Local police wary of certain dog breeds

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LEWISTON – Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Slivinski remembers the time he had to shoot a rampaging pit bull in Auburn. He remembers it as clearly as he remembers anything in his 34-year police career.

It was a Sunday afternoon and neighbors reported the vicious dog running at large. Police and an animal control officer found it on Gamage Avenue near Western Prom.

“It was a big pit bull. We knew it was trouble,” said Slivinski, at the time an Auburn police officer. “That dog was crazy.”

The animal control officer approached the pit bull with a capture pole with a snare on the end and doused it with chemical spray. But the pit bull was not going down easily.

“He shook his head, licked his chops and went after the animal control officer,” Slivinski said. “Then, in a split second, it lunged at me. I was covering it with a shotgun, and I had to shoot. I shot him while he was just 3 feet away.”

Slivinski, who has a German shepherd named Major, believes that most dogs will turn out well-behaved if they are trained right. But he also knows that there is an element of unpredictability about them.

Even the police officers who had to tangle with a pit bull named Kiss on Tuesday night are reluctant to deem that animal a bad dog. But not all cops are firm believers in the old notion that a dog is only as bad as its owner.

“There are a lot of theories out there about dogs and that’s one of them,” said Animal Control Officer Wendell Strout. “Personally, I’ve come full circle, and I no longer believe that. The pit bull specifically is a very aggressive breed of dog. It’s very hard to take that aggression away.”

Police Officer Derrick St. Laurent was bitten by a pit bull Tuesday as he tried to arrest the dog’s owner, Marc Jonitis. In the end, it was Jonitis, not the dog named Kiss, who was wrestled down and led outside in handcuffs.

Strout later examined the animal and decided that the dog had attacked in defense of its owner, not because it is a menace to everyone.

“That particular attack was probably just because of everything that was going on in the apartment,” Strout said.

At the same time, he and most police officers are always wary of dogs, particularly pit bulls, Rotweillers and chows, when they are called to a complaint.

“You just don’t see the same kind of aggressive behavior with a family golden retriever,” Strout said. “You don’t see the random attacks you’ll see with the pit bulls.”

While police don’t blame Kiss for biting one of the officers, nobody blames St. Laurent for the way the attack occurred, either. In Lewiston, where the population of pit bulls is high in the downtown area, police officers are very familiar with the dangers the dogs present.

“These guys have been around long enough. They know,” Strout said. “Generally, when they go to a complaint, they want to separate the dog from everything else. Get it into another room or let it outside. In this case, the officer didn’t have time to do that. There was too much going on at once.”

Police said St. Laurent was rushing to the aid of a pregnant woman who was being beaten by Jonitis when the pit bull clamped onto his buttocks. The officer’s clothing was not torn and his skin wasn’t broken, but he was left in pain.

St. Laurent was able to free himself from the dog’s jaws without resorting to force.

There was one incident in Kennedy Park in the 1990s when a police detective defended himself from a pit bull by slapping it with his handcuffs.

“Ideally, if you go out on a call and you hear a dog barking, you want to get the owner to restrain the animal,” Slivinski said. “But obviously, it doesn’t always happen that way.”

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