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Dog Bites 8-Year-Old Boy: Should It be Declared Dangerous, Or Does Castle Doctrine Apply? County Commission Will Decide.

| September 3, 2015

bacchus dangerous dog case flagler

Bacchus, the chocolate Labrador, is at the center of the case. Cajun the Rottweiler is in the same household but not involved in the case.

The incident took place on July 5, a Sunday, at 37 Remington Road in the Eagle Rock subdivision, just west of the Plantation Bay area of southern Flagler County.

Neighbor Ricky Westfall, 8, had gone to visit his friend Rage, 8, the son of Jay and Dawn Sweatt at their 5-acre property. When Ricky walked in the house, one of the family’s two dogs, Bacchus, a 2 and a half-year-old brown Labrador, attacked and bit Ricky on the right side of the face just below the eye and on the lip, leaving what Ricky’s doctor would later describe as “deep wounds extending down to bone into the intraoral area.” He required 44 stitches.

On July 20, Katie DiPippo, the Flagler Animal Services, issued a notice that would declare Bacchus a dangerous dog. That would put severe limitations on the dog, such as a muzzle when in the presence of people, the requirement that the dog be confined, his status posted and even tattooed on its thigh or, alternately, the implantation of an identifying electronic chip.

The Sweatts disputed the determination and requested a hearing. Last week, the hearing officer—Charles Cino—recommended after hearing testimony over two days that the dog not be deemed dangerous. The matter isn’t over by any means: the Flagler County Commission hears the case and Cino’s recommendation before it, makes a decision on whether to uphold or reverse the determination on Sept. 9. Even then, the case may be appealed to count court and beyond.

ricky westfall dangerous dog bite flagler

The dog bite on Ricky Westfall required 44 stitches. Click on the image for larger view. (Flagler County case file.)

Both families have retained lawyers as they have pursued the matter, with Ricky’s mother, Geri Westfall, looking for the dog to be declared dangerous (she had asked animal control officials why Bacchus had not been destroyed yet, but later told a News-Journal reporter that she did not want it euthanized) and the Sweatts looking to stop that determination.

It’s been roughly a decade or more since the last time the commission was asked to determine the fate of a dog in similar circumstances. The case is a rare window into the at-times complicated laws and procedures regulating domestic animal behavior. It illustrates a degree of subjectivity that plays into determinations about a dog’s behavior while underscoring reasoning usually applied to human beings, but in this case applied to a dog as well: the castle doctrine is not only for humans. Indeed, in Cino’s analysis—Cino is an attorney and traffic magistrate—the reason Bacchus should not be declared dangerous is because the dog was protecting its home against Ricky, who was not “lawfully” on the Sweatt’s property, according to Cino’s finding.

According to Cino’s summary of events, Ricky would visit his friend Rage but only after Ricky’s mother would call the Sweatt’s house first to make sure he could visit. Bacchus was not the only dog there. There’s also Cajun, an 8-year-old Rottweiler.  “Both dogs get excited and rambunctious when the doorbell rings so the Sweatts were in the habit of putting them in the back porch before answering the door,” Deborah Birmingham, a canine behavior consultant and trainer wrote in an assessment report on the dog  requested by the Shelton Veterinary Clinic in Bunnell ahead of the hearing before Cino.

That July 5, Ricky biked over to see Rage without his mother calling ahead. He knocked and repeatedly rang the doorbell. The household had been asleep at the time. Jay Sweatt finally opened the door and told him to go home since Rage was asleep. Sweatt testified that he told Rickey the family would call to say when it was okay for Rickey to visit. But Rickey returned half an hour later without a phone call.

Beyond the dispute over what happened the day of the dog bite, a matter of legal interpretation looms.

Finding the front door unlocked, Ricky “walked into the front entrance of the home where he encountered” Bacchus, Cino wrote, noting the conflicting testimony: Ricky said Rage opened the door. Rage said Ricky opened the door. And Rage’s 12-year-old sister Sage said she couldn’t see who had opened the door, but could see that no one had been in the entryway when the door was opened—and that her brother Rage was on the second floor at the time, so he couldn’t have opened the door. Jay Sweatt said he too was on the second floor.

