Dogs have been our friends for thousands of years. Since we first domesticated them at the dawn of history they have hunted for us, worked with us, lived with us, and been our beloved companions. Yet for all of this long history of camaraderie, there are times when man's best friend becomes one of our worst nightmares, when something sinister takes over and causes them to mysteriously turn on us with a relentless, breathtaking ferocity. It's not always when one might expect either. When one thinks of dog attacks, one is perhaps likely to conjure up an image of a rabid animal or one that has been either mistreated, abused, or trained as an attack dog. After all, only an aggressive or insane dog would suddenly bite or maul a human being, right? However, this is not always the case. There are numerous cases of normally mild mannered, cherished family pets that have suddenly and inexplicably turned on their owners to inflict serious injury and even death. These are dogs that in many cases have been raised from puppies within a beloved family and had never shown any signs of aggression before mysteriously ravaging their owners, leaving in the aftermath bafflement and horror.
This idea of a normally good-natured dog horrifically turning on its owners and those around it was perhaps most famously explored in fiction in the 1981 novel Cujo, by Stephen King, which would go on to be made into a movie. The story follows the struggles of a town, and in particular one family, dealing with a relentless assault by their usually mild mannered St. Bernard when it becomes rabid after being bitten on the nose by a bat while trying to chase a rabbit down a hole. The once friendly dog is finally killed in a climactic showdown, but not after it has left a trail of death in its wake during its rampage. At the time it was a terrifying look into what happens when man's best friend goes bad, but as dramatic and exaggerated as the story might be, such a scenario is far from purely the realm of fiction. Indeed, the list of real-life cases very much in the vein of Cujo is vast. Here we will take a look at such cases, and peek into a spooky world where our true, beloved companions turn on us without warning or reason to bring blood and death.
On July 25, 2015, a Charleston, South Carolina woman was attacked out of the blue by her husband’s pit bull. During the attack, which reportedly was completely unprovoked, 48-year-old Katherine Rizk’s arm was spectacularly torn completely off, after which she was admitted to an intensive care unit with severe blood loss. During the terrifying incident, the woman was dragged around three houses before being chased off by a passing driver got out of his car and threw a guitar stand at it. A neighbor who witnessed the attack described it as being “like a horror movie,” and that the dog “was pulling her body like it was a toy.” The dog itself, named Tiger, was turned over to the Charleston Animal Society where it was euthanized. The dog’s owner was puzzled, describing how he had had Tiger since he was a puppy and that the dog had always been very calm and never shown any aggression towards people. In an eerily similar incident, in January of 2014, 65-year old Anna Murray also lost her arm in a horrific mauling in her Connecticut home when she was suddenly attacked by her son’s dog, Tuxedo, who had also never previously shown aggression towards people and had always been a faithful companion. The woman was found cowering under a neighbors car, where she had tried to hide from the onslaught.
In another incident, 22-year-old Liam Hewitson of Lancashire, England, was viciously attacked by his pet pit bull terrier, eerily also named Tiger. The man later died of his injuries after being savagely mauled in his own home by his former companion as they relaxed together on the sofa, and family members stressed that the two had always been the best of friends. The dog was captured peacefully, remaining docile as it was moved to an animal shelter, where it was euthanized. Authorities and family were perplexed as to what may have brought on the sudden display of unprovoked and uncharacteristic violence, but one theory was that it may have been due to an epileptic fit Hewitson had had shortly before the attack, which may have somehow triggered a violent response in his dog.
Pit bulls seem to have a way of often being the aggressors in these attacks, as can be seen in another case from Costa Mesa, California. In February of 2015, a couple was driving their SUV through a shopping center on their way to Huntington Beach with their pet pit bull in the back seat, as they had done many times before without incident. The dog reportedly was lounging in the back seat peacefully before suddenly launching itself at the couple as they drove, and ferociously and repeatedly biting them on their arms and shoulders while snarling maniacally. The wife was able to call 911 as the panicked and bloodied husband pulled the car over and exited the vehicle. When firefighters arrived, the dog was growling, snapping, and out of control, and had to be forcibly subdued. One family friend who arrived to try and coax the dog out of the car was also attacked.
