A Douglas dog owner was fined Wednesday for not being able to prevent his dog from killing a smaller dog in what witnesses described as a vicious attack on Thanksgiving day last year.
Judge Keith Levy fined 61-year-old Jody Vick $150 after finding him guilty of ‘objectionable menacing’ as well as other minor offenses for failing to comply with subsequent demands from Animal Control.
“I think what’s described here is a horrific incident,” Levy told Vick following a one-day bench trial in Juneau District Court. “Even if other dog did provoke your dog, obviously you didn’t have enough control over your dog to prevent it.”
The charges, which are all non-criminal infractions akin to a speeding ticket, stemmed from an incident wherein one of Vick’s dogs, a 4-year-old Mastiff-Pit bull mix named Sushi, attacked a smaller dog on First Street in Douglas during a walk home from Sandy Beach. The smaller dog, a 5-year-old Shiz Tsu-Pomeranian mix named Sophie, died a day or two later from its injuries.
Vick did not deny his dog attacked or injured another animal, but he said the smaller dog provoked it.
The judge ruled that is not a valid defense and said it doesn’t matter whether the attack was provoked. To be found guilty of objectionable menacing, one only needs to prove that one animal caused injury to another.
During Wednesday’s trial, Gastineau Humane Society Executive Director Matthew Musslewhite, who was the director of Animal Control at the time, called a woman to the stand who witnessed the attack. Musslewhite handled the case for the city while Vick represented himself.
The witness, Denise Vanderpool, said she was putting food in the back of her car when she heard dogs screeching and barking nearby. She turned and saw the bigger dog grab the little one — which she recognized as her neighbor’s dog — by its throat. The bigger dog shook the little dog and then “ripped its throat apart,” she testified.
“It was a very vicious, frightening attack,” she said.
Vanderpool said she screamed as she watched, and she also saw Vick try to pull his dog off the smaller one to no avail. Afterward, she wrapped the dog in a towel and took the injured dog to the vet.
Vick, in his defense, said the woman did not see the start of the dog fight. He said the smaller dog instigated the attack by biting his dog on the side of the nose. He said that the fight was not as bad as described and that his dog did not grab the little dog by the throat. He said the wounds to the smaller dog were superficial, except for one puncture wound.
The element of provocation only matters if determining whether a dog should be given the designation of ‘dangerous,’ which is separate from court proceedings. Vick is currently fighting his dog’s status as dangerous.
Animal Control deemed Vick’s dog dangerous, which means Animal Control can enforce strict rules and regulations regarding the dog’s confinement in order to protect the public. Vick immediately appealed, and an Animal Hearing Board upheld their decision in January. Vick appealed again to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly. The Assembly will announce their decision at an August meeting.
Musslewhite previously told the Empire the attack was unprovoked, and he said in an interview that is still the city’s position.
In court, Levy also found Vick guilty for failing to license his dog and for failing to take out a liability insurance policy of at least $100,000, both of which are Animal Control requirements in light of the ‘dangerous dog’ status. Levy found him not guilty of failing to post signs that his dog was dangerous. Vick posted a sign telling people to beware of the dog, which the judge found sufficient.
The small dog’s owner did not appear at the trial on Wednesday. Musslewhite said in an interview that’s because he didn’t want to have her testify and rehash the experience.
Although Vick did not receive any criminal convictions and only received a small fine, Musslewhite said he’s pleased with the outcome because Vick will have to comply with the court’s findings and with Animal Control restrictions for the rest of the dog’s life, if the appeal is upheld by the Assembly.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “What we’re looking for is for compliance. With compliance, we have certain things we can put in place such as an animal has to be muzzled when off of its property, it must wear a large gold pendant (that says dangerous dog) and a collar that says dangerous dog and leash — visual clues for the public that ... this is a dangerous dog.”
Musslewhite said he hopes the owner of the dog that died can get “a little bit of closure” with the outcome. If not, she can still file a civil action lawsuit, he said.
Animal Control did not recommend euthanizing the attacking dog, a measure that can only be ordered by the court. Musslewhite said they usually reserve that for animals that have attacked more than once and that are a direct threat to the public. This was the first time Vick’s dog reportedly bit another dog.
“In the future we may seek that, but in my time here working for Animal Control (five years), we haven’t actually required or sought that kind of judgment explicitly,” he said.
Former GHS Director Chava Lee, who recently retired, previously told the Empire that it’s a rare occurrence for the court to order a dog killed. She’s only seen it happen three times in her 13-year career.
Dog fights are more common in Juneau than one might think, however. There’s an average of 75 “bite cases” — wherein a dog bites another dog or a person — every year, Musslewhite said. So far this year, 41 cases have been reported.
Thirteen dogs are presently deemed dangerous or potentially dangerous in Juneau.