“The family, who were dressing in other areas of the house,” Birmingham wrote in her report, “heard barking, then a scream, and then crying. Rage described Ricky as reaching out and bending over to greet Bacchus as he came in, although he also states he did not see the bite occur.”

What happened next is undisputed. Bacchus bit Ricky. But he was “acting as a sentry, defending the home against an intruder,” Cino wrote, citing Birmingham’s analysis as well. The dog bit Ricky once and retreated to his crate, while Ricky ran outside.

DiPippo testified that she made her decision to have the dog declared dangerous based entirely on photographs of Ricky and a verbal report from a  colleague, without additional affidavits or consideration of legal exemptions to the declaration.

Florida law is clear: “A dog shall not be declared dangerous if the threat, injury, or damage was sustained by a person who, at the time, was unlawfully on the property or, while lawfully on the property, was tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog or its owner or a family member. No dog may be declared dangerous if the dog was protecting or defending a human being within the immediate vicinity of the dog from an unjustified attack or assault.”

Cino concluded that since Ricky “entered the home without the knowledge of either Jay or Dawn Sweatt, the homeowners[,] and was told by Jay Sweatt not to come over until called, and did not have authority or license to enter the home, therefore his presence was unlawful. Since [Ricky] was not legally on the property, the county cannot declare Bacchus a dangerous animal, since the dog may have been protecting the family from intruders.”

Ricky Westfall before the stitches. Click on the image for larger view. (Flagler County case file.)

Ricky Westfall before the stitches. Click on the image for larger view. (Flagler County case file.)

Bacchus has not had a necessarily calm life. “As a pup of 6 to 9 months,” Birmingham also reported, “Bacchus is reported as showing signs of separation anxiety when the owners were absent such as drooling and gnawing of the dry wall around an exit door. In April of this year he is reported as reflexively biting at Sage when she jumped on him to hug him and awoke him from a deep sleep. The skin of her lip was slightly cut. The Sweatts also reported occasionally hearing an ambiguous short rumble or growl-like sound from him while being petted and on other random occasions. I observed this phenomenon twice during my first visit and on other occasions.”

Birmingham also reported seeing the dog playful and in control of itself while with Rage, but usually disobeying commands, without consequences. “I could see that there was a communication problem,” Birmingham wrote. “The dog sometimes did not understand what was expected of him because of it. The family taught Bacchus obedience themselves. They admit that they have not been consistent with their training nor followed through on commands given but not obeyed.”

She concluded about the dog: “In my opinion, the communication problems between his people and Bacchus are a primary cause of his anxiety, together with a probable genetic component. Both the adults have an authoritarian, somewhat harsh and confrontational tone of voice when giving commands and there is a tendency to repeat a command rapidly.” Birmingham termed the bite “the result of a tragic and unfortunate series of events,” with the dog quickly biting the nearest part of the body that Ricky presented, as Ricky bent over to the dog, before Bacchus could recognize him. She is recommending obedience training, socialization and other behavior modification—which the Sweatts, she said, are committing to “with my help”:  Birmingham, in other words, had gained a client.

Birmingham doesn’t mention an incident from a year ago that’s been made part of the case file going before the commission.

On July 20, 2014, Russell Schaeffer, a 64-year-old resident of the same neighborhood, was  bicycling in the area with his wife when Bacchus ran out aggressively toward the couple, his hair standing upright. Russell took out a gun and fired a warning shot at the dog, “but not to hit it,” according to an incident report. Jay Sweatt was standing a distance away. He acknowledged that the dog may have seemed threatening to Schaeffer, but had been concerned about the gun being fired in such proximity to him. The two men “have no problem with each other,” the incident report relates, and deputies reported no crime.

