CHATHAM — Several residents of the Riverbay neighborhood say they’re afraid to walk to the mailbox or have their grandchildren play outside after a longtime resident was attacked by a neighbor’s dog last month.
On the morning of June 7, Joan Maloney had gone outside to retrieve her morning paper, and struck up a conversation with neighbor Jeffrey Howell, who was walking his dog. Ernie, the 45-pound lab mix, suddenly pulled free from his leash and jumped on Maloney, biting and severely wounding the hand she was using to protect her face.
“I got hit from behind. I never saw it coming, and I never did anything to provoke it,” Maloney told selectmen Monday. The dog’s teeth fully punctured her hand, and she was taken to Cape Cod Hospital by ambulance where she received stitches to repair blood vessels and tendons. Despite treatment with antibiotics, she developed an infection and required daily follow-up treatment for more than a week. Maloney said she may also require surgery to restore the full range of motion for her thumb.
“The last 40 days have been misery for me,” she said. In addition to the physical pain, “I really live in fear that this dog is going to get loose and come after me again.” Maloney said she also owns dogs, and is not normally fearful of them.
This week, selectmen held an informal meeting with Maloney, Howell, Animal Control Officer Diane Byers and a number of area residents.
“Our family would like to express our sincerest regret,” Howell told the assembly, flanked by members of his family. He called Maloney a wonderful neighbor for almost 20 years, who has seen him walking his dog time and time again. “This is the only time this has happened,” Howell said.
Immediately after the attack, Byers ordered the dog to be quarantined, though it was current on its vaccinations and showed no signs of rabies. Having received a number of calls from concerned neighbors, Byers asked Howell what steps the family would take to ensure that the dog doesn’t bite again. She said Howell voluntarily agreed to walk Ernie only on a leash and only before 6 a.m. daily; at other times, the dog will be confined to the house or a fenced-in area outside. The family also agreed that Ernie will only be walked by physically capable adults, and will be kept away from people who visit the house. When on a leash, the dog will also always be muzzled.
Howell said he intends to remain in compliance with the law and will work with Byers and the neighbors to allay remaining safety concerns. He and his wife are also arranging for a local fence contractor to visit and evaluate the fence around their property, recommending improvements that would make it difficult for a dog to dig underneath.
Neighbor Mary O’Brady said she knows dogs and is “very sympathetic to both parties.” The Howell family would never have deliberately caused anyone injury, she said.
“However, I am currently afraid to go to the mailbox. That’s just the way I feel,” O’Brady said. “I am not a timid person.”
Selectmen have the authority to impose restrictions on the dog, including ordering the animal destroyed, but only after making the legal determination that the dog is dangerous. That can only be done after the board holds a public hearing for that purpose, something board members were reluctant to do.
“All of us want to see if this can be dealt with differently,” board Chairman Dean Nicastro said.
Instead, board members suggested that the conditions to which Howell verbally consented be reinforced by a written agreement, and any violations of that agreement will trigger a formal hearing. Board members also encouraged Howell to have the dog evaluated by a professional who could judge its aggressiveness and recommend additional training or treatment.
Former selectman Florence Seldin, also a neighbor, said she knows of a person who had an aggressive dog and took the animal for evaluation at a well-known veterinary school off Cape. With behavior modification exercises and a prescription, the dog’s behavior moderated, she said. “It worked in the particular instance that I know very well,” she said.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com