Even more recently, in May of 2016, mail carrier Marlon Williams was on his usual route in a suburb of Detroit when he suddenly heard a woman desperately screaming for help. When he ran to where the commotion was coming from he came to a house where he heard two gunshots bark out from within. The shocked mail carrier stood there in bewilderment, wondering whether he should stay or run away, and it was then that a blood smeared woman by the name of Jessica Margheni came stumbling out into the yard. Upon seeing Williams, she claimed that she had been forced to shoot her family’s beloved pit bull mix after it had suddenly turned on them and started attacking her and her father. She also said that she had somehow dropped her phone during the altercation and had not been able to dial 911. Williams entered the home to find the dog dead of gunshot wounds and the father bleeding profusely on the floor from bite wounds. He administered pressure to the wounds and called emergency services, saying “there was blood everywhere.” Once again, the dog in question had always been a faithful, loving companion and had never shown the slightest predilection for violence.
An especially tragic case comes to us from Pacifica, California, where a pregnant woman was fatally mauled by the family’s normally gentle pit bull. Husband Greg Napora claimed that he had left for his construction job in the morning as his wife slept in bed together with their dogs as she usually did. When he came home from work, the horrified Napora was met with the sight of their dog, 2-year-old pit bull Gunner, standing over the blood soaked, still body of his wife. Napora allegedly then wrestled with the dog as he tried to get it away from her and into another room, sustaining severe cuts to his hands in the process, before calling 911. When an emergency unit came to the scene, Napora was described by neighbors as being in a state of profound panic, screaming and covered in blood. Police were forced to shoot and kill the dog when it apparently approached emergency workers.
In the aftermath of the bloody incident, Napora was at a loss for words as to what could have caused the violent outburst. The family had raised both Gunner and another 6-year-old pit bull named Tazi from when they were puppies, and claimed that they were both absolute darlings. The couple had even been vocal supporters of the pit bull breed, being avid supporter of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls, or Bad Rap, which is an organization that aims to lessen the negative public opinion and scary image of the breed. Authorities too were unable to figure out what had caused the sudden attack, with one investigator saying, "We don't know what triggered this. Nobody knows.” The other family pit bull, Tazi, who was not involved in the attack, was taken into custody as authorities tried to piece together what may have happened.
Some theories are that the two dogs may have had a fight or something had gotten in the way of Gunner's food, but this is all conjecture. There is no solid explanation as to why this cherished, playful family pet killed Napora’s wife and their unborn child. For his part, despite the traumatizing attack, Napora does not blame the dog for what happened, even expressing a desire to have his wife buried along with Gunner’s cremated remains. Napora explained of his pets and pit bulls in general:
They are the most loving animals I have ever had in my life. Whatever happened right now was not the breed's fault. It was just a freak accident.
I don’t mean to necessarily pick on pit bulls here, as there are plentiful reports of other dog breeds doing the same sort of thing. One man by the name of Denis Davies, from Berkshire, England, reported a frightening event from when he was a child in the 1980s. Davies had gone over to the home of a family friend for a BBQ and when he went into the kitchen he found the family dog, a Rottweiler, cowering there in the corner. He fondly remembered that she had always been a gentle and amiable dog that he had known his whole life, but when he went to pet her he says she launched at him without hesitation. Davies fell to the floor and put his hands up to protect himself, after which he explained that the dog “just went at me,” severely mauling his arm.
The friend’s dad rushed to the scene and managed to pull the large, raging dog off, but it went for Davies again, this time viciously mauling the other arm. In the end, Davies would be rushed to the hospital with 32 bite wounds and requiring extensive rabies testing, which turned out negative. The experience would forever traumatize him and he developed a deep seated fear of dogs in general and Rottweilers in particular. It was never ascertained just what had caused the dog to snap, although it was thought that it might have been due to stress from fireworks that had been set off at the time.
