Friday, February 2, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, February 2, 2001

Killer canines: When 'good' dogs go bad

By Marco R. Della Cava
and Anita Manning
USA Today

SAN FRANCISCO — About the only thing truly scary about posh Pacific Heights is its rental prices, well over $2,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments overlooking the Bay.

Until last week, that is.

When 33-year-old Diane Whipple returned to her apartment here last Friday and slipped the key into her lock, two massive dogs belonging to her neighbor down the hall broke free and lunged at her neck.

The owner was unable to control the dogs, which combined weighed 235 pounds. Whipple was a nationally lauded lacrosse player who coached locally. But while athletic, her 5-3, 110-pound frame could not withstand the attack. She died a few hours later.

The death has rocked pet-friendly San Francisco and sparked debate from coast to coast among animal experts, breeders and owners on issues such as dog behavior and owner responsibility.

Although dogs kill roughly 20 people a year in the United States, most victims are either children or seniors — not fit young women confidently strolling the halls of their upscale, big-city apartment building.

Is this a case of dogs gone bad? Or the owner missing anti-social cues from a canine ill-suited to mixing with humans?

Either way, experts insist no dog is born evil but rather is led down that path by man.

"It is almost childishly easy to raise any dog to be friendly to all people," says Ian Dunbar, a Berkeley vet and author of dog training books, including "How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks."

"But we are not talking about a pet dog" in Whipple’s attack, he says. "I wouldn’t even call it livestock. It was behaviorally neglected and psychologically abused, trained in a half-assed way to be an assassin."

The dogs that unexpectedly charged Whipple were presa canarios, traditionally measuring up to 25 inches across at the shoulders and bred as guard dogs and herders, says breeder Dana Childers of Medford, Ore.

"They’re no different than any other large, powerful breed of dog," she says. "In the right hands, it’s a fantastic family guard dog. In the wrong hands, you can run into trouble."

The dog most responsible for Whipple’s death was 123-pound Bane, put down by local authorities after the attack. The other dog is 112-pound Hera, who tore at Whipple’s clothes. Hera remains with animal control, pending a police investigation of the case.

Meanwhile, dog experts hope the lesson will be taken to heart. "What struck me about this case was the many lines of defense that were not there," said Jean Donaldson, director of the behavior and training department of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Donaldson is eager to stem the tide of hundreds of phone calls pouring in from people seeking advice.

TIP 1: First, she says, if you find yourself in danger of being mauled by an attacking dog, respond by curling up in a fetal position, face down, hands over your neck, elbows in. And play dead.

Tip 2: Watch for any signs that the dog isn’t properly socialized, such as bowing its head and guarding its food.

"Being OK with most people isn’t good enough," she says.

Tip 3: Never walk more dogs than you can completely control. Avoid people who do.

Tip 4: When looking for a new dog, be scrupulous about its traits and avoid any dog that seems to be suspicious of people.

In the aftermath of Whipple’s death, many here are wondering whether oversized, aggressive dogs should be barred from cramped apartments and busy city environments. In fact, some cities have banned breeds with famously irritable temperaments, such as pit bulls, says John Snyder of the Humane Society of the United States. He says incidents involving aggressive dogs are increasing because "people are crossbreeding for various attributes, often to get the worst of both breeds."

Although drug dealers are known to breed dogs as "personal weapons," Snyder opposes any legislated bans. "You can’t outlaw an animal by breed," he says. "It has to be by activity or the owners."

But that’s cold comfort for those who mourn Diane Whipple and for other Pacific Heights locals who will never again stroll past a dog with quite the same confidence.

"I’m afraid to walk out, and when I do I steer clear of all dogs," says Sue Fornaro, a lawyer who lives two blocks from Whipple’s building.

"I will definitely look at dog owners differently, too. They should know what they have and know how to control them," she says. Bane and Hera "were always walking in our neighborhood. I just keep thinking, It could have been me.’ "

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