Dog Bites Dog
Forget fights over property lines, fences, or loud music. Reality really bites when canine neighbors "disagree".
Dogs Gone Wild
A dogfight can last only seconds, but the legal
fur really flies once dog owners get involved
By Jennifer Frey
Illustration by David Pohl
Although it’s been a year since he died, Janis and Stephen Michaelson still tear up when they talk about Roscoe. Like other four-year-olds, Roscoe was usually playful, sometimes stubborn, always adorable. He loved watching television; even friends of the New Rochelle couple remarked about that. It doesn’t take long to realize that Roscoe occupied the center of the Michaelsons’ world.
One other thing: Roscoe was a black Scotty. “Every dog is special,” says Janis, a 57-year-old retired art teacher. “But he was such a beautiful dog.”
Most nights around 11 pm, Stephen, a 59-year-old senior vice president at Citigroup, would take Roscoe and their golden retriever, Ralf, for a walk. But, on a chilly December night in 2003, the routine was broken as the trio passed the home of neighbor David Beresik. Suddenly Beresik’s garage door opened and his three dogs—a pair of large Dogues de Bordeaux (a French breed that typically weighs 100 pounds) and a 70-pound Rottweiler came charging at them. In the snarling, snapping melee that followed, Michaelson and both of his pets were bitten by Beresik’s dogs, according to police reports. Stephen separated the animals with help from Beresik, who came running outside and tackled one of his dogs himself. (It was later determined the garage door had opened accidentally.)
Roscoe, the worst injured, had a deep puncture wound in the chest. The Michaelsons rushed him to a vet, who stitched him up and admitted him overnight. But X-rays missed Roscoe’s punctured lung, and five days later he suffered a seizure. “He died in my arms,” Janis remembers.
Once upon a time, the sad story of Roscoe would have ended right there, with profuse apologies and perhaps an offer of restitution. The fact that dogs bite—and occasionally attack—other dogs was just part of life. “Dogs are pack animals,” reminds Elmsford dog trainer and author Steve Diller. “Fighting is inevitable. They’re just trying to establish pecking order.” A dog-bites-dog story, unlike a dog-bites-man (or man-bites-dog) story, simply wasn’t news.
Not anymore. L’affaire Roscoe, in fact, ended up in The Journal News. For a variety of reasons, including our increasingly litigious society and ever-feverish love affair with our pets (excuse me, “companion animals”), nowadays when one dog bites another, somebody—man or canine—has got to pay. The resulting conflict pits dog lovers against each other. Not so long ago, dog owners were told that, should their pets wind up in a dogfight, the best course of action was to spray the animals with water from a garden hose. These days, the advice is: get a lawyer.
The December 2003 dogfight, for example, has since moved from the street outside to the New Rochelle courts.
Beresik eventually offered to pay the Michaelsons for their vet fees. (The exact amount is unclear. Beresik declined to comment for this article, but his mother, Mariangela Cavani, said he paid close to $2,000 to cover the Michaelsons’ vet bills; Janis Michaelson says they received $1,200.) Beresik also paid $1,500 for a new Scotty puppy to replace Roscoe, and he paid a fine to the town because his dogs were unleashed and unlicensed, built a fence around his home, and agreed to muzzle his dogs in public.
But the matter didn’t end there. Stephen Michaelson demanded that the mayor and city council designate a Dog Control Officer, and he filed a “dangerous dog” complaint, asking that the town evaluate the safety of Beresik’s animals. “Every neighbor on this block, including me, is scared to death to walk our dogs,” says Stephen. “I literally walk with a can of grizzly bear mace.” The Michaelsons demanded that Beresik’s dogs be confined behind a fence, muzzled when walked in public, and be removed from the neighborhood if deemed dangerous. Lending credence to his fears, The Journal News reported that the Beresik dogs attacked and bit a 66-year-old landscaper as he worked in the garden last August, although no complaint was ever filed regarding that incident.
There’s no love lost, to put it mildly, between the Michaelsons and Beresik and his live-in girlfriend, Adrianna Salamone. Emotions are boiling over on both sides. “There’s no way to evaluate the loss we feel,” says Janis Michaelson of her dead dog. “He was cheated out of life.” Beresik has hired a couple of lawyers—including a former town judge—to defend his dogs against the Michaelsons’ petition. Cavani says her son’s legal bills have run into the thousands of dollars. The Michaelsons are represented at no charge by the town.
For her part, Cavani seems stunned that matters have reached this point. “Those dogs were never raised as aggressive animals, but accidents do happen because dogs become territorial,” she says. “They felt bad,” she says of her son and
his girlfriend. “They took full responsibility. They paid for another dog. Their understanding was that the neighbor was satisfied, but then they pursued it further.”
Ironically, the Michaelsons were able to bring a suit only because Stephen was bitten on the hand during the fracas. In the past under New York State law, a dog was defined as dangerous if it attacked or posed an imminent threat to a person, or a guide dog, but not another pet dog. To this day, no organization keeps tabs on dog-on-dog attacks.
That was fine back in the day when Fido was likely to be a mutt and slept outside in a doghouse. But today, dog owners are more likely to regard their dogs as members of the family—or even as four-legged children. “We hear people talk about how their dogs sleep in bed with them, even large dogs,” says Dana Rocco, manager of the New Rochelle Humane Society. “They tell us they had to go out and buy a larger bed to include the family dog.”