In January of 2016, twin sisters in Richmond, B.C, were out walking their family dog, a 3-year-old Rottweiler-husky mix named Yogi, when something unusual happened. Jessi and Kati Mather, along with Jessi’s young 3-year-old son, were leisurely strolling with the dog as they had done many times before, when the large animal, long a beloved pet of the family, inexplicably turned about to savagely attack them. Although the boy emerged from the encounter unscathed, Kati Mather was bit an estimated 100 times by the powerful dog, with one witness saying that the two sisters were being "ripped apart like a chew toy.” Retired letter carrier Ken Brodie, 73, who was also at the terrifying scene, reportedly tried to intervene before the dog lashed out at him as well, viciously biting him. Brodie would say of the incident:
She was lying down on the ground and the dog just kept on coming at her, just ripping, ripping.
Although police arrived on the scene and shot the rampaging dog, it survived the gunshot wounds and went on to be euthanized at a local animal shelter. Like the other cases mentioned here thus far, Yogi had been with the family since it was a puppy and had always been a loyal, loving family member. It is uncertain just what had caused it to go on its ferocious attack.
In 2012, 71-year-old Gloria Knowles was at her house in Morden, south London, feeding her daughter's pets, two Bordeaux bulldogs, two American bulldogs and a mongrel, which lived in an adjoining house and were said to be normally well behaved dogs. Out of the blue, neighbors heard a bloodcurdling scream come from the residence and called authorities. Knowles was found among copious pools of blood and the animals skulking about covered in blood. The elderly woman was found to have multiple lacerations and bite marks all over her body, and all five of the dogs were seized by animal control workers. An autopsy was able to confirm that the victim had suffered a cardiac arrest, although it is unclear whether this happened due to the stress of the attack, or if she had died first and then been mauled by the dogs.
In yet another incident in 2010, Sarah Barron, 41, from Stubbington, in Hampshire, England, was visiting her fiancé’s house in order to celebrate the recent news that his brother’s girlfriend was pregnant. As they were all conversing, their dog, a staffordshire bull terrier, came up onto the sofa to snuggle up next to Barron as was its usual habit. The dog was described as being “a great dog, a typical staffie: boisterous, very loving and fabulous with children.” The group continued chatting away for around an hour like this when suddenly the dog started snarling without warning and for no apparent reason. It was then that the animal jumped up onto Barron and proceeded to viciously bite at her hairline and mouth, tearing a jagged line across her face and partially ripping off her lower lip, sending blood spraying everywhere, before it was pulled off and subdued. Barron would require 50 stitches and a skin graft on her injured lip, permanently scarring her both physically and mentally. The dog was euthanized, and it remains a mystery as to why the normally loving animal suddenly went berserk.
Dogs do not always even have to be a particularly large breed to have such a violent or fatal episode. In 2013, a week-old baby named Harry Harper tragically died of massive head injuries when the family’s dog, a jack russell terrier named PJ, attacked him as he slept in his cot. The dog was described by the mother as being placid, mild mannered, and not prone to barking or snarling at all. By all accounts it was a friendly, well adjusted dog, indeed the Harper family had a history of caring for and controlling dogs over many years, and none of the family’s two dogs has ever had any incidents before the horrific accident. One detective on the case would say of the incident:
The family have an unblemished history of caring for and controlling many dogs over a period of many years. On this occasion this jack russell had not followed [Harry's grandmother] back into the kitchen for a gate to be closed and remained in the sitting room to attack the baby. There is no evidence to suggest that the death of Harry is anything other than a tragic incident that can't be ruled out from occurring in any other dog-owning household where children are present.
That very same month a 6-week old infant was killed in California when the family's cairn terrier had a sudden outburst of violence and mauled the baby to death. In yet another terrifying incident, a Nancy Guastini went to pick up a chocolate labrador puppy named Duncan, who she was looking to adopt since the owner, Frank Farella, had a pregnant wife. Guastini was initially concerned when owner Farella was seen to repeatedly strike the dog with a leather leash, but the animal itself appeared to be rather well behaved and docile, with a playful demeanor. Guastini was smitten, and agreed to receive the dog. It seemed placid enough on the way home, perhaps partly because Farella, who had incidentally been put on parole for running an alleged prostitution ring, had given the dog a heavy dose of valium, which was purportedly for the purposes of curbing its acute car sickness. As soon as Guastini got the dog home, it allegedly immediately attacked her, tearing off her lip and nose, eventually costing her a lot of money in operations and plastic surgery. The attack was soon over, and Duncan was tested for rabies and put to sleep. Guastini does not blame the dog, but has pushed for legal action against Farella, who she accuses of concealing the true nature of the dog and mistreating it.
