Rhodry helps hay the horses at Crow Hollow Farm

We take dogs seriously on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s often said, and this is true. Many, many people have at least one dog. Dogs go to work, not only on construction sites but also in some shops and offices. Dogs are welcome at my bank. Rhodry would endear himself to everybody in sight by standing two-legged at the counter until the teller gave him a cookie. These days I’m more apt to use the drive-up window; when Travvy is with me, as he usually is, a biscuit arrives in the canister or drawer along with my cash or deposit slip.

My dog's best friend

My gas station usually has biscuits on hand, but that’s not too surprising because the family that runs the gas station includes Joannie Jenkinson, the West Tisbury animal control officer (ACO). Travvy can hear the UPS truck at least half a mile away, and he goes nuts when the big brown truck pulls into the driveway. The UPS guy’s cookies look like everybody else’s cookies, but as far as Travvy’s concerned, they’re magic.

Right now, however, the dark side of dog ownership is playing out in a high-profile case in my town. When dogs get into trouble on Martha’s Vineyard, livestock is almost always involved. Quite a few people keep chickens and other fowl, and “free range” is all the rage; the range is likely to be not a farm but a house lot of three acres or less. Neighbors, in other words, are not far away, and some of those neighbors have dogs.

Farmers and other keepers of livestock are entitled to shoot any dog menacing their animals, but usually they don’t exercise this right. When they don’t, the town steps in. Sometimes a first offense prompts the owners to get their dogs under control. When it doesn’t, the town steps in further.

The case under way at the moment involves two young Akitas, not yet a year old. They belong to a youngish couple, boyfriend and girlfriend; each one owns one of the dogs. The dogs got loose last fall and went after a neighbor’s chickens and geese. At the hearing that followed that incident, the town ordered the couple to pay a fine, make restitution for the fowl, and build a pen that met the specs of the ACO. This they did.

But the dogs got loose again.

And again.

And again.

And again. In the most recent incident they killed two more geese and 14 chickens. This time the ACO caught one of the dogs, who has been in the pound ever since. The owners were supposed to let the ACO know when the other dog came home, but instead the male half of the couple took her off-island.

Now I’m more than ready to give the couple a bye for the first incident. It wasn’t till Travvy went AWOL on me a couple of times when he was about a year old that I realized that he couldn’t run off-leash the way Rhodry had. He has a stronger prey drive than Rhodry, and the island is more crowded than it was 15 years ago. Lucky for us, he did no damage on his escapades.

But these two dogs have gotten loose five times, even though the owners knew after the first incident what was at stake: they were told that if it happened again, the dogs would be euthanized. At least once their excuse was that they weren’t home when it happened: they’d left the dogs in the care of a roommate. Sorry, but if my dog were one spree away from a death sentence, either I’d put him in a kennel or I wouldn’t go away.

So the town ordered the couple to take the dogs off-island — where one of them already was — and things were heading in that direction when the male half of the couple showed up at the pound and told the staff that the town had released the dog to him. This was a crock: a staffer made a phone call and learned as much.

At this point the board of selectmen ran out of patience and, last Wednesday, ordered the dogs euthanized. Since one of the dogs is off-island, the order in effect only applies to the one in the pound. The owners have 10 days to appeal the decision.

What do I think of all this? I don’t know any of the people involved. Akitas, however, are considered a northern breed and have quite a few things in common with Alaskan malamutes: they are big, powerful, smart, independent, and not for everybody. There but for fortune go I, I think — but on the other hand, if I could learn to manage my Alaskan malamute, these people could learn to manage their Akitas, and so far they haven’t taken any steps in that direction.

I don’t think they’re right for these dogs. If these humans were capable of rising to the occasion, they would have done so before now. Instead — well, neither one of these two dogs is neutered, and the male half of the couple has expressed interest in breeding them. Hello? He can’t manage two ten-month-olds and he wants to raise a litter?

Just about everybody realizes that the dogs were doing what comes naturally; it’s the people who have screwed up. Apart from fines and restitution orders, however, there’s no way to punish the people — or to make them wise up. The exasperating thing here, and in a comparable case that happened down-island a few years ago, involving Siberian huskies, is that the owners keep promising to do better and then fail to keep those promises. So the town officials who are bending over backwards to give them every chance end up looking like patsies — and feeling like crap because the only option they have left is to euthanize the dogs.

In an attempt to avert the worst, some island dog lovers have been contacting Akita rescue groups and exploring other options. The selectmen will be dealing with the case yet again at their meeting tomorrow afternoon. I guess I’m going to be there.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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11 Responses to Doomsdog

  1. susan robinson says:

    I live with 4 dogs, 3 of which are large mixed-breeds. Two are St. Bernard/Collie/ German Shepherd/lab mixes. one is a Berner/Catahoula Hog Dog cross and one is a younger, impressionable middle-sized coyote/heeler cross who believes his elders know everything and tried to be just like them. Due to size and harrowing early histories, the 3 big dogs are “in training for life.” I work with them daily on socialization, recall, and calming behavior–and do the same with the 4th because he acts like the big dogs. I used to think there would be a day when they would be trained and that would be it. That’s not the case–when I tried it they regressed to pack mentality, terrorizing some other dogs and people. So it’s for life and once I got it, I don’t expect them to retain good behavior without ongoing training, so I relax and enjoy it. And I don’t take them anywhere where I don’t figure I can handle whatever comes up (although leg traps are an exception–they’re prevalent here and up in the mountains I’m not strong enough to get a dog to a car to go get a get to take the trap off). I think lots of dogs have comparable size/breed/early history leanings toward destructiveness and I wish “in training for life” were a concept for more of their people.


