SPRING HILL — There had been some unsettling changes in the family's dog over the past few weeks.
Ruger, a 6-year-old pit bull terrier, had grown more restless, always tugging at the family to play. He seemed starved for attention. And early last week, he startled Erika Sullivan by scratching her on the shoulder as she tried to swat at a fly.
"I noticed a different look in his eyes," she said of the pet they've had for three years.
But it was all just a precursor to Ruger's inexplicably violent frenzy last week.
Eleonor Ramirez, Sullivan's landlord, stopped by the home in the 12200 block of Waco Street on Thursday to discuss making some changes to rent. Ramirez said she had met Ruger a number of times before, so she had little reason to fear him.
On this day, Sullivan said, Ruger had been acting unusual, part of a pattern that had the owners considering getting rid of the 100-pound-plus dog.
When Sullivan opened the door for Ramirez, Ruger rushed out and lunged at Ramirez, grabbing ahold of her inner right thigh. As Ramirez tried to fend off the attack, Sullivan tried to pull the dog off of her.
Then the dog turned its attention on Sullivan, going for her throat.
Ramirez picked up a ceramic pot and slammed it down on Ruger's head, causing the dog to loosen its grip for a moment. But he then renewed his attack on her.
"People don't realize the horror of that situation when your family dog turns on you," Ramirez said. "It felt like being eaten alive."
When Sullivan tried to intervene again, the dog latched on to her right arm. Meanwhile, Sullivan's children were screaming at the sight of their family pet mauling their mother.
The 3-year-old girl threw a toy at the dog, and then the animal made a move toward the child. Sullivan thrust herself into the fray again, this time using her arm as a shield and dragging the dog away from her children.
Eventually, Ruger let go and Sullivan was able to trap the dog in the garage. Authorities and neighbors soon arrived at the home to help the women.
Sullivan and Ramirez were rushed to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, with Sullivan suffering deep puncture wounds and gashes to both arms that required plastic surgery. Ramirez was discharged that day, while Sullivan was transported to Tampa General Hospital for more surgery. She was released from the hospital on Saturday.
A 27-year-old wife and mother of two young children, Sullivan now sports bandages that run the length of her arms. She spends most of her days and nights sprawled on the living room couch, hoping medication dulls the intense throbbing in her arms and shoulder.
Sullivan, who does not have medical insurance, will be unable to return to her job as a waitress at Texas Roadhouse for at least the next few months and has been told that she might not be able to regain full use of her right arm.
But despite her troubles, Sullivan harbors no ill will toward Ruger.
"I'm not mad at him at all," she said. "I just want to know what triggered it."
Ramirez said she's not mad at Sullivan. To the contrary, she's grateful.
"I'm indebted to her for my life," Ramirez said. "Had the dog done to me what it did to her, I probably would have died."
Since then, Sullivan has struggled to understand why Ruger snapped. In the three years they owned the dog, she said they had never been a hint of violence from the dog.
"Ruger was never mean to anybody," she said. "I wish I could have been in his head to figure out what happened."
The dog was taken to Animal control, where it was being tested and will likely be euthanized.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120. You can follow Joel on Twitter at twitter.com/jandersontimes.