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Family dog kills newborn at McKeesport home

| Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

One day after members of a McKeesport family welcomed home their newborn boy, the family's 60-pound husky bit him on the head while his mother was out of the room, and he died of "severe head wounds," police said.

The boy's mother, Brandy Furlong, left 2-day-old Howard Nicholson Jr. in his baby carrier on the floor and had been away for a few minutes, police said. The dog had been with the family only about a month, a neighbor said.

Dogs, even the friendliest of family pets, should never be left alone with newborns, said Jennifer Shryock, a nationally recognized animal behavior expert in Cary, N.C.

"Whenever a newborn comes into the home, they are unfamiliar to the family dog. This is the biggest risk factor. This is heartbreaking, there's no way around it," Shryock said. "But it is preventable."

McKeesport police Capt. Tim Hanna said the baby was in an infant seat on the living room floor of the home in the 1700 block of Scott Street at 9:30 a.m when Furlong left the room to use the bathroom, she told investigators. Furlong heard the baby cry and returned to the living room to find the husky "hovering" over the boy. The dog had blood on its muzzle, police said.

She saw the bites on the baby's head and called 911, police said. Neighbor Ron Filo said he saw Furlong on the front porch on the phone, "frantic and crying."

Paramedics took Howard by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, where he was pronounced dead just before 11 a.m.

Allegheny County police forwarded information on the case to the district attorney's office, which will determine whether charges are warranted against furlong. An autopsy is scheduled for today.

"They were so happy to bring their baby home from the hospital," said Filo, who drove the mother to the hospital this week for the baby's delivery and brought them home Wednesday. "It's so sad. I just don't have the words."

Animal Control officers removed the husky and a pit bull from the home, and McKeesport police Chief Bryan Washowich said they are at Ferree Kennels in McKeesport. There was no answer at the kennel yesterday afternoon.

The husky had a broken leg and was wearing a cast, said county police Assistant Superintendent James Morton. He didn't know how the dog was injured.

"We're still sorting out what happened," Morton said.

Two other dogs were locked in the basement at the time of the attack, and authorities did not remove them from the home.

It wasn't known if the pit bull was involved in the attack. The baby's father, Howard Nicholson Sr., was not home at the time, police said. Other relatives could not be reached for comment.

Furlong, 21, has two other children, 6 and 3, Morton said. Those children were not in the home during the attack, he said.

By last night, a makeshift memorial for the baby appeared in front of the family's two-story home, including stuffed bears, a toy lobster, silk flowers and a red candle.

No one answered the door, although dogs could be heard inside.

Agnes Thompson, 44, who lives about a block from the house, helped get the memorial started. "I don't think she deserves to be punished. When you lose your child like that, that is devastating enough."

On that block of Scott Street, which has multiple abandoned, rundown homes, neighbors said it wasn't uncommon to see several dogs standing on the front porch roof of the house after they got out through a second-floor window.

Harold Baxter, 45, who lives a few houses away, said the dogs would watch and bark as people walked past, but didn't seem threatening. "I don't trust no dog," he said.

Neighbor Tamika Daniels, 32, said the dogs would often escape the house and run through the neighborhood. The couple always were apologetic when they collected the dogs. The dogs didn't frighten her, she said.

Daniels said she didn't know the couple by name. "My heart does go out to her and her family," she said.

Because it takes time to develop a relationship between a baby and a dog, Shryock recommends adult supervision at all times. Newborns in car seats should not be placed on the floor, she said.

"It's a scary thing, but the bottom line is the dog is exploring something it doesn't know about," Shryock said.

When doing that, dogs use their sense of smell, teeth and claws — which can be harmful or fatal to infants, she said.

Dogs can be set off by an infant's high-pitched cry or startle reflex, Shryock said. And it doesn't matter if the dog has behaved properly around other infants.

"There has to be time to develop a bond with that newborn, that child," she said.

Shryock said she doesn't like to blame or lecture people following such tragedies.

"This family needs support," she said.

Filo said he never witnessed the husky being aggressive.

"I was just feeding it treats over the fence on Wednesday," he said. "I feel so bad for all of them. I just don't know how everything could have gone so wrong so quickly."

Also yesterday, near Calgary, Canada, a newborn boy was killed by a family pet, also a husky, according to the Toronto Star. That dog had no history of violence, the paper reported.

Staff writers Adam Brandolph and Bill Vidonic contributed.

Additional Information:

Fatal dog attacks

Number of victims in the United States in the past three years:

-- 2011: 31 people killed, including four newborns (less than 1 month old).

-- 2010: 33 people killed, including four newborns.

-- 2009: 31 people killed, including three newborns.

-- In each of those years, the U.S. canine population was more than 77 million.

Source: National Canine Research Council

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