While no specific municipal ordinances in Westchester address dog-on-dog attacks, last year Albany amended state law to give courts greater power to rein in dogs found dangerous not only to people but to other canines. The new law established a standard of proof required to deem a dog dangerous—the dog must pose a reasonable threat to a person or another pet—and gave owners of dogs accused of biting the right to be heard, present evidence, and appeal a dangerous dog ruling. If a judge determines that a dog is a threat, he can order it spayed or neutered, and have a microchip placed under its skin for identification. The bill also gives judges the ability to order a dog owner to
muzzle his dog, to carry liability insurance, or take his pet to obedience school.
“Throughout the year, there have been a number of vicious dog attacks around the state,” reports Assemblyman Paul Tonko, D-Montgomery County, who sponsored the amendment. “We fought to increase public safety, particularly in urban areas, by adding dog-on-dog and dog-on-other-companion-animal attacks as a threshold for deeming a dog dangerous.”
Even amended, some dog owners think the new law doesn’t go far enough because it fails to provide compensation for the owners of dogs that are attacked.
Last February, for example, Chappaqua resident Peggy Post, 50, was standing at the counter of her veterinarian’s office, paying the bill for a routine check of an ear infection bothering Ginger, the family’s cockapoo. “I had her on a short leash,” Post recalls, when, without any warning, a much larger standard poodle approached and suddenly attacked Ginger.
“The dog just swooped in and ripped her eye out in a matter of seconds,” she recalls, shuddering.
The veterinarian whisked Ginger into the operating room, inserted the eye back into the socket, and stitched it shut. But, in the end, the eye could not be saved. “It’s really emotional for us,” says Post, who along with her two daughters and magazine-editor husband Tom, 52, was devastated by the incident. “There’s something about the innocence of the animal that makes you want to protect your pet the way you protect your children,” says Post. “But the law has no specificity to the situation.”
The episode was not merely traumatic; it was expensive as well. The Posts put off their vacation because they didn’t want to put Ginger in a kennel. Peggy, a freelance art teacher, had to place on hold the art classes she gives at her home, fearing Ginger’s appearance would frighten her young students. Their various vet bills mounted to $2,000, which the poodle’s owners initially agreed to pay. Then they reneged on the promise, and the Posts decided to take the case to small claims court.
There they had another surprise. “The statute in New York says that, unless you can prove that the owners knew their dog was vicious, they’re not responsible the first time it hurts someone,” reports Peggy. Basically, the other dog’s first bite was a freebie. The Posts settled the case when the poodle owners’ homeowners insurance reimbursed them $1,000. “Ginger was treated like damaged property by the insurer,” says Peggy. “A dog is considered property, but how can property have medical bills?” Fortunately, one of their vets waived his $1,000 fee.
In effect, the courts have equated dogs and other pets with inanimate household objects. Dog owners who unlawfully lost a pet could recoup no more than an amount equal to its replacement value. But owners are increasingly demanding to be compensated for the loss of companionship—the pain and suffering they’ve endured. “The law considers a dog nothing more than a piece of furniture. How much is a used piece of furniture worth?” asks Pat Wild of Larchmont, a newly retired lawyer who didn’t even try to sue for injury to her labrador/shepherd mix, Owasco, when he was attacked by another dog last year. “The law is very slow to change.”
Not so in other parts of the country. In 2000, Tennessee enacted the T-Bo Act, which allows an aggrieved pet owner to recover up to $5,000 for the emotional loss of affection and companionship if his pet is unlawfully, intentionally, or negligently killed by another dog or person. The law was named for a 13-year-old shih-tzu, who was attacked and killed by another dog in August 2000. The dead dog’s owner, State Senator Steve Cohen of Memphis, filed suit against the other dog’s owner, but was shocked when the judge limited his damages to the veterinary bills and the cost to replace T-Bo, “like a chair or a mailbox broken in front of your house,” says Cohen. “I was crushed. It was a great emotional loss.” Other states are now considering similar bills.
With towns across the county, including Ossining, White Plains, Bedford, New Castle, and Greenburgh, opening dog parks where owners can unleash their pets and let them mingle with other dogs (see “The Real Scoop,” page 55), we’re likely to hear more about dog-on-dog attacks. One summer evening four years ago, a Larchmont resident, who asked for anonymity, took his female Vischla to an unofficial dog park in New Rochelle. Minutes after he unleashed the dog, she came running back to him with her side ripped open. The dog survived, but with a jagged, three-inch scar across her back. The owner never found out just which dog attacked his pet.
Yet dogs often resume their lives faster than do their owners. “Even if one dog is
lacerated, the two go off together,” esays dog trainer Diller. “That’s the difference between dogs and people. Dogs don’t stay mad.”
Owners, on the other hand, often do. In New Rochelle, the Michaelsons’ case against the Beresik dogs drags on. Though Beresik and Salamone have sold their house and recently left the neighborhood, Janis Michaelson refuses to drop her case against Beresik’s dogs. What began as a dogfight has turned into an ugly dispute, pitting neighbor against neighbor, with wild accusations escalating on both sides.
Let the biter beware.
Jennifer Frey is a freelance writer living in Larchmont with her husband and three children: two daughters and Opie, a shih-tzu.