SPOTSYLVANIA — William Tydings could feel his truck moving as a pit bull latched on to a tire.
“It was on my right front tire, going nuts,” said Tydings, the chief animal warden in Spotsylvania County.
At the time, he was responding to a report of two pit bulls running at large, less than two weeks after 82-year-old Dorothy Sullivan was killed March 8 by three roaming pit bulls in a nearby part of the county.
One of the dogs Tydings was looking for was a puppy that turned out not to be aggressive. The other pit bull was a different story.
“It aggressively came at me. I couldn’t get a pole on it,” said Tydings, who added he considered shooting the dog. “I started to draw [my gun.] I looked, and I could see two kids looking out the glass door.”
Tydings instead called for backup and waited in his truck. When he emerged, he found the side of his right front tire had been punctured. He blames the adult pit bull, which officials caught later that day and euthanized.
Reports of loose dogs, particularly pit bulls, doubled in Spotsylvania in the weeks after Sullivan and her small dog were fatally mauled in her yard, Tydings said.
Her death and last Sunday’s fatal attack on Robbie Shafer, 4, in Orange County by his family’s Rottweiler-shepherd mix have raised public fear of some breeds and crossbreeds. The maulings also have prompted people to vigorously defend the cited breeds or mixes.
The incidents also have focused attention on the responsibilities of dog owners, humane treatment of dogs as well as Virginia laws that govern the maximum penalties localities can impose on dog owners whose pets stray and bite someone — penalties that some elected officials believe are too lenient.
More than 4.7 million people, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, are bitten by dogs each year, and about 17 of those victims die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2004, 20 people were killed in dog attacks, according to published reports. So far this year, six people have died in dog attacks, including Sullivan and Robbie Shafer.
About 800,000 people, half of them children, seek medical attention for dog bites during a year. Those killed are most often children, particularly between the ages of 5 and 9.
In Virginia, local animal-control and humane-society officials reported 2,271 dog bites to the state veterinarian’s office during 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. Experts say many dog-bite victims do not report their encounters.
That same year, 88 people in Virginia required hospitalization above and beyond emergency-room treatment for dog bites, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Pit bulls and Rottweilers, respectively, are the dogs most often cited in fatal attacks, according to a 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The study is the most recent data that categorizes bites by breed or crossbreed over a 20-year period, from 1979 to 1998.
Many dog owners and dog experts are reluctant to point the finger at a particular breed or crossbreed. They say socialization plays a large role in whether any dog is aggressive.
“This is not a dog problem. It’s a people problem,” said Maureen Hill-Hauch, a Spotsylvania resident and a vice president of the Castleton, N.Y.-based American Dog Owners Association.
But some people are convinced that certain breeds or crossbreeds are more aggressive than others.
Some insurance companies, for example, refuse to issue homeowners policies to people who own certain types of dogs, pit bulls and Rottweilers among them.
Many people recount personal experiences.
“These animals were bred specifically to attack. They don’t just bite, they kill,” said J. Tyler Ballance, a Westmoreland County resident who said he has encountered two pit bulls, a Rottweiler and a shepherd mix while jogging.
Ballance, 49, said he fought the dogs off with a swift kick or pepper spray. “I used up a can on one dog,” he said, referring to what he described as a pit bull.
Some animal-advocacy groups also say confining dogs to a chain can foster aggression, as well as pose a health hazard to dogs that might become entangled.
Chaining was a factor in the death of Robbie Shafer last Sunday. The family’s 64-pound Rottweiler-shepherd mix was chained in their yard when Robbie’s mother left him unattended for less than a minute, authorities said. The boy apparently wandered too close and was mauled. Orange authorities say they will not file charges in the case.
The Humane Society of the United States and several other groups oppose chaining. In Virginia, three localities — Norfolk, Northampton County and Virginia Beach — have adopted local ordinances limiting the amount of time a dog can be chained in a 24-hour period.
Kiran Krishnamurthy is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.