Owner Defends Guard Dog Accused of Being Racist
YONKERS, N.Y. - Jenna the dog is having an exceptionally rough week.
Slashed through the eye on Monday by a handyman she worked with, the German shepherd guard dog is now the subject of taunts from belligerent bloggers calling her a "racist" because of what her owner has said was her tendency to bark at minorities.
Recovering from surgery, the now one-eyed pooch is nearly ready to return home, but her eyesight and reputation are damaged.
Of course, Jenna can't address the media. But her owner, Paul Tocco, and several other people who know and love the 4-year-old canine have come to Jenna's defense, saying she's no racist - and, in fact, has many black and Hispanic friends.
"All of my friends are minorities, and the dog has never attacked any of them," said Richard Lopez, 20, a Hispanic who once lived with Tocco and helped take care of Jenna. "She wouldn't harm a fly."
Maybe not a fly. But the dog has had a gripe with Andrew Owens, a handyman at Valley Oil, a heating oil business that Tocco's family runs.
Tocco said the dog would always bark at Owens, who is black, and that he knew to stay away from her.
The animal bit him a year ago, Owens told police, and a detective for the SPCA said Owens had even threatened to kill Jenna.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the 58-year-old "egged on" the barking dog, who was chained outside the business, Detective Ken Ross III said.
Owens then pulled out a 9-inch folding knife and slashed the dog across the face, through the eye socket, Ross said.
He admitted to the crime and was charged with felony aggravated cruelty .
Tocco said he witnessed the slashing and drove Jenna to an animal hospital for emergency surgery.
In explaining the incident Tuesday, Tocco told The Journal News that the dog had it in for Owens - and other minorities, for that matter.
"The dog reacts to black people, Hispanics, anyone who is not white," Tocco said. "She always barked at him (Owens). He was well aware the dog didn't like him, and he knew to stay away from her."
His remarks about Jenna's dislike of minorities added an unusual twist to an otherwise straightforward crime story about a man attacking a dog. Media across the country took notice, as did bloggers and many readers who engaged in an online debate on the subject.
Even Rush Limbaugh sounded off on his radio show.
"A racist dog," Limbaugh said, tongue in check. "And the poor human being is paying the price here having to go up against a racist dog every day. It's a purebred German shepherd, by the way. Don't discount the importance of the breed here, folks, in this story."
On The Wall Street Journal online op-ed page, a writer pointed out that " 'The idea of a prejudiced dog' has arisen before, both in fiction (there was a very funny 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' episode on the subject) and in real life: 'Dogs can be trained to discriminate,' according to a 2003 Slate essay."
The writer added that "some Jamaican resorts feature dogs that chase blacks off the beach," and South Africa's apartheid government trained animals that were advertised as "racist watchdogs."
Tocco was bombarded by interview requests and calls from friends and customers. In the face of criticism, he has backed off his initial statements, saying now that the dog does not dislike minorities.
Steve Diller, a private dog trainer who teaches animal behavior as an adjunct professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, said it's not uncommon for certain dogs to act aggressively toward minorities.
"It's not always people of color," he said. "It could be children, or women. Dogs can have problems with these folks when they weren't exposed to them as puppies. They're afraid and they react in an aggressive manner."
Typically, Diller said, a dog picks up these sorts of patterns during the formative, first weeks of life.
Tocco said he adopted Jenna when she was puppy, from a shelter, after she was found with eight other puppies abandoned in a trash bin.
Diller said puppyhood trauma can affect a dog's entire life. Dogs may also learn behaviors from their owner, though Tocco said he never trained Jenna to lash out at minorities. Diller disputes the entire notion that a dog can be a "racist."
"Most of my clients think that dogs have racial preferences, and that's ridiculous," he said. "Dogs don't have the mental capacity for racism."