What the Sheriff Got Wrong in the Mauling of the 22-Year-Old Woman by Her ‘Pit Bulls’

Below is an op-ed from Christina Shusterich, a dog behavior expert and owner of NY Clever K9 Inc.

Last week, a 22-year-old woman was found dead in the woods, with the police department believing it was her two large dogs who killed her.

Bethany Lynn Stephens’ body was found in a wooded are in Virginia’s Goochland County and was “guarded by two very large, brindle-colored pit bull dogs,” according to Goochland County Sheriff James L. Agnew. It is believed she was walking the dogs in the woods when her death occurred.

At the time of the initial news conference, police said the dogs had been bred to fight and her death was “consistent with being mauled by the dogs.”

“The first traumatic injury to her was to her throat and face,” Agnew said. “It appears she was taken to the ground, lost consciousness, and the dogs then mauled her to death.”

It is extremely sad and horrific to hear of the death of Stephens and she and her family deserves a full investigation of her death.

Related: Photographer Fights Stigma Against Pit Bulls With Adorable Photo Series

There is also another victim in this heart wrenching story: the “pit bull” breed.

As an established dog behavior expert for the past 18 years specializing in dog behavior problems, all dog aggression and “pit bull” breeds, I have found there are serious concerns with the investigation into this case. Some of the claims in this case by the sheriff’s office are solely based on the way the dogs look — like a “pit bull” — and his erroneous beliefs about “pit bulls,” not on the dogs established behavior history and other potential causes or contributing causes.

Further the investigation has consisted of numerous statement changes by the sheriff’s office, including retracting prior statements and currently making contradictory statements of their own investigation as well as admitting they need to further investigate the case.

There is no such breed as pit bull. it is a term, not a breed, traditionally referencing four very different and divergent breeds in the UK and US: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bully. And ironically, the United Kennel Club’s description of the American pit bull terrier breed is that it is a poor watchdog due to its affectionate nature.

The term pit bull simply refers to how a dog may look like — to any degree — like one of these actual breeds and are most frequently mixed breeds. The true genetic lineage of the actual recognized breeds is that they have always been bred to be non-aggressive to people and in fact are very affectionate and obedient dogs. These breeds contribute to society as drug and bomb sniffing dogs, search and rescue, police and therapy dogs. Describing dogs as pit bulls and extrapolating ideas based on that embodies faulty ideas about genetics and depends upon a law enforcer’s subjective opinion about how a dog looks.

Stephens’ dogs were reportedly well cared for, raised as puppies, and have a behavior history of being extremely affectionate dogs.  This week, the sheriff’s office retracted its statement and incorrect assumption was “the dogs appeared to be bred for fighting.”  As now reported, Sheriff Agnew said, “We have determined that that was false, they were not bred for fighting.”

Why did the sheriff’s office assume that they appeared to be “bred for fighting”? The only conclusion can be his own erroneous ideas due to what he viewed as pit bulls and how the dogs physically looked. Additionally, dog fighting consists of having dogs fight each other, not attack humans which the sheriff’s office appears to be uninformed of.

Throughout the investigation, the sheriff office implies without evidence that these dogs were innately aggressive dogs relying heavily on completely inaccurate statements about dog behavior and pit bull behavior. Additionally, as in the above example, they have made statements to make the dogs appear to have a history of aggression and make them appear more aggressive, even in their actual statement made about what they saw at the scene, as follows:

Initially, Sheriff Agnew states that deputies spent hours trying to wrangle the dogs, they could not get the dogs away from the body and it was extremely difficult.” Yet, People magazine later reported that “deputies were able to shoo the animals away from the remains, and while debating whether to shoot and kill the dogs at the site, a friend of Stephens’ arrived who said he could capture the animals,” which he did. While no one except people on the scene know what behaviors the dogs were exhibiting, but with various accounts reported in the media indicates possible discrepancies in how the dogs were behaving.

Related: Huge Backlash After Famous Museum to Show Dog Fighting ‘Art’

Their decision to euthanize the dogs without further investigation which the sheriff office now admits is needed as stated, “Once a dog tastes human flesh, it’s no longer safe to have that dog around humans.” This is an extremely antiquated idea that has been disproven. Personally, as a dog behavior expert specializing in aggression I have successfully treated and worked with many, many dogs that have previously bitten people due to stranger aggression, touch aggression, resource guarding and many other established dog behavior problems. There is no validity to the statement whatsoever – dogs that have bitten do not turn into ravenous monsters that will then attack every human.

In conclusion and proving the investigation of this case is completely focused on and based on false, erroneous ideas of “pit bulls” and dog behavior, Agnew said on Monday “I have no idea” what caused the attack, he added, “I can tell you that since this happened, I’ve spent a significant amount of time researching attacks by dogs of this sort, and while it is not an everyday occurrence, it’s not rare.”

“It happens with some frequency in this country, and I don’t want to disparage any particular breed, but if you do the research, you will find that many of these are perpetrated by pit bulls.”

In response to reports that Stephens had received unspecified threats, or possibly been a victim of human violence or sexual assault, and that her dogs were protecting her when they were found with her body, the sheriff said: “It does not seem, from what we found on the scene, from the evidence that we observed, from the evidence that we collected, that narrative doesn’t fit.” He said, however, “we are still following up on those” reports.

The problem with this case is the sheriff’s investigation which focused solely on the “pit bull” dogs and is full of misinformation about “pit bulls” and dogs in general by making very contradictory statements in the reports.

Delete the faulty word “pit bull” and it would be certain more time would be devoted to the investigation of this case. Bethany Lynn Stephens deserves it.

Related: The Myth of the Big Bad Pit Bull

One comment on “What the Sheriff Got Wrong in the Mauling of the 22-Year-Old Woman by Her ‘Pit Bulls’

  • First off…I am a HUGE dog lover, lifelong dog owner and I believe the most impactful thing on a dogs personality is how you raise it.

    That said…you CAN breed traits into animals. That’s a fact. Nobody has a problem talking about how German Shepherds are intelligent and loyal, but the moment you suggest a pit bull might be more dangerous…well, that’s somehow nonsense and politically incorrect. Pit bulls have been bred for violence and when they do snap it gets very ugly and fast. We need to acknowledge that for our ..and the dogs…safety.

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