When the biting matter goes before the commission on Sept. 9, it will be handled as a quasi-judicial hearing: each side will get five minutes, with Vincent Lyon, the Chiumento Selis Dwyer attorney, representing the Sweatts, and representatives of animal control representing the other side. But the public will also have a chance to address the commission. The county commission adopted that procedure by ordinance in 1999.

There’s more at stake than a declaration: most dogs declared dangerous, Lyon said, are generally and eventually “put down,”   and if not, the dangerous-dog declaration attaches to the dog for the rest of its life, down to requirements—similar to those that attach to sex offenders—that the dog be registered with local authorities every time its family moves.


32 Responses for “Dog Bites 8-Year-Old Boy: Should It be Declared Dangerous, Or Does Castle Doctrine Apply? County Commission Will Decide.”

  1. blondee says:

    Only by luck or bad aim or maybe Ricky’s guardian angel that this dog didn’t clamp onto his jugular vein. Then we wouldn’t even be talking about this. So, yeah, very dangerous!

  2. I feel bad for the boy who was bit, but honestly the dog was just defending its home/owners. The boy was already told to go home by the homeowners and he came back and opened the door himself.

  3. The dog was doing his job. Not trying to be insensitive but if stand your ground can be used by humans, this dog definitely deserves the same defense.

  4. Unfortunate. The dogs, or their owners, don’t seem to have anything wrong.

  5. Would be a travesty to destroy the dog over this. Feel for the kid, but he is at fault for just waltzing into the house ( if that is what happened), without the owners opening the door. Dog doing what you get a dog for. If he bit a 23 year old guy breaking into the house, the dog would be a hero.

  6. theevoice says:

    the dog did his job..leave it alone..

  7. PeachesMcGee says:

    [Corrective note: the county is not “meddling” in the issue. It is mandated by state law to arbitrate appeals of dangerous dog determinations.–FL]

    Again the County Commission feels justified meddling in the personal lives of it’s citizens. This is a matter for the criminal or civil court system.

    If this was me I would drop my dogs off at the Commission meeting and move from the county.

    Work on getting new industry and employers here and stop your incessant pussyfooting around.

    • just me says:

      [Corrective note: the county is not “meddling” in the issue. It is mandated by state law to arbitrate appeals of dangerous dog determinations.–FL]

      Is it the County that is meddling?? I don’t know from the story it says they where asked?? BY who? and under what laws?? ~ It’s been roughly a decade or more since the last time the commission was asked to determine the fate of a dog in similar circumstances. The case is a rare window into the at-times complicated laws and procedures regulating domestic animal behavior.~

  8. BeTheChange says:

    Was the boy admitted or not? That being the point of contention seems to warrant muzzling the dog. No one wanted this, but err on the side of caution.

  9. I hope the dog doesn’t get put down. I feel bad for the kid but he shouldn’t have entered the house uninvited. Unfortunate situation.

  10. m&m says:

    The county and Coffey are useless when it comes to making policy unless it lines their pockets. Keep busy on something useful like bringing jobs to the county. In your spare time wash the windows in the palace you built for yourselves.

  11. ken says:

    We love our own 2 dogs but if one of them attacked a child, we would put the dog down.

    • j&j says:

      Oh stop it… The dog clearly was protecting his family. Little boy, big man… All that dog saw was a threat to his pack, his family. It’s a really sad story and I’m so very sorry that sweet boy had to get stitches but again, the dog was in his home, protecting his family.

    • Geezer says:

      Kill ’em with kindness eh?

    • Footballen says:

      I have rid myself of two dogs by finding more appropriate homes for them. My worst fear was something like this happening. I hope the boy is not scared to death of dogs for life.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Someone got chased by that dog on a bike once…the truth will come out

  13. groot says:

    If happens to me or my dog when we’re out walking, I’ll simply kill the offending mutt and let the chips fall where they may. Obviously, the system does not take this seriously enough. That boy will be scarred for life. Kill the lab.