In a perhaps more horrifying incident, a day at the park turned into a bloodbath when a seemingly normal dog went on a sudden rampage. In May of 2016, at a park in Northumberland, a Staffordshire bull terrier was seen running about and playing in the park in a friendly manner like many of other dogs there that day. There were many kids also playing in the park, but no one thought anything of it as the dog seemed to be in good spirits, and it was assumed it was just someone’s pet out playing. Then, from out of the blue, one of the mothers noticed that the dog was suddenly acting very aggressively. From there it launched into an explosive rampage, running amok around the park attacking people, mostly children, indiscriminately. One horrified witness described the scene thus:
The dog attacked about 14 kids, it was like a terrorist attack. There were injured kids lying all over the place, it was a war zone.
It is a haunting image to be sure, this by all appearances previously friendly dog suddenly snarling, snapping and biting as it methodically prowls the park searching for its screaming victims. Some of the children who tried to escape were hunted down by the marauding dog and savagely mauled before it moved onto its next victim as people panicked all around. One young girl who was dragged to the ground by the animal ended up suffering over 12 bites and was said to have been “chucked around like a rag doll.” Another witness to the horrific event said:
I was petrified, I was screaming. People were just getting bit, the dog was just going to one person then going to another and then to another.
Adults who tried to intervene were also set upon by the ferocious dog before it bolted off looking for new victims. The harrowing rampage ended when one brave father of one of the children in the park allegedly managed to leap onto the dog and pin down the snarling beast until authorities arrived to contain it. The animal was described as “extremely vicious” at the time of its capture, but when it was brought to a shelter it reportedly regained the calm demeanor it had had before the assault, and ceased its aggression all together. It is still unknown what provoked this dog to go on such a devastating attacking spree. In the aftermath, nine children were taken to the hospital for multiple bites wounds and lacerations, although none were life threatening. Shocked witnesses all agreed that nothing of the sort had ever happened at the park before, and that they had no idea of what could have possibly set the animal off.
The list of such cases goes on and on, from all corners of the globe, but what lies at the root of these attacks? What makes a peaceful, loving family pet or seemingly docile companion suddenly go ballistic, and display uncharacteristic aggression to attack the ones it holds dear? This has long been a perplexing phenomenon that has shocked and baffled both owners and and experts alike, but in recent years there have been numerous theories as to why these attacks might happen. One idea for why a normally friendly dog may suddenly turn aggressive is that it is due to a reaction to pain caused by an undiagnosed health problem, which could cause them to have a violent reaction to being touched in the wrong place. For instance, a common health problem experienced by dogs is an ailment known as Canine hip dysplasia, which is a painful, degenerative bone disorder experienced by millions of dogs and often gone undiagnosed. A study carried out at Animal Nutrition and Welfare Service of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior - Clinical Applications and Research came to the conclusion that this disorder and other painful conditions or illnesses can sometimes cause a spontaneous, aggressive response even in previously very friendly dogs.
This was found to be due to the friendly dogs reacting to pain differently than those with a history of aggression. In the study, it was discovered that many of the friendly dogs investigated who had experienced chronic pain acted impulsively and uncharacteristically, and did not show any warning signs before an attack. This was surmised to be because owners of healthy dogs often just assume that their dog is healthy and happy, and that everything is OK, meaning that the condition often goes undiagnosed. There is also more contact between owners and friendly dogs, meaning more chances for a wayward pat to trigger a potentially violent response to pain. Researcher Tomás Camps has explained:
If the pet is handled when in pain, it will quickly act aggressively to avoid more discomfort without the owner being able to prevent it. Dogs that had never been aggressive before the onset of pain began to behave in this way in situations where an attempt is made to control them.
