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County under fire over vicious dogs

With two dog deaths last week, owners complain the county doesn't do enough to stop aggressive dogs.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

As the Doberman bounded toward her, Yvonne Duncan bent down and scooped up her coal black Pekingese.

Duncan said she lifted her dog, Chang, over her 4-foot, 11-inch frame, but the Doberman closed its teeth around the dog and dragged it from Duncan's arms, ripping her pinky finger in the process.

Then Duncan, 75 years old, felt her body moving. She still held the leash and tugged it, trying to save Chang. She said she fell to the ground, skinning her knees and spraining her right shoulder. For 30 minutes, she and friends near Glenwood Street east of Brooksville tried to reclaim Chang.

Duncan saw the Doberman, which jumped out of his pen in a neighbor's yard, shake her dog, pull off his collar and drop him. She rushed him to an animal hospital, but it was too late. Duncan cried as she went to the emergency room at Oak Hill Hospital to get her cuts and scrapes examined.

"He was my baby," Duncan said. "Wherever I was, he was."

Something must be done about vicious, wild dogs roaming neighborhoods in Hernando County, Duncan said.

She is among dozens of residents who have complained in the past three months about dogs attacking them or their pets. Neither the Sheriff's Office nor the county Animal Services Department last week could provide exact numbers of reported dog attacks.

Records show the Sheriff's Office typically receives several complaints a week about aggressive dogs, and Animal Services receives about 100 calls a day about mean, stray or noisy animals, as well as inquiries about pet adoptions.

Last week, two dogs were reported killed. Their owners said they have complaints about how the incidents were handled by Animal Services. Their concerns were not promptly addressed, they said. Residents also said the county ordinance and state law dealing with dangerous dogs are not tough enough on vicious animals.

"You've got to be mangled or dead before anything is done about these dogs," said Donna Dobrowolski, who lives on Highfield Road southwest of Brooksville.

Dobrowolski said her family has been terrorized since September by their neighbor's two Rottweilers. Before sunrise on a September morning, Dobrowolski and her 9-year-old daughter, Devan, walked out on their front porch, heading to work and school.

They heard a loud growl, and before them stood one of the Rottweilers, which charged toward the porch, Dobrowolski said. She pushed her daughter back into the house. They waited. Dobrowolski, 41, said she picked up a metal pole, peered outside, then they rushed to the car.

Later, Dobrowolski's husband, Joseph, saw one of the dogs in his back yard. He said he picked up his gun, walked outside and shouted for the dog to go home. It turned around and charged him, Mr. Dobrowolski said.

"It's quite a feeling, seeing a dog that large coming toward you," he said.

He fired a shot at the ground, and the dog ran home, he said.

The family called the Sheriff's Office but said nothing was done about the dogs.

Records show that a sheriff's deputy responded to the scene but did not see the Rottweilers on the property, so she did not call Animal Services. A report says the officer advised both families of the county pet ordinance and urged them to call should future problems arise.

For weeks, the family said, the dogs roamed into their wooded yard. The dogs belong to their neighbor, whose yard is ringed with a wire fence with square holes. The dogs can leap over the fence or under it in some places, the Dobrowolskis said.

The family worried about their two little dogs, Precious and Sadie, who went outside several times a day.

On Wednesday, only one of their dogs returned home.

The Dobrowolski girls, 9 and 14, were watching the dogs when Precious, a terrier, walked near the fence. The two Rottweilers rushed over and pulled Precious through a hole in the fence, the girls said. A neighbor heard them screaming and ran over to help. He pulled Precious away.

The 9-year-old girl cradled the dog in her arms as her father drove to the animal hospital, but it was too late. Precious was dead.

The family, in tears, stood near the fence later in the week, looking at pine straw soiled with their dog's blood.

"We kept filing complaints, but nothing was done," Mrs. Dobrowolski said. "I would like to see those dogs put down. I seriously fear for my life and my children's lives."

She said she had to call Animal Services several times before an officer arrived to investigate her dog's death.

The owner of the Rottweilers, whom authorities identified as Steve Lewandowski, did not return calls from the Times seeking comment.

Jim Varn, director of Animal Services for the county, was sick Friday and could not be reached.

Liana Teague, a customer service representative with the agency, said she did not know details about the specific cases and could not comment.

She said one of five caseworkers responds to every call about wild, barking or vicious dogs.

County ordinances require that a dog be contained on an owner's property. If Animal Services finds a roaming dog, its owner is fined $60.50 for the first offense, $86.75 for the second and $113 for the third. Animals typically are picked up and kept in the county shelter for an owner to retrieve them. If an owner does not come in five days, the animal likely will be killed.

What happens when a dog attacks a person or animal depends on the severity of the case, Teague said.

If a dog bites a person, that person can request that the dog be labeled a dangerous animal under state law. A panel of three local residents will listen to both sides and decide whether a dog is dangerous.

If the panel decides yes, the owner is required to contain the dog on its property in a certain type of locked pen and must muzzle it when out in public. Less than a dozen dogs are labeled dangerous in the county, Teague said, noting that the agency plans to more aggressively pursue dangerous dog cases in coming months.

If a dog hurts a person after being labeled dangerous, it can be put down, Teague said.

But a dog must kill two other dogs before it can be designated dangerous, Teague said.

Frank McDowell III, the county's code enforcement director, who oversees Animal Services, said he will soon sit down with his employees to brainstorm changes in how the agency operates and possibly toughen policies against dangerous dogs.

He said he believes they will try to impose tougher fines for roaming dogs and loosen restrictions on barking dogs so that only one person must complain before something is done.

Currently, three residents from three different homes within 500 feet of a barking dog must complain before Animal Services can act and issue a $39.50 fine, Teague said.

"It's time to make some decisions about how we can better serve the public," he said. "We're going to look at dangerous dogs. Hopefully we can make the fines stiff enough so people will be more responsible about their animals and keep them constrained."

Also, the agency recently hired another caseworker for Saturdays to better answer weekend calls, McDowell said.

Teague urged anyone having a problem with neighborhood dogs to call Animal Services at 796-5062. She said it is important for residents to call so the office can build a record about problems before they escalate.

The Dobrowolskis said county officials should have taken their complaints more seriously. If they had, Precious wouldn't have died as their daughters watched, Mr. Dobrowolski said.

"Seeing that poor little puppy like that, it just tore my heart up," he said. "It's probably only a matter of days before they try to attack us."

-- Staff writer Jamie Jones can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to

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