Only 15 hours after a dog was placed into the home of a family who fostered animals, the mother heard a bark - and then a scream - before finding her 4-year-old daughter’s face had been mauled by the canine.
“When I rushed into the lounge, she was holding her face. There was blood dripping on the couch and carpet,” the woman recalled of the July 7, 2021, attack by a male Rhodesian ridgeback bullmastiff cross called Scooby.
Then immediately began a physically painful, emotionally exhausting, and financially draining journey for the girl and her family.
The woman recounted the ordeal when she gave her victim impact statement in New Plymouth District Court at the sentencing of the We Love Dogs Charitable Trust, which admitted to owning a dog that caused injury.
Friday’s hearing heard Scooby was surrendered to the trust, which fosters and rehomes abandoned dogs in homes across Taranaki, in March 2021 after nine years of living with its former owners.
Scooby then spent two months living with a foster family while the trust attempted to find him a forever home.
On June 20, 2021, the dog went on a two-week trial adoption with a family who was given a muzzle due to Scooby being “nervous in new places”. But within a week the family noted Scooby exhibiting aggressive behaviour by growling at their cat before physically pinning the feline down.
The family returned the dog to the trust on July 6, 2021, and expressed their concerns about Scooby’s nature, which included that he was possessive around his food and space.
Later that day, the dog was fostered by the family of the 4-year-old girl. The trust told them Scooby was “gentle but that he will greet people arriving with a bark before settling”.
The family was also provided with a muzzle and told it was “just a precaution”.
But the following day, the little girl attempted to pat Scooby’s back, resulting in him turning around and biting her.
The attack caused multiple large lacerations to her face and a full-thickness laceration, through fat, to her upper lip.
After hearing the girl’s screams, the woman rushed her daughter to the GP where they cleaned the wounds before transferring her to Taranaki Base Hospital’s emergency department.
Soon after, she was flown to Waikato Hospital for surgery with the plastics team to flush the wounds and stitch up the damage.
“There were countless tears watching her go through this. It’s something I’ll never forget,” the mother told the court.
The girl had further surgery in March this year to improve the appearance of the scars and her smile.
She still requires silicone tape on her face for 23 hours of the day and daily massages. This will continue until the scars have completely healed which will likely not be until late 2023.
As a result of the ordeal, the girl became withdrawn, she lacks trust, had a delayed start at school, and cannot expose her face to sunlight or go swimming.
She will also need more surgery, the mother said.
“That dog should never have been dropped off, full stop, with my two young children.”
The woman said the attack, the road to healing, and the court proceedings had been extremely stressful.
She felt the trust had shown little compassion about the impact on her child and had only cared about its own interests.
“Every time I look at her I am reminded of the dog attack that should never have happened. I’m angry and I’m heartbroken.”
Defence lawyer Mark Anderson argued his client should be discharged without conviction.
He said the trust was devastated about what had occurred and was “deeply apologetic” to the family.
“In this case the trust identified that the animal had been in a safe environment and it wasn’t a dangerous dog,” Anderson said, adding there had been no previous issues with Scooby being around children and its breeds were not considered menacing under the Dog Control Act.
“This trust is one which would not put anyone deliberately in harm’s way – they want to do good for the community and are serving a need that isn’t met elsewhere.”
The New Plymouth-based trust was created in 2020 to “enhance the lives of dogs, their owners and the community” through a number of programmes it offers including desexing, ownership education, and the rehoming of canines.
In arguing his application, Anderson submitted the consequences of a conviction would be “chilling” and would outweigh the seriousness of the offence.
The trust’s level of culpability was low as it had only indirect control of the dog at the time, given the animal had been transferred from its custody, he argued.
A conviction would leave the trust’s funding in jeopardy and see it lose the public’s trust.
He further submitted the work it does in the community would be affected and pointed out a number of changes it had made to its practices since the attack.
But the prosecuting agent New Plymouth District Council (NPDC) said the consequences submitted by the defence were only speculative.
Crown prosecutor Justin Marinovich, who appeared for NPDC to oppose the application for a discharge without conviction, argued the trust’s level of culpability was high.
He said it was aware concerns had been raised around Scooby’s aggression and it lacked forethought when it fostered the dog with the family.
The sole motivation for the trust was “can we get this dog into a house”, Marinovich submitted.
Instead, he said, it should have made a “proper and educated” assessment of the environment the animal was going into and whether the occupants of that environment would be safe.
As a result, the girl suffered serious and lifelong injuries, he said.
Judge Tony Greig described what occurred as serious offending and ruled the trust had not met the legal test for a discharge without conviction.
“To my mind, the trust was negligent to a significant degree.”
He said the trust knew the characteristics of this “type” of dog and particularly Scooby.
The judge praised the trust’s intentions with the work it did but said that did not absolve it from blame in this case.
He ordered the trust to pay an immediate emotional harm reparation payment of $10,000 to the girl and the pound costs of $4910 for housing Scooby.
An order for the destruction of Scooby was also made.