Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert

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What caused North Carolina fatal dog attack on an elderly lady?

The reasons why some fatal dog bite attacks happen are often not clear.  One such example comes from a recent North Carolina fatal dog attack that happened in March, 2016 in South Charlotte, North Carolina.  In this occurrence, an 86-year-old woman visiting her relatives was mauled to death by a pair of family pit bulls.Dog bite expert North Carolina

What is known about this fatality is that the victim probably had some familiarity with the dogs.  Moreover, according to news reports, neighbors had seen the owner walking the dogs, a male and female, in her neighborhood and at a local park. The dogs were always under control. There were no complaints from neighbors who encountered the dogs. Both dogs were licensed and vaccinated.  And the owner apparently was a responsible member in the South Charlotte community where she lived.

The only red flag comes from a previous incident in 2013 in which animal control visited residence due to a complain about two aggressive dogs. However, according to animal control, the incident was “unsubstantiated”.

What triggered this fatal dog mauling in North Carolina?

How would a dog expert explain what happened based on the information at hand? The best that can be said is that something “triggered” these two pit bulls to attack, and that once the attack started both dogs probably joined in. It is also likely that the victim quickly succumbed to her dog bite injuries given her age. Note that other family members were home at the time of the mauling and apparently called for help. However, shortly after animal control arrived on the scene the victim had succumbed to her fatal dog bite injuries.

A more pressing question is one which asks what “triggered” the attack. Here we can only speculate.  Was the attack foreseeable?  This is difficult to determine. Based on news stories I have read, the attack probably happened after the victim had been in the home for some time subsequent to her arrival. Therefore, it is unlikely that this fatal dog attack was based on the territorial proclivities of these dogs.  And supposedly these were family dogs who probably were somewhat familiar with the victim.  Moreover, apparently the dogs were well-behaved on walks and animal control did not have on file any documented aggression directed to people by these dogs.

The most likely behavioral trigger was some action the victim directed to either one or both of the dogs.  Animal behavior science tells us that canine aggression usually happens as a result of some external stimulus directed to a dog, whether it be social or nonsocial in nature. In this instance, elderly people frequently fall, and I speculate that the victim may have fallen in the proximity of the dogs which in turn caused them to react defensively.  And if the victim was alone, no family member was nearby to come quickly to her aid.  In these circumstances, death from a dog bite can happen quickly.  In short, it is possible that the victim directed an action to the dogs which they did not like. This was the impetus which caused them to attack.  And whether the action was intentional or not does not matter. 

My concern is that this dog bite fatality, as with other fatal dog attacks caused by pit bulls, may be used as “ammunition” by the opponents of pit bulls to support breed specific legislation.  Granted, many pit bull attacks often cause severe injury.  Nonetheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that most well trained, well-socialized, well-bred and properly supervised pit bulls are well-mannered and present few problems to public safety. Black dog