The Walker family is seeking answers after Newton Police Department Lt. Bill Henniger, shot their dog, Dozzer, last Monday.
Dozzer, owned by Newton residents Nathan and Michelle Walker, later died from complications after surgery the following day.
Henniger responded to a report of a large dog running loose at 9:49 a.m. June 16 in the 300 block of North Third Avenue East. Beth Pline, a neighbor of the Walker family, said she also contacted authorities about the loose dog, stating the dog had cornered a man who was pushing a baby in a stroller. She said the dog previously displayed menacing behavior toward her son and daughter on Sunday, May 26, and that this was her second time reporting it.
Two officers, Henniger and Ryan Zylstra, arrived at the scene and parked in the alley behind the Walker home. At this time, Dozzer was in one of the Walker family’s neighbor’s backyard, and Nathan and Michelle’s 5-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, went to fetch him and bring him home. Nevaeh told her parents she was close to their driveway when one of the officers asked her if the dog belonged to her. She responded that it was and that Henniger then stepped out of his vehicle.
The Walkers are unclear exactly what happened after Henniger exited the patrol car. Michelle said she was awakened by her children when the officers arrived.
“I went out the front door, and all the neighbors were out there, and I started yelling for the kids, and then I heard the ‘POP, POP.’ I had to run out back, the kids were freaking out, so I told them to go inside. The officer asked me if it was my dog and if he would listen to me. Then I asked if he was dead,” Michelle said.
Michelle said the officer told her the dog wasn’t dead and that he had run to the front of their yard. She found Dozzer in the front yard bleeding heavily. She wrapped the dog’s leg and stayed with him until the Jasper County Animal Rescue League arrived to transport him to a veterinarian office.
Nathan was at work when the incident occurred and raced home after receiving a frantic call from his wife. His said his recollection of the incident is based on what he has heard from his wife, children, neighbors and Henniger.
“As soon as (Henniger) shut the door, his words (were) the dog charged him down the alley and was jumping all over his left side,” Nathan said. “The other cop was saying that it appeared to him that the dog was latched on to (Henniger’s) left side. But he has no wounds on his left side. The only wound he has is a wound on his right shin.”
Nathan said he asked Henniger to see his wounds and said he observed a mark approximately two inches in diameter and that the mark didn’t break the skin. Pline said the dog also bit Henniger on the arm but couldn’t verify which arm.
She also said she did agree with Nathan’s assessment that the bite marks did not look substantial.
Dozzer was a 79-pound pit bull the family described as friendly, loving and protective. The dog was raised by family since he was a puppy, and Nathan said the kids and Michelle purchased Dozzer as a Father’s Day gift for him.
The Walkers admitted Dozzer often ran loose, and Nathan said the dog was very hyper and playful, often jumping around as a way of getting attention.
Nathan said he was told by his family Dozzer was jumping up and down on Henniger’s left side and that Henniger then kicked and punched the dog before the dog bit him.
Nathan said he believes Dozzer bit Henniger in self-defense and that shooting Dozzer was an extreme measure.
“That’s when he pulled his service weapon and fired one shot and got him in the leg. He fired a second shot, and we don’t know where the shot went, and the dog was running away,” Nathan said.
“My kids were standing right there,” Michelle added.
The couple’s 7-year-old daughter Mackenzie was an eyewitness to the event.
“The cop was in the alley over there, and Dozzer was behind the second tree in the yard, and they shot Dozzer in the leg. Then they tried to shoot him again,” Mackenzie said.
Nathan said other witnesses can corroborate his daughter’s story.
“The dog was running away when he fired the second shot. I have neighbors all around me, and a couple of them that witnessed it — the whole action of it. They specifically said that the dog retreated after the first shot and went to go lay down next to Mackenzie,” Nathan said. “That’s when he fired that second shot — when the dog was retreating to go toward Mackenzie.”
Michelle said no one has been able to find the shell casing from that second shot, and Nathan believes his dog’s demise was caused by people stereotyping the pit bull breed.
Newton Police Chief Jeff Hoebelheinrich gave the department’s version of the story, which falls in line with the witnesses and Walker family said happened.
The variation between the two stories takes place after the first shot was fired.
The family said the dog retreated after Henniger shot the dog. Hoebelheinrich said that after the officer shot the dog, it did not retreat but instead came back to attack the officer again. When the dog charged the officer a second time, Henniger fired again at the dog, after which it finally retreated to the family’s front yard.
Some of the Walkers’ neighbors have different accounts on what kind of dog Dozzer was.
Eric McDowell has lived across the street from the Walkers for three or four months and admitted he was hesitant to be around Dozzer at first but said he felt comfortable once he got to know him. He said he allowed his 1-year-old son, Carter, to be around Dozzer.
“He was a good dog. He really was a good dog,” McDowell said. “He played with my kid. I babysat him, and I would come over here, by myself, and let him out of his kennel at night. He was just a good dog in general.”
Pline shared a different view of her family’s interactions with Dozzer.
“There was something wrong with that dog, whether they admit it or not,” Pline said. “They’ve been telling everybody that it’s a big friendly dog, but it keeps getting out of the backyard, and just being out provokes it. It just automatically growls, barks, bares its teeth and comes after you.”
Despite differing neighborhood opinions on the matter, the Walkers said they feel like they’ve lost a member of the family. Nathan said the dog was treated like it was just another one of their children, and Michelle said the kids themselves are traumatized by the incident.
They held a funeral for Dozzer last Wednesday at Nathan’s family farm and are planning on taking this fight to the next level.
“I believe that at this point, we are going to pursue legal action — probably, most definitely 100 percent. Because of the situation with the kids being there — not because the dog’s dead, not because he shot the dog, (but) because he shot a firearm in such close proximity to kids and missed,” Nathan said.
According to Title 2, Chapter 13.0303 of the city ordinance, a dog is considered at large if it is not confined within a motor vehicle, not in direct custody of the owner in a specified manner, not on a leash six feet long or less when off the owner’s property, or is not properly confined to the owner’s premises.
Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at email@example.com.