws "absurd."

"It means that if you don't like your neighbor and you have a problem with your neighbor, you can't go over and punch them or punch their kid. But you can go over and kick their dog," she said.

But to Debora Bresch, Maryland's ASPCA legislative liaison, whether the law is changed or not, the poodle incident seems to be a clear-cut case of cruelty.

"To me this smacks of road rage," she said. "I guess it's arguable that this was self-defense, but self-defense would require him fearing for his safety. I mean, if a hamster comes running at you, would you be fearful? That's what we're talking about. There's a limit to the pain and harm a 4-pound dog can inflict."

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