I am Sabrina. I am 7 years old. I live in Brookline in Pittsburgh. I’m [in] first grade at Brookline Elementary. I like to ride my bike in the summer and I like to draw. My favorite color is blue, and my favorite food is chicken. I’m writing this story because I got bit by a dog.
Writing was one coping mechanism Sabrina Snyder learned in the months after she was mauled by a Rottweiler. The August 2014 attack left her with bite marks across her scalp, crude piercings through both ears and bruises all over her body. It also transformed Sabrina from an outgoing girl, who spent much of the summer traversing the neighborhood by bicycle, into a nervous recluse. “She would not even sit on the porch,” says her mother, Samantha Luzier. “People walk by with dogs all the time.”
She started first grade a week after the attack. Crying outbursts and nervous twitches sent her to the nurse’s office almost daily. Just feeling pain from the scars triggered her. “When they hurt, I’d think about the dog,” Sabrina said in an interview.
Her therapist taught Sabrina breathing techniques and gave her stress balls to squeeze. She also guided Sabrina through a writing exercise. She told Sabrina to lay out everything in a booklet of printer paper: the attack and her life before and after. Sabrina and her mother shared the journal with PublicSource.
On the night of the attack, Sabrina and her older sister Gabby went to a neighbor’s to grab a snack. The neighbor, a close friend of Samantha Luzier, was housing three Rottweilers for her boyfriend, a breeder. As soon as she entered, a male leapt at Sabrina. Samantha Luzier recalls Gabby yelled, “The dog is eating Sabrina!”
The mean one got up and ran over to me, Sabrina wrote. He bit my head a lot. I put my arm up to try to open the door and he bit my arm, too. I finally got out and ran over to my house. The dog followed me but someone put a metal thing in his mouth and he bit it hard.
According to news reports, Timothy Guttuso, a neighbor, heard screaming, ran over and shoved a piece of metal piping into the animal’s mouth. The dog ran off. Emergency vehicles soon lined up along the block. An ambulance took Sabrina, wrapped in bloody towels, and her mother to Children’s Hospital.
Neither the neighbor who allowed the dogs in her home, nor the dog’s owner, were charged or cited for the attack. Samantha Luzier recalls animal control officers fined him about $240 for some missed vaccines, but he never paid a dime for her daughter’s tattered scalp.
Allowing one’s dog to attack a person is not a crime in the City of Pittsburgh, no matter how severe the injuries or how many times it happens.
“There is no law that if your dog bites someone we would issue a citation,” says David Madden, chief of the city Bureau of Animal Care and Control, “but the victim can come after the owner in court.” They can, but it rarely happens.
Aside from testing the dog for rabies, there is no monitoring or intervention to prevent another attack. A police or animal control officer can cite a dog owner for a related offense, like letting a dog roam off leash, and that’s usually the end of it.
Still, dog bites are very common in the Pittsburgh area, reported once or twice on an average day.
Deciphering dog bite data
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million dog bites occur each year. Men are more likely to be bit than women, and children 5 to 9 is the most common age bracket for victims. One study found that children are two to three times more likely to be bitten than adults.
To try to understand how often dog bites occur locally, we requested quarantine reports from the Allegheny County Health Department and city Department of Public Safety. Every time a bite breaks the victim’s skin and is reported to authorities, the dog is quarantined for 10 days to look for signs of rabies. The dog is usually kept in its home; if it’s a stray or the attack is severe, officers will take the dog to the Animal Rescue League in Homewood.
Quarantines of Pittsburgh dogs are overseen by either the city Bureau of Animal Care and Control or the county health department. Lauren Brungo, nursing supervisor of the health department’s infectious disease program, said several factors determine which agency handles the quarantine and one will usually get a call from another agency.
PublicSource obtained quarantine reports from both agencies from 2013 to the final weeks of 2016. In those nearly four years, the county health department handled 3,607 quarantines following dog bites — 1,708 of which were reported as occurring at a Pittsburgh address, which could include the city proper and its nearby suburbs. In the same time, the city bureau handled 336 dog bite reports within city limits.
This is only a picture of reported bites. Of course, many go unreported. In the 1990s, researchers employed mathematical models to determine the number of unreported bites to reported ones. Incidentally, they used data from Pittsburgh. They concluded that, for every bite reported, about two bites went undocumented.
Given the number of cases when the owner’s name was not recorded, it’s impossible to know how many were repeat offenders. Among the first 300 owner names in the county’s list, four were found again in the records.
Without a penalty against a bite, the city has no mechanism by which to clamp down on repeat offenders. If your dog attacks one person or six, the punishment is the same — nothing, unless someone presses the matter in court. Dogs in Pittsburgh can attack people repeatedly without owners facing serious ramifications.
I know because I was attacked by a dog that bit someone else earlier that month.
“That dog attacked someone again?”
On Jan. 12, 2015, I awoke to someone shouting, “FBI! Search warrant!” Blue and red lights danced along my bedroom window. I peeked out and saw an entire S.W.A.T. team, with rifles pointed, in front of the row house next to the one I rented in Lawrenceville.
I didn’t know these neighbors well. I sometimes saw a heavy-set tattooed guy sitting on the stoop and saw his skinny girlfriend come and go. They had two barking pit bulls in their unkempt backyard.
My neighbor, Raymond Kober, Jr., was apparently the ringleader of an outlaw biker gang that ran drugs and guns. The feds found 99 marijuana plants in his basement. The name of his gang? The L.A.W. — an acronym for “Lords Among Warriors.” (If you ask me, that was the real crime.) He was eventually sentenced to 15 years. After the raid, the owner of the house, Raymond Kober, Sr., moved back in to sort out the family’s affairs. Raymond Jr.’s girlfriend remained there. So did the two dogs.
Four months later, my friend Eleanor was visiting from New York City. That morning, May 31, we headed to Coca Café on Butler Street for breakfast. We exited through the back door. I did not even notice one of the pit bulls had made its way through a loose beam in the wooden fence that separated our backyards until its teeth latched onto my right arm.
Like Sabrina, I tried to run back into my house. The dog darted down and bit my leg. Eleanor’s screaming roused Raymond, Sr., who came around the corner and called off the dog. I stood in the street bleeding and looked at the fat of my arm through the puncture wound.
I called 911. Two city animal control officers arrived. “That dog attacked someone again?” one of them asked.
Eleanor drove me to West Penn Hospital, where an ER doctor sanitized my wounds and sewed two stitches. The next day, I called the Bureau of Animal Care and Control. An officer told me that the dog, Pepper, had in fact bitten someone else recently — very recently. It had been released from quarantine that week.
I thought someone would take the dog away. This seemed like the clearest possible case of a dog posing a persistent danger: a pit bull, which had been owned by a career criminal safeguarding caches of illegal materials, had attacked two people in a month. “There is no law that would allow us to do that,” the officer told me. “That would be theft.”
Then he told me about the one way in which Pennsylvanian reigns in dog owners whose animals bite: the Registry of Dangerous Dogs.
After a bite, the victim or a law enforcement agency can petition the Commonwealth to have the animal declared a “dangerous dog.” The matter goes before a district magistrate judge, who hears testimony from the petitioner and the owner. If the dog is declared “dangerous,” the owner has to pay an annual $500 fee, take out an insurance policy on the dog, inject a microchip to identify it, and put up warning signs. By law, dangerous dogs have to be muzzled in public and kept in an enclosed area at all times when not muzzled. Owners have to notify the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the registry, of any move within the state. It is like the sex offender registry for dogs.
Kristen Donmoyer, the Department of Agriculture’s dog law director, says state judges used to use a “one bite rule” that meant a dog was allowed a single bite before being put on the registry, but now dogs can be added after one “unprovoked attack.” “If the dog is eating and a child tries to take food, that would be provocation, even if the child was simply playing,” says Donmoyer.
Madden says his agency tries to inform victims of the Dangerous Dog Registry and helps them gather data about past attacks. It will offer to file on their behalf. (They did in my case.) Only in severe cases, such as extensive injuries or multiple attacks, would his agency press the matter before a judge without a participating victim.
In most of Pennsylvania, enforcement is done through unannounced inspections by state officials called dog wardens. In a few cities with large animal control departments, including Pittsburgh, local law enforcement handles the task. “It’s a job we take very seriously,” says Madden. He adds that the registry does give his agency power to take the dog away from the owner in the case of multiple violations of its rules.
I tried to work out the problem with Raymond Jr.’s girlfriend. She told me she wouldn’t have the dog put down but would keep better track of it. She agreed to pay me $200 for medical copays and ruined clothing. She also agreed to fix the fence, but she never did. The dogs were out back less often. A few weeks later, the same dog that left me with stitches stared at me through the slats of the fence. There was nothing preventing it from knocking through the fence and attacking me again. I bought knives from an army surplus store and hid them around the yard.
Also, I called city animal control and told them to file, but she skipped town before the court date. An animal control officer told me there is a bench warrant out for her.
As of Feb. 1, 506 dogs had been placed on the Dangerous Dog Registry; 155 of them are in Allegheny County, about half of which live in Pittsburgh and its suburbs. Given the number of dog bites reported locally each year, the registry appears to be underutilized.
Samantha Luzier says no one told her about the Dangerous Dog Registry and she’s not sure she would have pursued it. She had bigger problems. Her family receives health insurance from her job and supplemental insurance through the state. Neither would initially cover therapy for Sabrina. “They said she had to have a prior mental illness,” Luzier says.
After wrangling with their insurers, the family finally found a regular therapist for Sabrina four months after the attack. Samantha Luzier says her daughter is calm now and doing better in school. “But there is a difference. It’s like she lost her innocence.”
Toward the end of her journal Sabrina wrote: Even after my booboos got better I still had scary thoughts sometimes. I missed my mom at school. I sometimes worried the dog was in the house even though nobody lived there anymore. Since then things have gotten better. I can play gym now. Art is good because that is a peaceful place for me. I learned tools to use at school when I have bad feelings, like belly breathing and thought-stopping.
Sabrina, now 9, said she realized she was no longer scared of dogs when she visited her cousins before Christmas of 2014. “I pet him and he was very friendly to me,” she says.
About a year after the incident, the family got a dog themselves, a Shih-Tzu and Maltese mix named Dinkie.
Sabrina learned to not be afraid of dogs anymore by understanding their behavior is the fault of their owners. “If you don’t treat them well, they attack people,” she says.
This sentiment is echoed by Madden. In his 30 years in animal control, he’s encountered many people who’ve ignored warning signs — like smaller bites, growling, the dog’s discomfort around crowds — before tragedy. “Whenever a dog bites, for whatever reason, it’s the owner’s fault,” he says, adding, “The reason that dogs bite is because they can.”
Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.