When I was growing up, my brothers and I spent summers 500 miles away from home, visiting my dad in Virginia.
We have a lot of family down there–grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. When we were children, my dad used to get us up in the morning before work and take us to my aunt’s house so she and my older cousins could watch us for him.
At that time, the great thing was that my dad’s family all lived on the same street, which snaked up a steep hill. My dad lived (and still does) at the very bottom of the hill. My aunt, uncle, and cousins lived at the very top of the hill. My grandparents’ house was sandwiched in between, located just about halfway between my dad’s and my aunt’s.
So, we would spend the days playing with my cousins, watching TV, making up games… but mostly, we went to the pool. We’d spend entire days in my grandparents’ pool. So much time, in fact, that I’d return home to New York with skin tanned so dark that it wouldn’t completely fade until Christmas, and my hair turned blonde from the sun, with a green hue from chlorine.
By the time I was 14 (going on 15!), we were old enough to take care of ourselves during the day. My dad would head to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, but my brothers and I would happily sleep in until 11:00 a.m. Still, we enjoyed spending time with our cousins, so it was our routine to wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and head out for my aunt’s house. My dad would always swing by and pick us up from there on his way home from work.
One morning, in late July 1997, we did just that. We rolled out of bed, ate cereal, and watched a little bit of TV. There were dishes in the sink, and we knew that Dad would be pissed if we didn’t wash them, so we worked together–me washing, one twin drying, the other putting away–to get them done.
As I washed, I looked out the kitchen window, from which I could see the next door neighbor’s porch. I noticed their dog, Dreyfuss, lying on the porch. Judging from the empty driveway, it was clear the neighbors weren’t home. Dreyfuss was normally tied to a line in their backyard, so I said to my brothers, “Oh, look. Dreyfuss must’ve gotten off his line.” We noticed, we commented, but we did not think anything of it.
We finished cleaning up, got dressed, and called my cousin Michelle, requesting a ride. Although their house was just up the street, we always caught rides when we could, as the 90+ degree Virginia heat in July was always quite stifling. Michelle said she would be down to pick us up in 10 minutes.
We killed a few more minutes of time, and then I said, “Why don’t we go outside and wait for Michelle at the end of the driveway?” My brothers agreed, so we shut off the TV and prepared to leave the house.
My brothers and I never carried keys. We never had to. We would always lock the door to my dad’s house as we left, and then he would pick us up after work and bring us home, so it was never an issue.
That day, as always, I directed my brothers out the door, turned the lock on the back of the doorknob, and then pulled it shut. But that morning, just as I pulled the door shut, my eyes drifted to the top of the hill in the backyard. Up to our doghouse, where our dog, Natalie, was usually lying in the shade. She was nowhere to be found.
I said to the boys, “Is Natalie up there?” They took a closer look, and we found that no, she wasn’t there. Sometimes, on days when it was going to be so hot that it would be unsafe for her, my dad would put Nat in the cool basement before he left for work. And while it was a possibility, we didn’t think she was down there. For one, we hadn’t heard a peep out of her.
We fell silent for a second and listened, to see if we would hear her bark. My brother ran around the side of the house to see if he could see her in the basement windows. But as far as we could tell, Natalie wasn’t there. The problem was that we were now locked out of the house, and couldn’t go down to the basement and check to be absolutely certain.
A few minutes later, Michelle and her youngest sister, Gini, pulled up to the end of the driveway. My brothers and I frantically told her that we thought Natalie had gotten loose and had wandered away. She said to get into the car and we’d drive around to look for her.
We drove slowly, all keeping our eyes peeled for our wild black lab. As it turned out, we didn’t have to go very far. Just as we were driving past the elementary school that is right around the corner from my dad’s house, we saw her dart across a couple of neighbors’ lawns, with another loose dog or two following behind her. We quickly flung open the back door to the car and called her. She came running, and hopped right up into the back seat with us. We closed the door and headed home, leaving the other dogs behind. Aside from having some red mud (gotta love that southern red clay!) on her paws, she appeared to be fine.
Michelle drove us back to my dad’s house, and I told the boys to go re-attach Natalie to her line. Meanwhile, Michelle and I took a couple of old towels that were in her car to wipe the red paw prints off of her vinyl seats.
Moments later, it started. The screaming.
Startled, Michelle and I looked up the small hill in our backyard to see Dreyfuss, who was an unusually large chow chow, mauling Trevor. The dog had wrestled 12-year-old Trevor to the ground, and was clearly attacking him. Understandably, Trevor was screaming.
It was horrifying.
