When Courtney Nelson heard that 7-month-old Annabelle Mitchell had been killed Tuesday by the Mitchell family’s Rottweiler, her first reaction was the same as that of many Mainers: shock and sorrow.
“I cried. I can’t even talk about it right now. It tears me up,” the assistant director at the Houlton Humane Society said Thursday. “I can’t even fathom what that baby went through.”
But then Nelson got back to work. For the past 11 years, she has been caring for animals at the no-kill shelter and trying to find them adoptive families, including the dogs that can be harder to place, such as pit bulls and Rottweilers.
“I think it’s great for kids to be brought up around animals. It teaches them responsibility. It teaches them kindness,” she said. “But it can turn in an instant, and you just don’t know. They can be very scary, and they can be your best friend.”
Not a Rottweiler issue
Two days after the tragedy in Frankfort, which state officials believe to be the first dog bite-related fatality in Maine in at least 40 years, dog experts like Nelson cautioned against demonizing the breed of dog involved.
“Everyone is making this a Rottweiler issue, which is a huge mistake. Any dog can bite,” said Don Hanson of Green Acres Kennel in Bangor. “Any breed of dog can behave inappropriately, can be aggressive and can kill someone.”
He said that one of his colleagues in Florida had a case where a Pomeranian, a toy dog, killed an infant.
After Wednesday’s attack in Frankfort, a Waldo County deputy shot the Rottweiler at the request of Annabelle’s father. An autopsy that was begun Wednesday on the baby’s body was expected to be completed Friday afternoon, said an official at the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta.
The Rottweiler, a type of dog originally bred for its guarding and herding traits, was listed as the second-most-likely breed of dog to be involved in a human-dog bite-related fatality, according to a 2000 special report from the Journal of the American Veterinary Association.
Pit bulls were involved in 66 bite fatalities reported between 1979 and 1998. The Rottweiler was involved in 39 bite fatalities in the same time period.
Although the report lists the dogs involved in fatal human attacks, it does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, resulting in 16 deaths on average.
The state CDC does not keep track of dog bites in Maine, said Dr. Stephen Sears, the acting director of the agency.
“I think fatalities are very unusual, but they happen,” he said. “You hear about small people with big dogs. The pit bulls and babies. Those tend to be pretty intense in the media, and they’re terrible.”
‘A different species’
Hanson, a certified dog behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer, said that he works with dogs with a wide range of behavioral issues, including aggression, fear and phobias.
“It’s really tragic,” he said of the baby’s death. “People really need to supervise their dogs and kids. And people need to learn about dogs.”
One thing people might not know about dogs is that they’re not just like us, he said.
“A dog is not a furry little person that understands right from wrong with our same moral compass,” he said. “They’re a very different species.”
Another thing is that dogs and kids are not automatically the best of friends.
“It’s a lot of work to have dogs and kids and do everything right and keep everyone safe,” Hanson said. “Timmy and Lassie is an extremely heartwarming story. It really makes us all feel good. It was also an incredible piece of fiction.”
The behavioral expert said he doesn’t know enough about the Frankfort tragedy to speculate about what caused the dog’s aggression. But what often can cause aggression is a dominance and punishment based approach to training, he said.
Instead, he encourages reward-based training, careful management and building up a bond with the dog. He also urges people to recognize that each dog is an individual, and not all dogs will be friendly extroverts with all other animals and people.
“We see a lot of people who seem to think that their dog should be like every other person and dog on the planet,” Hanson said. “That’s not a realistic expectation.”
Always practice vigilance
Sometimes those expectations of dogs can belie the fact that, as experts repeated, any dog is capable of being vicious.
Nelson said that she has seen a great number of Rottweilers come through the Houlton shelter in 11 years, and 95 percent of them are “the best dogs.
“They’re gentle giants, they really are,” she said.
On the other hand, the shelter once took in a golden retriever that had had a litter of puppies and had attacked a little girl that approached the puppies.
“It took her by the throat,” Nelson recalled. “It can be any breed of dog … I’ve dealt with pit bulls that would lap your face and I’ve dealt with poodles that would rather rip it off.”
Although the girl in that instance was not greatly harmed by the retriever, the lesson that Nelson has learned is that you must always supervise kids and dogs, which she practices at her home.
“I never leave my dogs alone. I know they’d never do anything. I just never give them the chance to make that mistake,” she said.
Nelson also has taught her 4-year-old son to be very gentle with the family pets.
“We teach him you don’t wake a sleeping dog. You don’t run up and jump on them,” she said. “Just like anybody, people have their space and dogs have their space.”
Another tip is to get animals spayed and neutered, which she said can minimize problems with aggression.
“I can’t praise it enough, especially in males,” Nelson said.
But should a dog snap, and attack, she recommends grabbing it by the hind legs.
“It breaks their stance and their stability, and it’ll break their lock,” she said. “You don’t want to go in and grab them by the collar. If they’re overstimulated, they’re overstimulated. They just see red.”
Hanson said that the hind-leg technique can work, and throwing water at a dog also might cause it to disengage.
“To be really honest, I think everybody acts instinctually, and does what they think they need to do,” he said. “But anytime you intervene in such a situation, there’s a high probability you’re going to get bit. Obviously, in a situation where another living thing is being hurt, you need to do what you need to do. People need to know there’s nothing that’s guaranteed risk-free.”
For more information about dog bites and preventing them, visit the CDC website: