'I just lost my dog violently': Pet owners struggle with grief, trauma after dog attacks

Sara Ward's house is less than a block from a tranquil man-made lake nestled among carpets of green grass. It's an idyllic place for a walk. But for Ward, it's also the place where her Chihuahua, Lola, was killed by another dog. Such attacks can leave victims feeling shaken for months.

'What I struggle with is the visions...I can't even try to remember the good times about (my dog)'

Sara Ward's family adopted their dog Lola from Mexico in 2012. (Sara Ward)

Sara Ward's house is less than a block from a tranquil man-made lake nestled among carpets of green grass.

It's an idyllic place for a walk. But for Ward, it's also the place where her Chihuahua, Lola, was killed by another dog.

Ward was with her 12-year-old son when the attack happened in their southwest Edmonton neighbourhood. Three months later her family remains shaken.

"When I turned around, the pit bull had Lola in its mouth; it was violently shaking her and I heard her yelping and crying. My son was crying and calling for me to do something," Ward said.

"I looked down and I saw Lola with big puncture wounds all over her back and her jaw was hanging wide open. I just knew at that moment that she was going to die."

'There's no closure for me'

4 years ago
Sara Ward's dog Lola was attacked and killed by another dog in July. Now, Ward wants to know what's being done with the attacking dog. 1:45

Ward remembers vivid details from that day. And she thinks about "what if" questions: What if she had told her son to pick up Lola? What if he had been able to?

Dog attacks resulted in the deaths of 30 pets in Edmonton last year, more than twice the number from 2015 and a marked increase over 2012, when no pets were killed.

Peace officers from Animal Care and Control investigate the attacks, which can take a couple of weeks. Occasionally, the media covers such attacks in the daily news.

But for the people directly involved, it's hard to forget, or move on.

Fines not public

Ward remembers crying through the night after her dog was killed. The tiny teacup Chihuahua had been with her for five years, since the family adopted her from Mexico.

The next day animal care and control officers visited her home. Ward said they told her the dog that attacked Lola was "friendly."

"I just lost my dog violently by this animal and I was being told he was friendly. That was really hard for me to hear," she said. "My dog, to me, was treated like a squirrel or a wild rabbit."
Sara Ward wants more transparency in the investigations into dogs that attack animals in the city. (CBC)

In Edmonton, a dog that kills another animal can be held for observation for between 10 and 21 days. Investigators collect witness and owner statements. Owners can face fines of between $500 to $2,500 for a serious attack, while a smaller fine can be issued for having a dog off-leash in an undesignated area.

Dogs may also be deemed "restricted" after a serious attack. That means they must be muzzled and leashed when off personal property, and secured when on private property.

In some cases, investigators may seek an order to have a dog destroyed.

In Ward's case, she was told the owner had been issued three bylaw infraction tickets and the dog was returned after 10 days. Ward was not given a final investigation report, nor was she told what fines were levied.

"I was told the case was closed," she said. "And that after the attack happened, the dealings would be between animal control and the owner of the pit bull."

Keith Scott, the co-ordinator of animal control for the City of Edmonton, acknowledged the emotional trauma involved in such cases. He confirmed the department will not provide people whose pets are attacked with information about fines, due to privacy laws.

"I think sometimes people feel like they haven't had justice because they haven't had their say at the court. We provide as much as we can," he said.

"Officers have dogs as well. We're emotionally connected. But as officers go through their duties, they can't be too emotionally involved … they want to get their job done, and do the best they can."

More often than not, dogs are treated by owners as family members or friends, whether it's the dog that attacks another or the dog that is hurt or killed. Emotions run high on both sides.

Everything that animal control does is about making sure this doesn't happen again- Rebecca Ledger

Meanwhile, animal control investigators are responsible for public safety, said Rebecca Ledger, an animal behaviour scientist based out of Vancouver.

"Everything that animal control does is about making sure this doesn't happen again," said Ledger, who has been a witness in dozens of aggressive dog cases. "It's not about the owner of the dog that's been killed or seriously injured; it's not about making them feel better.

"So, I'm not surprised that the owners of dogs that have been seriously injured or killed by other dogs, they might feel out of the loop. That's because for many municipalities, it isn't part of their role to provide that kind of support."

'It's like losing a friend'

A few weeks after Lola was killed, Ward met another woman who lost her pet in a similar dog attack. They became friends and advocates for more restrictions on pit bulls in Edmonton. Both believe it should be mandatory for such dogs to be on leashes and wear muzzles in public.

It's long been a controversial topic with passionate advocates on both sides of the debate. Edmonton and other cities, along with animal welfare organizations, largely agree that an owner's training and care for a dog determines the animal's behaviour.
Lola was a Teacup Chihuahua adopted from Mexico. (Sara Ward)

Danielle Leclerc was holding her five-month old baby when her dog, Kali, was killed in July.

"What I struggle with is the visions," she said. "I can't even try to remember the good times about Kali, because every time I close my eyes to picture her, I think about the last second I saw her. She had her jaw torn open and was covered in blood and looking up at me. And there was nothing I could do."

Ward has since filed a civil lawsuit against the owner of the dog that killed Lola. While the owner paid for her family's vet bills and was apologetic after the attack, Ward said the court system is the only way she might get closure. In a statement of defence in the suit, the other owner said the attack has "hurt both parties involved."

A person who loses a pet experiences grief and loss, said Edmonton-based psychologist Leslie Block. When a pet is attacked in a violent situation, that loss can create trauma the owner needs to work through, he said.

"It's more of an internal process than a purely legalistic one … that doesn't console the person in the long run.

"What does console the person is working it through rather than sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it was anything other than a personal loss. It is a significant loss, just as it would be losing a friend."