Sue Sheffler's dogsSue Sheffler's Athena, right, with a service dog. / Sheffler photo

Two rottweilers pushed open the side door of their home and ran toward Leslie Oringer as she walked her own two dogs, Rocky and Tyson, on Rhinecliff Street, according to a police report. The rottweilers attacked Oringer's dogs, leaving Rocky — a gray poodle-Wheaten — with several bleeding lacerations on the second day of the new year.

Though rare, dog attacks happen — to people and to animals — and they can be fatal. 

Last November, Sue Sheffler was walking her 15-year-old terrier mix, Athena, at the Arlington Reservoir. When Athena casually approached a nearby pitbull, wrote Sheffler in a letter, the pitbull lunged at Athena, biting her neck and severing her cervical spinal cord. Athena was sent to Massachusetts Veterinary Referral Hospital but did not survive the night.

"We had raised Athena since she was a puppy," wrote Sheffler, a former member of Arlington's School Committee."Losing her this way was an emotional blow, not only to me, but [also] to our whole family."

Dangerous-dog hearings

On Jan. 9, the Arlington Select Board agreed to conduct hearings at a date to be determined to decide whether the attacking dogs should be labeled dangerous.

A dog is considered dangerous, according to town bylaws, if it poses a serious threat to people or domestic animals, or if it attacks a person or animal without justification, resulting in injury or death. No dog is considered dangerous solely because of its breed. 

In Massachussetts, the owner of a dog is typically liable for any injuries that his or her dog inflicts. Exceptions include when the victim of the attack was trespassing or tormenting the dog. 

Responsible about risk

About 4.7 million dog bites occur nationwide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2005 and 2019, pitbulls killed 346 people in the U.S. — more than any other breed — followed by rottweilers, according to, a national group for dog-bite victims. 

Select Board logo, 2019

About 4.7 million dog bites occur nationwide each year, the CDC says.

But certified professional dog trainer Melanie Berk warns of the danger of heaping blame on any particular breed. 

"Most people think that there are good dogs and there are bad dogs; that there are dogs that will bite and there are dogs that won't," said Berk in a phone call with YourArlington. "But it's more of a spectrum than a binary."

This error in thinking, she explained, makes people assume that if they don't have a pitbull or a rottweiler that their dog is completely safe and does not need to be supervised around children or other animals.

"That often leads people not to be as responsible about risk," said Berk. "Truthfully, a lot of dogs could be dangerous in the wrong circumstances."

Assuming a dog is dangerous solely based on its breed can also cause harm — to that dog and to others like it. 

"It can cost that dog their home, their life," Berk said. "Tons of pitbulls are in shelters because it's so hard to get housing for them. It can be prohibitively difficult to find housing that doesn't have breed restrictions, and it's heartbreaking." 

Layers of protection

The rottweilers that attacked Oringer's dogs are young — Mia is 1 year old and Titan is 2 years old — and both are up-to-date on their rabies shots, according to the police report. There have been no other animal-related reports attributed to their owner.

Because the dogs were able to escape from their home, Berk isn't surprised by their aggressive behavior.

"There's a really high incidence of a fight when a dog sees another dog from their window and then runs up to them. They are really worked up by the time they get to the [other] dog," Berk said. "A lot of negative dog interactions happen in this kind of context."

That's why it's crucial to avoid this situation altogether. 

One way to do that is by implementing management strategies, such as putting up multiple gates between the door and the dogs, so that even if someone makes a mistake and leaves the door unlocked, the dogs will not be able to escape. 

"I would want what we call basic management," Berk said, "which is basically leashes, gates and barriers. It would need to be impeccable. You need to have all these things in place to make sure that, even if one thing goes wrong, we are not in that circumstance."

Rehab option

Another part of the solution is rehabilitation.

"With rehabilitation, you are changing the behavior," Berk said. "You are taking a dog who would bite and turning them into a dog who wouldn't." 

That's where a certified dog trainer comes in. A qualified trainer can help determine whether a dog's aggressive behavior is modifiable, manageable or too risky, and then guide the owner through the steps to take from there. But finding a qualified dog trainer can be challenging because the industry is unregulated.

Management and rehabilitation are best used in combination so that if an unexpected situation occurs — such as a dog getting out of the house — a catastrophe is avoided.

"My first question would be how seriously does the owner take this," Berk said. "There's actually a lot you could do in this situation, but it depends if the owner will do that or not."

Sheffler's best friend

Sheffler adopted Athena from a rescue shelter when she was eight weeks old. She had beady black eyes, grey and white fur, and ears that folded forward. 

Like many puppies, she was frisky in the beginning. That first spring, Sheffler remembers her climbing onto the dining table and eating a whole stick of butter. "And she was only 25 pounds!" Sheffler said in a Zoom call, laughing. 

Athena quickly became an important part of the family. She accompanied Sue on walks, befriended their Maine coon cat and grew up alongside her sons as they went through middle school, high school and college. 

"Athena has been my best friend," she said.

Sheffler's favorite memories are the simple ones — such as walking through the front door to find Athena staring up at her, tail wagging madly.  

Ziggy's attack

The dog that attacked Athena was being cared for by someone other than its owner at the time of the attack. That caretaker lives at Drake Village, a public housing site managed by the Arlington Housing Authority, which requires an application for residential pets.

The dog's owner — who is unhoused — told police that she was living in Revere, according to the police report. The police instructed her to quarantine her dog, Ziggy, at her Revere location for 45 days. She agreed, but, less than a week later, she was found in Cambridge with her dog. The Cambridge Animal Control Program took Ziggy into custody and is currently working to persuade the owner to surrender the animal for rehabilitation.

To Berk, Ziggy's attack is surprising because of the context. 

"It was a dog out for a walk and another dog walks by," said Berk. "To go from a very common scenario and to have such a severe result from it, that is horrific -- and that is the definition of a dangerous dog."

Andrew Meier, Sheffler's son, said Athena had no history of aggressive behavior and presented no threat to Ziggy. He expressed concern that the dog could attack someone in Drake Village, which houses elderly and disabled residents. 

"In addition to the emotional damage, the veterinary bills cost us multiple thousands of dollars," wrote Meier in an email to Arlington police. "I think that it is essential for public safety that Ziggy not be exposed to such public areas without significant restraints or additional training."

What's next

If the Select Board concludes that dogs are dangerous, the board can require their owners to take steps such as humanely restraining the dogs, restricting them to their homes, enrolling them in behavior training or — as a last resort — euthanizing them. 

Sheffler doubts that rehabilitation will work for Ziggy. 

"It was a very vicious attack, totally unprovoked," said Sheffler, who has cared for 14 puppies for Prison Pup, a program that raises service dogs by placing them with inmates during the week and people like Sheffler on the weekend.

Meier agrees that it would be risky to let Ziggy back into an ordinary home.

"If there is a kennel that has the resources and the ability to care for the dog, great. But, I don't think it can live safely outside the kennel." 

Watch the Jan. 9 meeting on ACMi:

May 19, 2021: Raising a service dog: What’s it like?

This news summary by YourArlington freelance writer Emily Piper-Vallillo was published Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

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