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Dogs may be like kids, but they still have advantage

Panda the pit bullterrier chomped on a child's face. Thirty stitches, punctured cheek. Trina is 2. Her mother hid the bruise with sunglasses.

Pasco County put Panda in 10-day quarantine. The family could have signed him over and left him to die. But Trina's mother hesitated.

"That dog's been in my family for nine years," Tamara Lucas said on Nov. 8, the day after the attack. "It's like a child to me."

Millions of Americans feel the same. A 2005 survey by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association found that three-fourths of dog owners see their dogs as their children.

No wonder. Today's adults wait longer than ever to get married or have children. For many of them, spoiling a pet is the closest they've come to parenthood.

Here's where things get complicated. Two people have a dog. The dog is happy. The people are happy. But the people want more. The people want a baby.

And the baby is a small, strange-smelling animal with no regard for territorial bounds.

Trina Lucas invaded Panda's personal space. She walked up to his bowl and thwacked him on the nose. Jaws closed. Skin broke. In the hours after the attack, it appeared that Trina's mother had to choose between danger for the child and death for the dog.

How would she decide?

How should she decide?

And how can parents make sure it never comes to this?

'Pull on his ears'

Most dogs know their place in the domestic hierarchy. Humans tower above them, providing food and commanding respect. Then the baby comes and the rules change.

She is not dominant like her parents. She crawls on all fours. She gets into the dog food. As she learns to stand, she grabs any handhold she can - even if it's the dog's shoulder blade. In dog language, this means war.

Parents can keep the peace if they act before the baby arrives, said Lynn Buzhardt, a Louisiana veterinarian and an expert in child-pet relations. The answer lies in pre-baby shock treatment.

Snatch his food while he's eating. Buy baby furniture before the birth. Sprinkle baby powder around the house. Bring dirty diapers home from the hospital. Bring other babies to visit. If you plan to revoke privileges like sleeping on the bed, revoke them well in advance.

"Pull on his ears," Buzhardt said. "Poke his eyes a little bit."

These tactics are meant to inoculate the dog against infant smells, artifacts and behavior. They are also tests. If they provoke growling or biting, Rover may have to move out.

After birth, parents should keep the dog's bed and bowl baby-free. And watch both.

"Whether you have Lassie or Cujo," said Terry Marie Curtis, an animal behaviorist at the University of Florida, "the No. 1 rule is the dog is never alone with the baby. Period."

Tamara Lucas, 24, stood inches away when Panda snapped. She kicked him as Trina's face bled. But she told her fiance not to sign him over to Animal Services.

Few dog owners have faced a dilemma so stark. Still, some have chosen the needle even when they had less at stake:

- Two years ago in Hudson, a chow chow mix bit the face of 19-month-old Hunter Boyd. The dog's owner was a friend of a neighbor. She knew what to do. "I asked them to put him down," Renee Madewell said. "I won't own a dog that bites a kid."

- Last May in New Port Richey, a pit bull killed the puppy of its master's visiting friend. The master told a deputy that if Animal Services didn't take his pit bull away, he would kill it himself.

- Earlier this month, Donnie Williams was asleep in the bedroom with his girlfriend and 3-year-old son when his pit bull, Froto, seized his son's puppy. Williams coaxed Froto into the hallway and shut the door. The family escaped through a window as Froto mutilated the puppy's corpse. Williams surrendered Froto for euthanasia that day. "They asked if I wanted him back," he said. "But I just felt like it would be a little selfish."

At Pinellas County Animal Services, operations manager Greg Andrews said he might not let a family adopt a pit bull if he knew they had small children.

In other words, conventional wisdom says you don't put a dog like Panda in the house with a toddler. What was Robert Mackey to do?

'The only friend I had'

Mackey is Panda's master. He is 26, engaged to marry Trina's mother. They all live together off an unpaved road near Moon Lake. Panda sleeps at Mackey's feet every night. When Mackey moved to Florida from New York, Panda followed.

"He was the only friend I had," Mackey said.

When Mackey and Lucas moved in together, Panda became Trina's bodyguard. He stood between her and strangers. He scared away the neighbor's geese. He even barked when Mackey gave Trina a vigorous tickling.

"The day that he got taken away," Mackey said, "she walked up and gave him a hug and a kiss."

Two days after the biting, Trina's left eye was ringed in purple. She would recover, though she might have scars.

Panda stayed 10 days at the shelter in Land O'Lakes. Mackey was willing to sign him over. But Trina's mother wanted him back.

"He's a part of the family," she said. "It was an accident. It was nothing. It was provoked. She provoked him by hitting him."

The state intervened on the 10th day. According to Lucas, a Department of Children and Families caseworker told her she could not keep Panda and Trina in the same home.

Mackey asked Animal Services Officer James Wheelock if he could stay by his dog's side. No, Wheelock said. It's against policy.

Panda succumbed to a dose of sodium pentobarbital on Wednesday morning. Death's reality comes slowly, especially for a 2-year-old.

"Trina asks about him every day," Lucas said. "'Where's Panda? Is Panda coming home?' "

The family still has one dog, a German shepherd mix called Precious. She and Trina are playmates. She lets Trina climb her like a jungle gym.

But she growls when Trina touches her bowl.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

Fast facts

Deemed dangerous

Animal experts say good dogs come in all breeds. Still, the following breeds have been blacklisted by some homeowners insurance companies because of their supposed tendency to bite. Here, in no particular order: Siberian husky, Rottweiler, Akita, presa canario, chow chow, Doberman pinscher, Alaskan malamute, German shepherd, Staffordshire bullterrier, wolf hybrid, pit bullterrier


Fast facts

Puppy pointers

Buying your kid a puppy for Christmas? Read this first. Lynn Buzhardt, a veterinarian who specializes in child-pet relations, says parents should look for a medium-sized breed with a reputation for gentleness. Too big and the dog might accidentally hurt the child. Too small and the child might hurt the dog. Here are breeds she recommends:

1. Sheltie

2. Beagle

3. Border collie

4. Dachsund

5. Golden retriever

6. Yorkshire terrier

7. Australian cattle dog

8. Poodle (full-sized)