A 6-year-old Great Dane characterized by those who knew him as a gentle giant, died while constrained by the noose of a Gila County Animal Control officer Wednesday, March 26.
An autopsy report by the University of Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory said the cause of death could not be determined.
The incident began when the dog jumped a fence into the neighbor's yard, where a dog was in heat. A 2-year-old child was in the yard playing when, according to the neighbors, the 160 pound dog, Tonto, bumped the child causing him to fall down.
When neighbors ordered the dog to go home, it immediately returned to its yard and crawled under the porch.
Kevin Dewitt, the child's grandfather, who did not know the temperament of the dog, called animal control.
When animal control officer Mike Spaulding arrived at the scene, according to witnesses, Spaulding entered the yard of Mary Hansen, the dog's owner, who was not home at the time.
SuAnne Clyne, the child's mother, said in a written statement, that Spaulding entered Hansen's yard and "took a gun over to the house, (Spaulding) said, for precautionary measures."
While in Hansen's yard, Spaulding allegedly threw a noose around the dog's neck and began trying to pull the dog into his vehicle.
In her statement, Clyne said: "The next time I saw (Spaulding), he was leading the animal up the driveway with the choker around the dog's neck. He tried to get the dog into the truck and the dog was yelping and shaking its head. The man pulled on the choker trying to get him on the ramp which he did and the dog jumped off the ramp. The man pulled the dog behind the truck to get him back on the ramp. The dog disappeared for a second behind a bush and all I saw was the man pulling the choker back and forth. He pulled the dog past the bush and I saw the dog collapse," Clyne said.
Witness statements then describe Spaulding dragging the deceased dog into his truck.
"He continued to pull the dog to the truck (on its side) for about two feet," Clyne said, "and then put one hand underneath the dog to pick him up and used the other hand on the choker to pull him up."
Hansen, unaware of what had happened, returned home to find a warning notice from animal control. On the notice, Spaulding wrote, "attacked another dog and knocked over 2-year-old child." At the bottom of the notice was a phone number and a note from Spaulding, "I have the dog!"
Clyne and the Dewitts, seeing that Hansen was home, went next door to tell her what had happened. According to Hansen, they were visibly upset by the incident.
Hansen tried to reach Spaulding but was told he had stepped out and would call her back.
According to Hansen, she then received a phone call from Spaulding who told her that the dog had attacked a child. The neighbors, who were in the room with Hansen during the call, refuted this claim.
Dewitt wrote in his statement, "Mary Hansen's dog did not attack my grandson. He knocked him down."
When Hansen told Spaulding that the child's family was standing next to her and disagreed that the dog attacked the child, Spaulding allegedly responded by saying that it must have been another neighbor.
On a subsequent phone call Hansen made to Spaulding, he allegedly changed his story and said he was sorry and did what he had to do when the dog turned on him.
None of the witnesses saw Tonto turn on Spaulding and Hansen said her dog had never displayed any signs of aggression.
"Tonto used to visit the residents at Manzanita Manor," Hansen said. "He was an emotional therapy dog."
Ken Murphy, director of Manzanita Manor, recalled Tonto and said that aggressive animals would never be permitted in the facility.
"We couldn't have any dogs in the facility if they were dangerous to other people," he said.
Spaulding was unavailable for comment. Animal Control supervisor John Castaneda said he couldn't comment on specifics of the case.
"... All we can say is that we do regret the animal did die and we are changing things in the future so that won't happen again," Castaneda said.
When asked what changes would be made to prevent further dog deaths, Castaneda's answer was brief.
"More training and the equipment that we are using, but that's about all I'm allowed to say," he said.
Hansen has repeatedly requested a copy of Spaulding's incident report and has been told that the agency is checking with the county attorney to see if they are required to release it.
"We have to get the OK from the county attorney to release the report," Castaneda told the Roundup.
The dog's corpse, being held in a freezer at the humane society, became potential evidence. Hansen's vet, Lorenzo Gonzales, D.V.M., did a preliminary autopsy to rule out any superficial or obvious reasons for the dog's death.
Hansen was advised to have an autopsy done at the University of Arizona in Tucson where pathologists could determine the cause of death.
On Friday, Hansen retrieved her dog and drove to Tucson, the dog's body packed in ice.
Senior Pathologist Robert Glock, D.V.M., Ph.D. performed a necropsy and found nothing that would suggest an alternative cause of death such as disease. Glock said the trachea was intact but said that a dog that dies of strangulation would not necessarily have any visible signs.
"It is possible for a dog to have been strangled and there be no signs found on the body," Glock said. "I can recall in the last few months I have had this case plus a case of a dog that was on a leash and jumped over a fence and a case of a dog that was at a boarding kennel and somehow jumped up and caught its collar on a piece of wire. All these animals quite obviously died because of some type of strangulation and there were no signs of damage."
When asked if he believed the dog had been strangled, Glock replied, "It's my feeling that I can't find any other cause of death, and you have to go with the history."
"I think the key issue here is that when I read that history, it just seems like this person was either terribly frightened or insensitive or something," Glock said, "and if it offended that many people who were watching, you have to just think that it wasn't done with much judgment and I think that's the biggest argument that anybody has in this case."
The noose -- also known as a loop or bite stick -- is an instrument frequently employed to control an animal. When used correctly, it is a safe and effective method of handling dogs.
"When you use something like a noose -- putting a rope around the neck of a cow that doesn't want to be caught you just have to have judgment that says ‘whoops this animal is getting too much we have to give it some slack.' My point is that an animal control officer is a highly visible occupation and I think a lot of it has to do with selection of individuals and providing training," Glock said.
Diane Fitzpatrick, Manager of the Payson Humane Society, said that she has used the noose quite often.
"I have used the noose in the three and a half years I've been here quite a bit and have never hurt a dog," Fitzpatrick said. "Never".
But Fitzpatrick said she has seen the noose used incorrectly by county animal control officers.
"I've seen them bring dogs in with their eyes bulging out," Fitzpatrick said.
Pat Boettcher, president of the Humane Society, agrees that misuse of the noose by animal control officers has been an issue in the past.
"We have recommended repeatedly to the county that the person employed be adequately trained on how to use a bite stick," Boettcher said. "It's proper training."
"About three months ago, we had an animal control officer who was noosing a dog in our yard and I had volunteers complain to me that he was too aggressive," Fitzpatrick said. "I asked them to call the head of animal control in Globe, which they did. The supervisor came up and we suggested that they were using this (noose) too aggressively."
Whether a tragic accident or a case of gross negligence, this incident raises questions about the qualification, training and conduct of animal control officers.
"My dog's death has to mean something," Hansen said. "I'm not going to stop fighting until the animal control officers get more training ... I don't want another dog to die unnecessarily."