    • Susan, I love “in training for life.” It reminds me of AAs and others who call themselves “recovering,” not “recovered.” That’s me and Travvy for sure. If I don’t pay attention to my own mental and physical health, I slip back into compulsive eating. If I don’t pay attention to Travvy’s stress and excitement level, he goes over the top. It’s exhausting sometimes, but mostly I value the reminder that I can’t take anything for granted.


  2. susan robinson says:

    I’m for the people contacting rescue groups, and for you for going tomorrow.


  3. dabodog says:

    I have to go with the axiom, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners”. As a former dog owner, I would choose not to go places where I thought an opportunity for “doggie mischief” would not be tolerated when I was outside of my usual stomping grounds. Even then, my Lab took a few years to lose his “juvenile” behavior. This couple do not appear to be responsible enough for such an independent breed of canine. It is sad when the dogs should suffer for the owners’ shortsightedness.


  4. Seems to me there should be a town ordinance that allows the police to confiscate an animal that is not being properly cared for (I think this instance would apply) and the animal should then be sent to an animal rescue organization to be re-peopled. How can you blame an animal for doing what comes naturally? I am heartsick every time I see an article about giving a dog the death penalty…


  5. jo says:

    these particular dogs are better off without these people—i hope Akita rescue works out. i am all for rescue and appropriate re-homing wherever possible, but i also understand that euthanasia can sometimes be a better fate for an animal than the life her or she would live without intervention. right now, it’s hard to see a winner here.


  6. Anda Divine says:

    A sad but too-common story, I’m afraid. I think your comment “I don’t think [these people are] right for these dogs” sums it well. I’m glad that some rescue groups are getting involved. Keep us posted.

    Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains the expectation is that people “keep their dogs up” (i.e., confined in some way), but more times than not this means the dogs–usually hounds–are chained to a tree or a filthy-looking hut of some kind. Such dogs are invariably thin and muddied and sad-looking, and it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut about it, but this is legal in Virginia as long as the dogs have water, food and shelter.

    Half a mile down the road from me, a new family from urban Maryland recently moved in. They have two young, black German shepherds who are allowed to run free, so these folks clearly think our mountains don’t have any “rules” about this. The dogs showed up last week at my southwest fence line and my dog, Goldie, alerted me. She (on leash) and I (with a stout branch) stormed down there and chased them away, but now I’;m worried about this year’s batch of free-range chickens that I’ll be starting in June. I confine them in a large (200-ft-diameter) movable electric mesh netting fence, which for many years has been efficient in keep poultry in and predators out. But occasionally the fence shorts out, especially in heavy rain, so I must be vigilant in frequently testing it. I always fear that predators, especially roaming dogs, will find that 1/2-hour interval when the fence is off. . . The odds are in my favor as regards infrequent wild animals, but motivated roaming dogs are another story.

    I’ve been waiting for these new people’s nearer neighbors to address this problem but, if I ever see those dogs loose again, I’ll speak to the people myself. As Jeannette commented, “It’s the dogs that pay the price” because, around here, such dogs simply get shot.


  7. Sara Crafts says:

    I once was, uh, related to someone who told a woman and child who had been bitten by his German Shepherd as they walked down the street that the woman and child were “illegally walking down the street” since it was a dirt road. He obfuscated and lied so vehemently and persuasively that they believed him (probably the same reason I married him…). Where will the Akita be during the Selectmen’s meeting? Hopefully not checking out the neighborhood.
    BTW, and not at all to trivialize, we have a terrorist cat who saunters into the neighborhood and beats up on the local cats, male, female, old, young, and then captures our birds. And us without an ACO! We have brought our cats inside and stopped feeding the birds … but that’s hardly the answer for the livestock.


  8. My neighbor has chickens that used to come to my house for long periods of time … until a hawk got one of them; now they don’t get to be quite as free-range (see my column about it at But no one controls hawks. I’m constantly amazed by the level of insouciance of some dog owners, who assume that feeding the dogs is really the extent of their responsibilities toward them.

    And it’s the dogs that pay the price. I hope that this one escapes its fate … and its owners.


    • Chickens, guinea hens, turkeys et al. also eat bugs, ticks, and other little creepy-crawlies. We’ve got hawks too, and skunks and raccoons. No one said it was easy being a chicken. 😉

      With some dogs, like the Labs and Lab mixes that are so common here, an owner can get away with being laissez-faire. When I was growing up west of Boston, most of the neighborhood dogs hung out together all day with minimal supervision. On weekends we kids hung out with them. No one close by had livestock of any kind; the cats took care of themselves. Laissez-faire doesn’t work with northern breed dogs. It doesn’t work with plenty of other dogs either, but a reactive (or just plain obnoxious) Pomeranian is nowhere near as scary as a hunting Akita.

      Short version is that plenty of owners get dogs that need much more management and training than they’re willing to put in. When puppy grows into headstrong and/or spoiled-rotten adolescent, the real trouble starts.


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