  14. Whats amazing is the person who declared the dog dangerous for biting a child that entered into the home. The person who made the decision to declare the lab dangerous is the same person who had animal control at her house bc her dog bit another dog who entered her property. Now her dogs are never on leashes when she lets her dogs out on her front lawn to use the bathroom. The neighbors dog went onto her lawn and got bit. She placed her dog on in-house quarantine for ten days. Not once did animal control go inside her house. As a matter of fact, they met her at her job at FHS instead after the owner of the other dog called. So no real investigation was handled there. However while her dog was on the ten day quarantine he wound up killing another dog. I dont remember if it was her dog or a dog she was pet sitting for. But after that attack she put the dog down. Then a year later they found out that she illegally had a kudamonday, an animal in which you need a special licenses for. Yet the animal was only taken away for a bit and was in poor condition, very sick, needed a lot of care…yet no charges once again. Yet she knows all the rules and laws and is able to say whether or not a dog protecting his family and home of someone who was not invited in. Dont get me wrong I feel bad about the child, however the family did everything including set rules to prevent something from happening. I think the family of the dog should read this post and look into what I wrote and question the cover ups that go on at fhs and who they have in charge.

  15. Geezer says:

    Right or wrong – the Sweatts are in for a lawsuit.
    Their insurance might not cover bites from a “dangerous dog.”
    (if the county labels him as such)

    Long before this suit sees a jury – there will be a healthy settlement.
    Even if the pooch was “doing his job” the heartrending pictures of the
    boy with fresh bite wounds will quickly bring the jury to the plaintiff’s side.

    Bacchus! The $200,000 dog! (or more)

    Dogs see people and children as dogs too. Little Ricky wasn’t a member
    of the pack and was issued a warning bite. The dog wasn’t trying to
    kill the boy. The dog retreated after issuing the bite.

    An expensive and unfortunate confluence of events leading to an accident
    involving a little boy.

    Oh, as far as Russell Schaeffer goes: ever heard of pepper spray before
    pulling out your gun?

  16. Layla says:

    If the boy entered the home by himself and no one was in the room, the dog was only doing its job. Would that be a good dog to have present when other children are playing in the house? Probably not.

    Most states have the 3 bite rule: After the third dog bite, the animal is put down.

  17. This is not a case of having a dog to protect your property. The dog is property of the owner, and the owner is responsible for the dog at all times, and everywhere that dog goes, This was a child. Were there Beware of Dog signs posted, to warn this child.The dog should have been kept in a cage or in a room, while the family sleeps or the owner is away from the house.. No dog or child should be left unsupervised..

  18. David B says:

    This is not a case of a dog protecting the owner’s property. The owner is solely responsible for the dog, no matter where the dog goes, or what the dog does.. The dog is property of the owner. This was a child. Were there Beware of Dog signs placed on the owners property to warn the child ? The dog should have been confined in a room or cage while the family slept, or when ever the family is away from the house. No dog or child should ever be left unsupervised without taking precautionary measures.

  19. carol says:

    Take the dog to trial!! have the dog do some time in county jail!!!

  20. Wait what? says:

    Am I the only person confused as to why this 64yr old man and his wife are bike riding around town with a gun?

  21. Layla says:

    Hope this child is recovering with lots of love and not going to be terrified of dogs for the rest of his life.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Was the child charged for entering an occupied home without permission, and was the child’s parent charged for child neglect for allowing their 8 year old to roam the streets and go go a home and enter without invitation or authorization? If this mother always called in advance and didn’t this particular time, did she even now where her kid was and what the child was doing? The dog is of concern, but if it was in its own home and protecting his home then the person that entered the unlocked home put them self at risk and has no one to blame but them self. The kid was obviously around the dog previously and there was no incident or concern, so why now would there even be a consideration to deem the dog as dangerous? Lesson learned, don’t walk into someone’s home without being invited. I would expect at 8 years old this child should have already known that.

  23. Nature Lover says:

    The dog is more intelligent than human. Yet we humans are so arrogant as to label animals. We call them nuisance or whatever we want to and decide if they should live or be unitized. Its us that are dangerous. How about parents start teaching their children what is an acceptable behavior and what is not. Coming to someones house uninvited is not. Even dog knows that.

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