Since in these cases the health problem has gone undiagnosed and may come suddenly from normally affectionate dogs, the attack can come as a tragic shock to the owners and their families, who could not figure out why the dog would ever behave in such a way. Conversely, with aggressive dogs there would typically be more of a warning before an attack, such as deep growling or snarling, as well as clear body language demonstrating a state of aggravation. Although the study acknowledged that there were a myriad of factors that had possibly all converged to perhaps cause the spontaneous aggression, pain was found to be one of the major players.
Another theory is that these dogs are reacting out of fear of an accidental threatening gesture or something indistinct that the owner is not even aware of. Since dogs have much more sharpened senses than human beings, they may sense something such as a sound or smell that scares them without the owner being able to detect it or tell that there is anything wrong. This precarious situation is further exacerbated by the fact that many dog owners, especially those who trust their dogs as loyal companions, may fail to recognize the outward signs of anxiety or a fear response. In this situation the dog is spooked and on edge, in fight or flight mode, so when a person reaches out to pet or play with the animal it may misconstrue this friendly gesture as a threat or attack and react accordingly, reverting to their natural instincts no matter how well-trained. These attacks seem to be out of the blue because the people around the dog were unaware that it was in a heightened state of fear to begin with.
Yet another idea is that the reasons for the sudden aggression may be more mysterious, tenuous, and ill-defined. One scary condition that has baffled and confounded experts for decades is commonly called “rage syndrome,” and officially referred to as “idiopathic aggression,” with “idiopathic” defined as something relating to, or designating a disease having no known cause. This condition most often affects dogs between the ages of one and three years old, and is marked by intense outbursts of explosive aggression, often involving biting or mauling, that can occur in normally amiable dogs, are triggered by no identifiable stimuli, and are sometimes reported as being preceded by a glazed over or “possessed” look in the dog’s eyes.
Idiopathic aggression and the outbursts it produces are notable for the lack of any known, discernable cause, their complete unpredictability and sudden onset, and the fact that it is difficult to treat dogs afflicted with this disorder through traditional aggression reduction techniques such as desensitization and counter-conditioning. Fortunately, true idiopathic aggression, or “rage syndrome,” is quite rare, yet often misdiagnosed, with acts of aggression triggered by other causes frequently tagged as being caused by rage syndrome. This is further compounded by the fact that the underlying cause of the condition and its origins are murky and poorly understood, making it very difficult to pinpoint or treat. For now, the condition remains largely a complete mystery. Idiopathic aggression is so little understood, in fact, that there has been a great amount of debate among experts as to its possible causes, diagnosis, and treatment, with different vets attempting different treatment plans involving everything from drugs to behavioral modifications, which all invariably don’t seem to work. Sadly, due to the difficulty of treating or managing it in any appreciable way, dogs that suffer from idiopathic aggression are nearly always euthanized.
Various other reasons exist that could explain mysterious bouts of aggression in dogs as well, such as brain damage, epileptic fits, or status-related aggression, wherein a dog will find some item or resource it decides to guard for some reason, and react fiercely if it is approached, often without the owner being aware of what the thing is or why the dog has taken it upon itself to so aggressively guard it. In the case of small children, and particularly babies, the attack may be brought about by a latent predatory instinct that suddenly lurches to the surface, a vestige of the dog’s wolf origins. More far-out, fringe theories point to the possibility of mysterious forces beyond our understanding at work, such as the dog reacting to the presence of ghosts or some other supernatural force, or even temporary demonic possession.
Of course, in the end we have millions of dogs all over the world that have been faithful companions without incident, and the cases we have been exploring here, and those like them, are relatively rare. However, for whatever reason, be it temporary insanity, fear, disease, pain, or mysterious reasons we have yet to fathom, our long-time, mild mannered pets can at times be shadowed by a sinister cloud that turns them into ravenous monsters, no matter how peaceful they might have seemed before. It is a potent warning that for all that they do for us, for all of the companionship they provide, dogs are still potentially dangerous creatures that need to be handled with respect. Cases like these show us that, just as the last person you expect can be the perpetrator of a sudden, violent crime out of nowhere, so can man's best friend.