After police linked a Columbia woman's death to a mauling by a pit bull she recently brought home, some animal behavior experts say the apparent attack highlights a gaping problem: There are no uniform rules for screening the millions of animals that go through shelters every year.
Little is known about this dog, though most animal shelters locally and around the nation assess their dogs' temperament before putting them up for adoption. However, the prevailing tests that subject dogs to potentially unpleasant conditions have little conclusive science behind them and results can be widely interpreted, the experts say. A move to invest more time in learning about the animals and preparing them for homes takes resources many shelters and rescue groups don't have.
"There have been vast improvements in assessing, training and matching dogs to people," said Megan Stanley, board chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, whose members conduct shelter assessments. "We're definitely seeing shelters and larger rescue organizations really making huge efforts to make sure they know their dogs. People's hearts tend to be in the right place, but not everyone is able to really ensure there isn't a dangerous situation."
Stanley joins other groups of behaviorists and animal care and rights groups such as the ASPCA in calling for standard, thorough assessments from sources, including previous owners, foster care providers, kennel workers and veterinary staff, as well as temperament tests.
Such tests can vary, said Stanley and Marjie Alonso, executive director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. They can involve hugging the dog, putting out a bowl of food and seeing if the dog guards it, pinching a paw to see the reaction, staring in the dog's eyes and watching the dog around cats, stuffed dogs and life-size dolls of kids.
Trainers consider the tests something of a snapshot in time, used to predict future behavior. The tests may or may not be mixed with other information to help shelters decide on euthanizing dogs, or if needed, making the dogs more adoptable by giving them training for aggression or other behavior problems while at the shelter or in a foster home. Generally, dogs that do not appear to be good with children or other dogs are adopted to homes without them and the adopters advised. Sometimes shelters require a fenced yard for large or active dogs.
Developing one comprehensive standard could reduce harm and even deaths after placements of shelter dogs, as well as those from a proliferation of rescue groups that take in breed-specific dogs and those from high-kill shelters and other countries, said Stanley and others.
Howard County officials believe the county's first dog-related fatality is 64-year-old Robin Conway, who had been a longtime dog lover and care giver. She was found in her yard with significant injuries near a dog she adopted out of state two weeks before. There is no other information on the case, which remains under investigation, said Sherry Llewellyn, police spokeswoman.
The state medical examiner's office said Friday that the cause of death was multiple injuries and was ruled an accident.
Conway's neighbor Sylvia Ramsey said she and Conway had bonded over a shared love of dogs during their 40-year relationship. She wasn't surprised when Conway recently began bringing home rescued dogs. "She was just the warmest and most caring person; collected people and collected animals."
Ramsey said Conway had been in contact with a West Virginia rescue group for some time about the all-white male pit bull initially named Snowball that she eventually brought home. Ramsey didn't know the dog's history but believed the group had confidence in placing the dog with her because of her history and experience with animals.
Conway always had dogs and cats in the house, and she also cared for other people's animals, Ramsey said. Conway had another pit bull mix named Remington, whom she called Remi, who was rescued from the Eastern Shore. Ramsey had seen the two dogs playing in the backyard. Ramsey said she saw Remi, normally a happy-go-lucky animal, look as devastated as the rest of Conway's family and friends in recent days.
"There was something about pit bulls that was a draw for her," which may have been because they were stigmatized by others, Ramsey said. "I'm sure the rescue group felt sure she could work with any dog based on all her years with other people's dogs and her own. ... Sometimes these dogs come from dogfights or puppy mills, and terrible things have been done to them. It's a struggle to care for them, but I know a lot of people with rescue dogs, and they are all happy."
State officials couldn't immediately say how many people in the state have died from dog attacks, though experts believe fatal attacks are rare and even bites are relatively uncommon, considering there are approximately 78 million pet dogs nationally. There were more than 7,000 dog bites reported in Maryland last year, including 322 in Howard, according to state Department of Health figures.
At the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, known as BARCS, spokeswoman Bailey Deacon called the death in Columbia "heartbreaking and tragic."
She added, "It is important to note that all dogs are individuals and behavior is not predicated based on the breed. At BARCS, all dogs are afforded the same resources, and there is no emphasis or variation based on the appearance of a dog. Treating each individual with the care they require, and judging them individually by their actions – and not by their physical appearance – is the best way to meet a dog's needs as well as finding the best outcome for them."
Many area shelters, including the Howard County Animal Control & Adoption Center, nonetheless, treat pit bull breeds differently. All dogs are temperament tested and tested for compatibility with other dogs. To adopt a bully breed, including pit bulls, applicants must own a home with a fence and have an animal control inspection. They also must agree to dog obedience classes, said Llewellyn, whose agency is also responsible for animal control.
Research shows that many dog breeds can be dangerous. The American Veterinary Medical Association looked at a range of studies and found breeds most linked to biting incidents included German shepherds, Rottweilers, Jack Russell terriers, Chow Chows, spaniels, collies, Saint Bernards, and Labrador retrievers, though pit bull types were identified in the much smaller group where bites were severe or fatal.
Breed popularity plays a major role, and pit bull types are popular in many parts of the country, the research found. But Siberian huskies are prime offenders in fatal dog attacks in parts of Canada, and when there was a peak in American Kennel Club registrations of Rottweilers between 1990 and 1995, they became the top biters that led to hospitalization for a time. Owner and veterinary surveys also find small breeds to be the most aggressive toward people.
Owner treatment is another major factor, and pit bulls are often used as fighting dogs, the research found. There is reporting bias, particularly people misidentifying pit bulls, which encompass a range of breeds, and appearances aren't reliably identified, the research found.
Stanley, from the dog trainer group, said all this can make banning breeds ineffective.
Alonso from the behavior consultants association, which includes trainers in shelters, said there may not be a sure-fire method of ending severe injuries.
"People correctly want to have an assessment of a dog before they give it to afamily," she said. "Sometimes it goes wrong, and there is more damage potential with big dogs."
She said working toward standards for more thorough assessments, training and matching of dogs with homes is a place to start.