Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dog attacks as unpredictable as they are rare


By CHRISTIAN BOONE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



What caused a generally docile pack of dogs to maul a UGA librarian and her husband, a former professor at the university, will never be known, but slight changes to routine may have precipitated the onslaught.

“One possibility could be that the animals perceived an invasion of territory,” said Bonnie Beaver, a professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University.

Sherry Schweder, 65, was looking for one of her six dogs when she was attacked, presumably by 14 mongrels who roamed the rural strip of Oglethorpe County where the deceased couple lived. The canines were fed by her former neighbor, who had only recently moved away due to health problems.

It’s believed Schweder and her husband, Lothar Schweder, 77, had been dead for at least 12 hours by the time their bodies were found around 9 a.m. Saturday by pair of visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Predatory behavior tends to take place usually around dawn or dusk,” said John Ciribassi with the American College of Veterinary Behaviors.

The Schweders often walked the dirt road where they were attacked. The dogs were familiar to them and others who lived in the area, neighbors say.

“We never had a problem with them,” said Lanier Bridges, who lives on Elberton Road in Lexington.

But canines are keen to even the slightest changes.

“In a wild group of animals, members of the pack will spend different parts of the day in different territory,” Beaver said. “If their walks normally came at a different time of day, this may have been perceived as a threat by the dogs.”

Packs are considerably less predictable than individual canines. If one dog acts irrationally, the others are likely to follow.

“Often it takes only one or two dogs to spark the kind of attack you’re describing,” Ciribassi said. “It doesn’t take much.”

The pack that killed the Schweders was unusually large. which was attributed to the feedings administered by the neighbor. He was still feeding the dogs even after he moved away, and they did not appear malnourished.

“But if that normal food supply was interrupted only slightly, that might have caused them to get aggressive,” Ciribassi said.

August has been an especially deadly month for dog attacks in the U.S. Four days before the Schweders were mauled, a 20-year-old Virginia man was killed by pit bulls owned by his brother. And on Aug. 15, a 3-day-old infant was snatched from his crib in West Virginia by his parents’ pit bull.

The Schweders deaths were anomalies; most victims know the dogs who attack them, Beaver said.

According to dogbitelaw.com, there have been 21 fatal canine attacks so far in 2009, just two fewer than in 2008. However, there is no single clearinghouse that records such incidents.

“The data is fuzzy,” Beaver said.

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an attack, try not to run and avoid eye contact, experts say.

“That’s easier said than done,” Beaver said, “especially when you have a pack of dogs coming at you. You’re acting on instinct at that point.”

The dogs that killed the Schweders were euthanized Tuesday at the Madison Oglethorpe Animal Shelter.