HIGHGATE — Perceptions of large dogs, their behavior and the degree to which they may pose a threat to others lay at the heart of a dog issue involving two Franklin County towns and neighbors now divided.
Kristin Begnoche and Nate Messier maintain that their large, mixed-breed dogs, Blitz and Mya, are not vicious. However, the Highgate Selectboard ordered the dogs removed from the town in May 2013.
They were taken in by Messier’s parents, who live in Franklin. Last week, the Messenger ran a story about Gary Wexler, a neighbor in Franklin, who finds the dogs threatening and says they bark all the time.
However, Penny Levesque, a neighbor of Begnoche and Messier in Highgate, said her family enjoyed Blitz and Mya. Her grandchildren, now ages 6 and 8, would play with the dogs. “We just never found them to be vicious,” said Levesque. Her grandchildren miss the animals, she said.
Asked why her neighbors on Country Club Road — several of whom complained about the dogs — may have felt differently, Levesque said of Blitz, “He was young… and he does a lot of love biting. They take it as the dog is being ferocious.”
“I never found them to be anything but a normal dog,” said Levesque.
Veterinarian Dr. John Bergeron of Tanneberger Veterinary Hospital did a temperament assessment of Blitz on Aug 14, 2013. He wrote: “Very friendly. Wants to lick face, ears, etc. Slightly mouthy, will place mouth on hand playfully, will nibble when licking. No aggression or dominance noted.”
According to Levesque, telling Blitz ‘no’ and giving him a light slap on the nose will be sufficient to make him stop. Her grandchildren do it, she said.
Blitz was a puppy when Begnoche and Messier bought their house in Highgate in May 2012. Begnoche was pregnant with their first child, Sophia, at the time.
Now their home is on the market. “We moved into this house to start a home and we’re moving out because our family has been taken from us,” said Begnoche, adding that they plan to reunite with the dogs in a new home in another town.
After Highgate ordered the dogs removed, the dogs went to live with Messier’s parents in Franklin.
Messier said his mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis, has taken on the responsibility of caring for the dogs. “She takes on the biggest responsibility and for her that’s very difficult,” said Messier.
Contrary to Wexler’s perception that the dogs are tied up all night, Messier said the dogs sleep inside on beds Messier washes twice a month. In addition, they are taken for walks and are placed on runners.
They have electric shock collars for the dogs, but put them on a runner to ease Wexler’s concerns, said Messier. He said the dogs bark now because Wexler wants them on a leash.
Begnoche and Messier visit the dogs at least twice a week, and recently took the dogs camping for a week. “We plan vacations so our dogs can come,” said Begnoche.
The dogs were removed from Highgate after three public hearings, but neither Begnoche nor Messier, nor those in the neighborhood who liked their dogs were at the third hearing.
Begnoche said she came home from work the day of the third hearing to find a note on the door saying a registered letter had not been delivered because they were not home. When she picked up the letter the next day, she learned of a public hearing about Blitz and Mya held the night before.
At that hearing, Darlene Wells, their neighbor on Country Club Road, had complained about an incident involving her son’s dog, Gunner, and the Messier dogs.
Begnoche and Messier were walking with their dogs and an infant Sophia when Gunner came bounding up to them, said Wells. Blitz and Mya chased Gunner back to the Wells property, according to witness Ron Vincent, another resident of Country Club Road.
Vincent said he believes the dogs were defending Sophia.
Wells’ description of the incident in her complaint to the town is a little unclear, but appears to describe Blitz holding Wells’ dog down and multiple attempts to separate the dogs. She also describes Blitz as “going crazy trying to get away from his owner.”
Her complaint does not list any injuries to her dog.
“They were protecting the baby,” said Levesque. “You can’t blame a dog for trying to protect a child or themselves.”
Dogs can also be protective of their home, according to Levesque, but Mya and Blitz would open the door for her when she visited.
Ray Dixon, Highgate’s animal control officer, said at a public hearing in August 2012 that the dogs had never given him any problems when he visited the Begnoche and Messier residence. According to Messier, Blitz rode on Dixon’s lap the day he came to collect the dogs after they were evicted from the town.
That August hearing followed a series of complaints to the town about the dogs. The most serious of those complaints was from Florence Dixon who said one of the dogs had nipped at her while she was walking, but had not broken the skin.
Dixon later signed a petition along with 11 other residents of Country Club Road asking the Highgate Selectboard to reconsider its decision to remove the dogs.
“He plays by biting on your clothes,” said Messier. “He tried to grab onto her clothes.”
“Florence is an elderly lady and she was intimidated by the dogs,” said Begnoche. “She didn’t know what to do because she was scared of the dog.”
The Messenger was unable to reach Dexter prior to press time.
Other neighbors complained of being approached by the dogs and of the dogs lying or standing in the street.
Levesque said Blitz and Mya did lie in the street and sometimes chase cars, but that other dogs in the neighborhood do the same thing. Highgate does not have a leash law.
Messier acknowledged that Blitz liked to nap in a neighbor’s garden, and the neighbor complained. The same neighbors also said the dogs had growled at their elderly mother while she was on their deck.
After the first hearing, they were ordered to keep the dogs contained. They installed an electric fence, but the dogs got out in November 2012. Thomas Castanguay reported they had cornered and growled at him. “I was afraid for my safety,” he told the town in a written complaint.
The selectboard decided at that point to allow the dogs to remain, but reiterated the importance of keeping them contained.
It wasn’t until the incident with Wells’ dog, months later that the dogs were ordered removed.
“I understand mistakes were made,” said Levesque of Messier and Begnoche’s handling of the dogs. “They know it, too.”
Nonetheless, she is highly critical of the town’s decision to remove the dogs. “I think what happened to them was unfair.”