I immediately started freaking out. Like, REALLY freaking out. I started screaming bloody murder.
We were locked out of the house. These were the days before everyone had cell phones.
We couldn’t call for help.
I remember looking up and seeing Tyler standing helplessly next to the dog attacking Trevor, and watching him kick the dog in the head repeatedly, trying to get him off of his twin brother. The dog was relentless.
For a few split seconds, Michelle and I were panicked, frozen in place, unsure of what we could possibly do. And then it hit me to run to the neighbor’s house. Not the neighbors who owned Dreyfuss (since I already knew they weren’t home), but the ones on the other side. My dad was friends with them, and since they had a young daughter, Nancy was always home.
Screaming, Michelle and I banged on her door frantically, but although there was a truck in the driveway, it became obvious that no one was home. In the meantime, a neighbor from a few houses down, an elderly man who couldn’t get around very well, came slowly around the corner, responding to the horrific screams he had been hearing. I absolutely flipped out on the guy, screaming at the top of my lungs for him to call 911, that a dog was attacking my brother.
The neighbor disappeared back around the house and the next thing I knew, Trevor’s screaming stopped.
I looked wide-eyed at Michelle. I think, in that moment, we were both terrified of the worst. I remember saying, “Oh my God, what happened?!” and we both started back toward my dad’s yard. It was at that moment that I saw Trevor, injured and bloody, hobbling down the hill toward Michelle’s car.
Michelle immediately said, “Everyone get in the car!! We have to take Trevor to the hospital!”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I immediately took off running for the car.
But Dreyfuss met me halfway.
I distinctly remember stopping in my tracks as he came up right in front of me. I looked him straight in the eyes, and pleaded. “Good dog. Good, good dog.”
Next thing I remember, I was kneeling in the front seat of Michelle’s car. I remember feeling surprised to find myself there. I looked around me, and found that Trevor was in the back seat. I gave him a once-over, saw his condition. The dirt, the bites, the scrapes… the gouges. I continued to cry, and asked him if he was OK. From what I remember, he was hissing in pain, but was actually doing well, considering.
I turned to face forward again, and unfolded my legs from underneath me. And that’s when I saw the blood dripping down my legs.
“Oh my God, he got me, too!” I screamed. “He bit me, too!!”
Until that moment, I had no clue that Dreyfuss had attacked me, too.
Later, I’d find out from witnesses (my cousins, and Tyler) that after meeting with Dreyfuss face to face (which I do remember), I turned to continue toward the car and Dreyfuss bit me repeatedly from behind. I’m told that I was screaming and trying to get away from him, but he kept trying to get me, and successfully bit me multiple times.
As he was puncturing the skin on my legs with his teeth, Natalie happened to run by us. My brothers hadn’t gotten her back on her line before Dreyfuss had started to attack, so she was still running loose. When she passed, Dreyfuss became more interested in her than he was in me, so he followed her, allowing me to get myself safely into Michelle’s car.
But Dreyfuss wasn’t done. After I realized I had been bitten, sitting in the front seat of Michelle’s car, I looked out the front window to see Michelle, Tyler, and Gini all standing in the bed of Nancy and Joe’s truck, with Dreyfuss circling around them. He kept trying to jump up to get at them in the truck. Looking back on the incident, I find the dog’s determination to be astounding.
Soon, Trevor and I saw police officers come around the side of the house to where we were in the back. They motioned to us, and I rolled down a window, just a smidge. It’s like I was afraid that Dreyfuss would somehow be able to get at us through the window. They asked us what was going on. Meanwhile, Natalie approached them, as she would approach any visitor. But they didn’t know which dog was dangerous, so they started spraying her with pepper spray. One of the police officers drew his weapon. I remember begging, pleading with him not to kill my dog. I was so afraid they would shoot Natalie, even though she hadn’t done anything wrong.
As they continued to assess the scene, I think the police officers knew they were dealing with a very sensitive situation. Five kids here, all traumatized and needing rescue. I think they wanted to avoid shooting any dogs. I remember seeing one of them carrying a shovel to protect himself, if necessary. A shovel!
One police officer kept trying to convince Trevor and I to get out of the car so we could be taken around the front of the house to be treated by the medics. We were scared and refused. They said that the medics couldn’t come to get us, because they couldn’t be put in harm’s way. Trevor finally agreed to get out, but I was still too scared. When they opened the back door to assist Trevor, I started freaking out, scared that Dreyfuss would somehow be able to get inside. He didn’t, but Natalie did! She jumped in, and I screamed at the police officers to shut the door!
