Dog muzzled after biting incident

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Christine Tornello, right, listens to testimony during the selectboard’s dog bite hearing Monday night. The selectboard ordered Tornello’s dog, Stella, be muzzled and harnessed whenever in public after a biting an Essex woman last month. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

The Essex Selectboard unanimously ordered a dog be muzzled and harnessed whenever in public after a biting incident last month.

The board issued the decision Monday night after an hourlong hearing during which the victim, Deborah Terrill, and her husband described the April 26 attack by Stella, a 3-year-old, 60-pound American bulldog mix.

The Terrills were walking near the corner of Jackson and Elm streets when they saw Stella and her owner, Christine Tornello, exiting their second-floor apartment.

Moments later, Stella dragged Tornello down the stairs, forcing her to lose control of the leash, Deborah Terrill said.

Her husband, David, kicked Stella three times as she attacked their own dog. He then picked Stella up and threw her to the side.

“[She] literally kept coming back,” Deborah Terrill said. “And somehow, in the midst of all that, I was bit. It was terrifying.”

Deborah Terrill suffered two puncture wounds on her leg requiring medical treatment. Fearing another attack is inevitable, she and her husband called on the selectboard to have Stella euthanized.

Statute allows municipalities to order offending dogs be muzzled, chained, confined or euthanized if an unprovoked attack occurs off the owners’ property and requires medical attention.

“We kind of feel obligated to have something done about it because we don’t want it on our conscience,” David Terrill said.

Police Cpt. Rick Garey said Stella had current rabies vaccinations but was not registered with the town clerk at the time. Tornello has since registered the dog, he said.

Garey said an investigation showed Stella has a history of aggression toward other dogs, which Tornello blamed on several incidents when other dogs attacked her own.

Wiping away tears during most of her testimony, Tornello said Stella had never bitten a person before. Garey confirmed he’d searched for similar incidents in Chittenden County and found none, though Tornello said she had recently moved to the area earlier this year.

Tornello explained Stella is her emotional support animal and begged the selectboard to not “take that away” from her.

“She really is a sweet girl. She’s super hyper and happy to see everyone,” Tornello said. “I wish that they had met her on a much better day and could see what kind of dog she really is.”

Tornello has since bought a plastic muzzle and now uses a harness whenever they are outside. She also contacted trainers who have worked with dogs involved in “serious” issues like this before, she said.

“I’m doing everything in my power to take care of her and to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

The Terrills didn’t think it was enough. They said there will be another person walking a dog and feared Stella, who they said often growls at passersby, might one day even jump out of the window.

David and Deborah Terrill requested the selectboard order a local dog euthanized after it attacked their dog last month, biting Deborah in the process. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

“I’m an animal lover. It will tear my heart out to have to put a dog down,” Deborah Terrill said. “But there’s no safety. Nobody’s safe, because it will happen again.”

She added Tornello’s heart is in the right place.

“You have the wrong dog,” her husband added.

“She’s not the wrong dog,” Tornello responded, her voice wavering.

Noting a selectboard precedent in previous cases of a dog’s first biting offense, selectman Andy Watts said he favored muzzling and harnessing the dog whenever outside. His fellow board members agreed.

They required Tornello open windows only from the top down and enroll Stella in a behavior therapy class approved by the animal control officer. They then want to hear from both the officer and trainer during or after the process.

Selectman Michael Plageman urged the Terrills to call police if they see Tornello failing to comply with the stipulations.

“We certainly don’t want a second incident, and if there’s a violation of these conditions, that’s enough to bring it back here again,” Plageman said.