A city hearing officer ruled earlier this month that a local Australian cattle dog be designated a “vicious and dangerous dog“ after a Sept. 14 hearing determined that the dog displayed aggressive behavior and bit at least two people, most recently an eight-year-old.
This wasn’t, however, the first hearing for Pilot the dog. In 2019, Xavier Blake, an adult living at the same Noe Valley building as Pilot, testified that the dog bit him. Despite a subsequent recommendation from the San Francisco Police Department that Pilot be declared vicious and dangerous, a hearing officer ruled that there was insufficient evidence for the designation. The bite, the hearing officer said, did not break Blake’s skin, and it was merely recommended that Pilot wear a muzzle in public.
That, however, appeared not to happen. An unmuzzled Pilot bit the eight-year-old in June, 2021, while the boy was out walking in Noe Valley with his father, Philip Van Dervort.
“The writing was on the wall,” said Blake, the 2019 bite victim, who lives in a unit next door to Pilot on Dolores Street. Blake, along with other tenants of the building, indicated that Pilot had been an issue for years.
The situation is further complicated for the building’s tenants because Pilot’s owner, Clare O’Hoyne, is flatmates with Beth Connell, the building’s owner and landlord.
Three additional bites were discussed at Pilot’s 2019 hearing, but the hearing officer dismissed them as “hearsay.” Maria Schulman, another building resident who testified at both hearings, said they hadn’t reported them “because we feared retaliation from Ms. Connell as our landlord.”
Blake, Schulman, and other tenants have a dispute pending at the Rent Board, alleging that Connell retaliated against them after the 2019 hearing. They declined to comment on the details of ongoing hearings. Connell declined to comment for this article, and O’Hoyne could not be reached.
Connell helps care for the seven-year-old dog and, on the day it bit the child in June, she was out on a walk with an unmuzzled Pilot.
Philip Van Dervort gave his phone number to Connell, expecting to get the dog’s vaccine information, which owners are required by law to give. The child, who was “panicking” and bleeding, his father said at the hearing, was treated in an emergency room.
It wasn’t until the child’s mother, Heather Van Dervort, made a post on the neighborhood app NextDoor that O’Hoyne, the dog’s registered owner, reached out to the family via text.
Heather Van Dervort said at the hearing that she was “disturbed” when O’Hoyne did not immediately provide Pilot’s records, which eventually revealed that Pilot’s rabies vaccination and registration were out of date on the day of the incident. The dog was taken to get vaccinated the day after the incident.
Heather Van Dervort’s June post on Nextdoor drew responses from others alleging bites by Pilot. By the Sept. 14 hearing, however, no other victims came forward to testify.
“I’m just sorry that it had to come to so many people getting bit,” Heather Van Dervort said after the September decision. “I’m glad it’s finally going to stop.”
Although her son, now nine, has recovered from his wound, he still experiences trauma and fear from the attack, including recurring nightmares about dogs, she said.
“I think you have to speak up for what’s right and to protect people in our neighborhood and other children. This is not fun for me. You know, I’m not out to hurt anybody,” she said. “I think this all could have been prevented.”
Blake, the tenant whose charges instigated the 2019 hearing, still questions that ruling. For one, he and other tenants regarded Pilot to be vicious and dangerous, as outlined in the San Francisco Health Code: a dog that bites an animal or human unprovoked, or “any dog with a known propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack unprovoked.”
Blake’s injury, however, was deemed “minor” by the Department of Public Health-appointed hearing officer, Janelle Caywood, who also “urged” O’Hoyne to leash and muzzle Pilot in public and in the back area of the building shared with other tenants, including Blake.
Virginia Donohue, executive director of Animal Care and Control, who was also serving in this capacity at the time of the 2019 hearing, said she agreed with Caywood’s decision, insofar as the recommended actions would have been followed. “But the dog can’t put on its own muzzle,” she said.
“In my opinion, our landlord touted the 2019 [decision] as evidence that our ongoing concerns about Pilot were unwarranted,” said Schulman. “That led to two and a half years of stress for us and, ultimately, I believe, to a child getting bit severely enough to merit a trip to the emergency room.”
As a result of the recent decision, Pilot must wear a leash, harness, and muzzle in public spaces, and a sign must be posted at its residence warning that a vicious and dangerous dog is present.
Blake and Schulman said the 2021 decision makes them feel safer. “I do feel a little discouraged by how long it took,” said Blake. “But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”