I held onto Natalie, happy that she was now safely in the car with me as well. But to add insult to injury, my face and eyes soon started burning. I said something about it to the cop, and he told me it was because Natalie’s face and eyes were burning right now, too.
I had forgotten about the pepper spray.
So, not only had I witnessed my brother being viciously attacked, but I had been bitten myself, and now it was like I had been squirted in the face with pepper spray. Amazing.
After a few minutes, the police managed to convince me to get out of the car, too. I didn’t know what they were going to do to Dreyfuss. I didn’t know how they were going to get my cousins and other brother out of the back of that truck.
But for me, it was over.
In our front yard, I found my worried grandfather and uncle. They had somehow been notified (small town!) and had come down the hill to see what the hell was going on. I was seated on the grass, and the medics tried to relieve my burning eyes and skin with cold saline solution.
Trevor and I were loaded into an ambulance and were transported to the hospital where my dad worked, which was about 40 minutes away. These days, I don’t remember much of that ride.
But when we arrived at the hospital, I remember the ambulance doors opening, and seeing my dad standing there. I immediately fell to pieces again. I just could not stop crying.
Over the next several hours, Trevor and I were treated in the ER. All of our wounds had to be flushed, cleaned, and bandaged. Trevor’s injuries were a lot more extensive than mine. While I had been bitten several times on my thighs, and even once on my butt, Trevor sustained bites to all four of his limbs. The doctors told my dad that if Trevor had been even just a couple of inches shorter, the dog likely would have killed him. They said he would be OK, and I remember being tremendously relieved. Thankfully, they ended up sedating the poor boy, and I can remember laughing at some of the things he said while he was loopy. I also remember seeing my dad cry, which was alarming, just because it was so rare.
We were both released from the hospital that evening. We weren’t even given stitches, because they were deep puncture wounds and had to heal from the inside out, not from the outside in.
The next morning, I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a truck. Every muscle in my body hurt, but the muscles in my legs were the worst. I cannot even begin to imagine what Trevor must’ve felt like. We spent the next several days changing bandages, taking antibiotics, resting, and having to repeat our story.
We found out that Dreyfuss had eventually been captured by Animal Control, and he had been euthanized. His body had been sent to Richmond for rabies testing. Thankfully, those tests came back negative.
In the days following the attack, the story was pieced together. Natalie, who had never been spayed, was likely in heat. This explains the dogs who were following her when we first found her near the school. When my brothers took her up the hill to try to hook her back up to her line, Dreyfuss, who was probably drawn to Natalie in her state, flipped his shit and attacked my brother. He did, however, have a prior history of biting, so I’m sure that played into his behavior as well.
More than anything, though, it amazes me that both Natalie and Dreyfuss had gotten loose that day. If just one of them had remained on their lines like they were supposed to be, this likely never would have happened to us.
The neighbors were charged with “vicious dog.” There is no leash law in Virginia (or at least there wasn’t at the time). From that point on, they resented us for killing their dog, as if it had been our decision. Nevermind the fact that their dog could have killed my brother.
Trevor, although his physical injuries were much more severe, recovered mentally much more quickly than I did. He didn’t really develop a fear of dogs, but I did. When we returned home to New York a few weeks later, I panicked and started crying when our dog, plus my mom’s boyfriend’s two dogs, approached me. I had loved them before, but was afraid of them after.
Months later, the following spring, I was at one of my brothers’ baseball games. A lady walked up with a chow. I had a panic attack and ran to the car because it brought back too many memories. I was deathly afraid of it. I sat in the car, shaking and sobbing.
Twelve years later, I’m happy to say that we are both almost completely recovered. As recovered as we will ever be, anyway. We both have scars–Trevor’s more severe than mine. On the inside of my thigh, I still have a faint outline of the teeth in Dreyfuss’s lower jaw.
Out of all that I have been through, that day in July 1997 was one of the most terrible experiences of my life. Sometimes, I relive it all in my head, and today I decided to write it down. I remember the days when I couldn’t tell the story without getting emotional. I’m thankful that time has been kind, and has helped dull some of the memories.
Even so, I will never be able to forget.
AboutI'm Heather. I just turned 30. I'm happily married, and mommy to the most beautiful little girl in the world (what, you're saying I could be biased?). Determined DIYer and homeowner. Sarcastic. A perfectionist. A bleeding-heart liberal. Frugal. Loves a little dog way more than many humans. Loves food, hates exercise (it's an ongoing battle). A loyal football fan. I love to laugh. Value family and friends above all else. Vie to be a world traveler.
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