Husky bit newborn in play, expert says

But his assessment disputed in hearing over baby's death

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At a hearing Thursday to determine whether the husky implicated in a fatal attack on a McKeesport newborn should be euthanized, a dog behavior specialist testified that he did not believe the husky was dangerous and that he would "have no reservations" about adopting the dog himself.

Even if Helo contributed to 3-day-old Howard Nicholson's death, James Crosby, a former animal control officer from Florida, said he believes the dog bit the baby because he mistook him for a toy.

The boy's wounds "are consistent with play gone wrong," he said, and not with a predatory animal attack.

That assessment was challenged by Assistant District Attorney Laura Ditka, who also questioned Mr. Crosby's credentials.

Howard's mother, Brandy Furlong, told police she left her son in a baby carrier on the floor Feb. 16 and was in the bathroom when she heard him scream. When she returned, the dog was hovering over the child with blood on its muzzle, police said.

Police reports indicate other dogs were in the house, but the boy's mother said that only Helo was loose. The dog was seized by authorities, and Ms. Furlong was charged with violations of the state's dog laws. But the charges were dropped by order of the district attorney's office, a move that freed the dog to be adopted. William Uhring, of Churchill, stepped forward and took Helo home, only to have the dog taken by authorities after Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski ordered it seized and euthanized. Mr. Uhring appealed the order, leading to Thursday's court proceedings.

Fatal dog attacks are rare, but when they occur, the dog is almost always euthanized without any court challenge. No such challenges have been made in the county for at least 15 years, said Aaron Tomczak, one of Mr. Uhring's attorneys.

The case has drawn widespread attention, attracting thousands of signatures to an online petition to urge the court to spare Helo's life. Many people have donated money to support Mr. Uhring's defense of the dog, which has helped fund four attorneys on the case.

Mr. Crosby testified Thursday that the bite wounds appeared to have come from more than one dog and that they did not appear consistent with the size of Helo's mouth or with an aggressive attack in general.

Howard sustained massive head trauma in the attack. Mr. Crosby, who examined photos of the boy, described a depression on one side of his head and a tear in his cheek, as well as numerous puncture wounds.

The wounds appeared to have come from two dogs biting the boy simultaneously, Mr. Crosby said.

"Had this been an aggressive or predatory attack, I would have expected much more depression" in Howard's skull, he said. "It is more consistent with a playful attack."

He said he could not rule out Helo's involvement but added that if the dog bit Howard, it was because he mistook him for a squeaky toy, which, like a newborn, makes noise when bitten.

His behavior assessment, shown on video in the courtroom, showed that Helo did not respond aggressively when agitated -- by having his tail grabbed, for example -- and even allowed Mr. Crosby to take food away from him.

Ms. Ditka challenged his conclusion, suggesting the gruesome bite wounds could have come from a dog holding the baby down with its paws.

She also pointed out numerous times that Mr. Crosby, although he was certified as an expert in Thursday's hearing, had little training in examining crime scenes.

After he testified that blood on Helo's mouth could have come from "blood transfer," she asked if he had any training in examining blood pattern.

He said it was a part of a three-day course he took on examining animal attack scenes.

She also argued against his characterization of the attack as "playful," pointing out that a piece of the child's skull was found at the scene.

Because the prosecution asked for a continuance, the hearing is slated to continue April 27.

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Moriah Balingit: or 412-263-2533.


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