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Horror on morning run

Pat Sondgeroth was running along Sound Shore Road in Northville just before dawn Feb. 11 when two livestock guard dogs that had escaped from the Garden of Eve organic farm set their sights on her.

Without her German shepherd, Jesse, by her side, she would not have stood a chance, she said.

"I heard something coming up behind me," said the physician's assistant, recalling the attack. "One went at my leg and Jesse got in between. Then the other came and they were circling us. One latched on to Jesse's chest and the other attacked her backside."

The German shepherd -- a certified therapy and search-and-rescue dog -- was able to escape their clutches, she said. Jesse then ran, drawing the white Maremma breed sheepdogs away from Ms. Sondgeroth. Workers from the nearby ConocoPhillips Terminal also rushed over to help, capturing one of the guard dogs.

Ms. Sondgeroth and her partner, Sue Condreras, later found a dejected Jesse hiding behind a car in their driveway, her tail between her legs and her chest cut and bleeding. Tufts of fur were missing from her back.

The attack, some of which was caught on ConocoPhillips surveillance tape, marked the third time this year the two dogs have gotten loose from the Sound Avenue farm, Riverhead police said.

The Northville women are now making it their mission to prevent further attacks; they want the "dangerous dogs" taken from their owner.

"We've been telling everyone we can to watch out for these dogs," said Ms. Condreras, also a physician's assistant. "Jesse stepped in right away, before anything could happen to Patty. But what if she wasn't a German shepherd? What if she was a little dog? What if this were a mother and her child?"

Jesse, herself 75 pounds, was not only outnumbered, but out-muscled by the Maremma guard dogs. The surveillance tape, viewed by The News-Review, shows the German shepherd stepping up to protect its master from the first encounter, but after some back-and-forth biting and snapping, quickly turning and running in circles as it was chased around Ms. Sondgeroth.

A German shepherd shouldn't pose a challenge to two adult Maremmas; the breed has been doing battle with wolves for some 2,000 years, according to the Maremma Sheepdog Club of America.

"It was bred to take responsibility for keeping the flock safe from four-legged predators, primarily the wolf, and from two-legged thieves," according to the group's Web page. "It's kept proficient at its job by frequent life-and-death battles with the wolves."

The couple credits the German shepherd as well as ConocoPhillips workers for drawing the two white dogs away from Ms. Sondgeroth, perhaps saving her from a worse fate. They are equally critical of the dogs' owner, Eve Kaplan, who runs the Garden of Eve organic farm.

"I'm frustrated because she keeps getting the dogs back and until somebody is really hurt or killed that's the only time they can take these dogs away from her," Ms. Condreras said.

Reached by phone, Ms. Kaplan denied her dogs attacked the German shepherd, even after a reporter told her of the surveillance video and a picture of the German shepherd's bloodied chest.

"That's not from our dog," she insisted when told of the photograph of the wound. "Her dog was not bitten by my dog, and our dogs are not dangerous.

"My guess is their dog made aggressive overtures toward our dogs," she continued. "I'm sure it was mutual."

Police Chief David Hegermiller said this week that workers at the ConocoPhillips terminal corroborated Ms. Sondgeroth's version of the attack.

"Yes, that's for sure," he said when asked if the workers had seen the Maremma dogs attack. The chief also disclosed that his brother-in-law runs the gas terminal. "I heard it firsthand; if it wasn't for [the workers] that dog would have been in worse shape, I'm sure."

He said a dogs-at-large charge will be filed against the dog owners this week, though, he added, the guard dogs "seemed to be penned up pretty well now."

He also said that a dog-on-dog attack would not constitute grounds for removing a dog from its owners.

According to an entry about the dogs on the Garden of Eve Web site, Ms. Kaplan and her husband, Chris, bought the dogs, which are sisters, from a Pennsylvania breeder in February 2007 to guard their farm animals, but have had trouble training the dogs to stay on the property.

Ms. Kaplan told The News-Review she has been working to fix any vulnerable portions of a deer fence that runs along the farm's perimeter.

"There's not a gap in the fence; they're just very smart dogs," she said. "We're doing anything we can to make sure they stay on our farm. We certainly don't have any interest in having them off our farm. But generally, our neighbors are helpful. They're very friendly dogs, usually our neighbors call us and they jump into our car."

Ms. Sondgeroth and Ms. Condreras each said they saw the dogs out last year as well, and now feel strongly the dogs are too big a risk to keep near residential neighborhoods that abound with walkers, joggers and bike-riders. They were also disgusted when, after calling Ms. Kaplan the morning of the attack, they got neither an apology nor an offer to pay the vet bills, they said. "I don't think she gets it," Ms. Condreras said.

"She was more intent on getting the dogs," added Ms. Sondgeroth.

Again, Ms. Kaplan gave a different version of events.

"These women, they're obviously very angry," she said. "They called me. I apologized. I said we're doing everything we can. It's not like we're having any argument."

Though Ms. Kaplan's guard dogs are apparently proving a challenge to train, they have been effective in scaring away or killing four-legged intruders, according to Ms. Kaplan and the Garden of Eve Web site, which reads, "At night they run free around the 40 acres. They have eaten a lot of woodchucks, raccoons and even deer that got inside the deer fence."

Jesse and her owners have altered their daily routine to avoid the loose Maremma dogs, and the German shepherd is fully healed and back visiting hospitals and nursing homes, cheering up the sick and elderly as a therapy dog, her owners said.

She did not need any stitches, and her personality didn't seem to be altered by the incident, Ms. Condreras said.

"At first she seemed a little afraid when people would go to pet her, but I wasn't sure if it was just soreness from the attack," she said. "I'm just happy for her that this didn't change her life, because she's such a good dog."

As for Ms. Sondgeroth, she said she went unscathed in the attack, except for a broken zipper near the ankle of her running pants. She doesn't think of herself as a victim, she said, adding, "My real concern is for parents out with kids."