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Girl, 7, fatally mauled by dogs

School thunderstruck after Oakbank-area Alaskan malamutes kill child

Sandra Ducharme comforts her daughter, Haylee, as little brother Connor looks on outside St. Andrews School. Haylee was a schoolmate of the late Gracie Herntier-Clark. ‘I’m sad because of my friend,’ she said.


Sandra Ducharme comforts her daughter, Haylee, as little brother Connor looks on outside St. Andrews School. Haylee was a schoolmate of the late Gracie Herntier-Clark. ‘I’m sad because of my friend,’ she said.

The normally boisterous halls of St. Andrews School were quiet Monday afternoon.

The sounds of laughing children and parents confirming play dates were noticeably absent as news of the mauling death of seven-year-old Gracie Herntier-Clark continued to spread and sink in.

Gracie Herntier-Clark

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Gracie Herntier-Clark (FACEBOOK)

Kristin Nicholson and her dog, Jessie. She says the dogs were often around her daughters.

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Kristin Nicholson and her dog, Jessie. She says the dogs were often around her daughters. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

There were hushed conversations, quiet tears and sniffles during the daily after-school pickup.

The tragic death of a seven-year-old girl will naturally have parents asking: Are Alaskan malamutes too dangerous to be around children?

Diane Tracy, who has bred malamutes since 1987 at her kennel in Landmark, has no idea what could have sparked the two dogs to attack and injure a child so severely that she died.

"I feel so bad for the family," she said. "I'm very upset about this.

"This is not the norm for the breed, but there's exceptions to every rule."

Tracy said the breed is a wonderful dog, but you have to train it properly. "It protects people," she said.

"The (Inuit) use them for their babysitters. But if you don't train them properly, you don't know.

"They're stubborn to train. They don't always get along with every other dog. They can fight with each other. But if trained properly, they are great. They love people."

Tracy said she has owned malamutes since 1977 and has bred them since 1987, and "not once have I been bitten -- not even close."

Bill McDonald, CEO of the Winnipeg Humane Society, said malamutes are traditionally sled dogs that can weigh anywhere from 36 to 45 kilograms.

They are generally known as a friendly breed, but he said there have been cases where malamutes have fatally attacked children before.

The challenge for police will be to figure out what set the dogs off in this case, McDonald suggested.

"Any large dog -- be it a collie or a golden retriever -- and young people, they have to be monitored," he said. "When you've got a seven-year-old and probably in the range of 150 to 200 pounds of dog that's mad, these are the tragic results."

"I'm sad because of my friend," said Haylee Ducharme, 8. "I'm in Grade 3 and she's in Grade 2. We'd be partners in gym pretty much all the time for warm-up.

"She was nice, sweet and very fun."

Gracie died Sunday after she was mauled by two Alaskan malamute dogs near Oakbank while visiting family friends.

A Grade 2 student at St. Andrews School in the RM of St. Andrews, Gracie was playing outside when the dogs attacked her. There were no known witnesses to the mauling, RCMP said.

Gracie was rushed to hospital but did not survive.

The school's principal and vice-principal went classroom to classroom first thing in the morning to talk about the tragedy with the students, following an email sent out to parents. The school brought in grief counsellors to help children and staff cope with the loss.

Gracie lived with her grandparents and regularly visited the childless Oakbank couple who own the dogs, said a neighbour of the owners.

Neighbour Kristin Nicholson said she is still in shock. The two malamutes, named Bear and Shadow, were frequently around her own daughters, Jenna, 4, and Kaeli, 7. There are no fences between their yards, and the dogs would run around loose, as does Nicholson's dog, a setter. She pointed to a trail through the snow the malamutes made between their two yards.

"We'd be outside and they'd be here running around all the time," she said. "To have them turn like that? They seemed like giant teddy bears."

The only thing that gave Nicholson pause was the size of the dogs. "The dogs are huge," she said. She or her husband were always outside with their girls when the dogs were around, she said.

The dogs are being held by Dan Fryer, an animal control and animal protection officer for the RM of Springfield. "Their future depends on the RCMP investigation," he said.

"I would like to make it clear this is a terrible, terrible tragedy. It is quite obviously incredibly serious. I've never seen anything to this extent before."

But Fryer said because the two dogs are in custody "the community doesn't have to fear these dogs."

Gracie had been a student since kindergarten at St. Andrews School, Lord Selkirk School Division superintendent Scott Kwasnitza said Monday.

"They're understandably devastated by this, particularly the teachers who taught her in kindergarten, in Grade 1, and (this year) in Grade 2."

Grief counsellors were in the school by 8:30 a.m. Monday and will likely be there for several days more.

Kwasnitza said teachers are not telling the children how Gracie died.

"You don't want to frighten children -- some of those details are better discussed at homes with families," he said. "We didn't want to add to the stress by scaring children."

Kwasnitza learned of the tragedy Sunday evening and contacted as many of the St. Andrews teachers as he could.

"I was there this morning first thing before school started," Kwasnitza said.

Gracie "was full of life, one of the bright lights in the school."

Haylee's mother, Sandra Ducharme, said the school is very close-knit where the parents, teachers and administrators know every child by name.

"It's tough to take. It's heartbreaking," she said.

Having grown up around dogs, Ducharme has told her children -- six-year-old Connor was also in tow -- what to do when meeting a strange canine.

"You ask the owner if you can pet it," Haylee said. "And never put your face in the dog's face."

Ducharme said every child should be taught dogs need to be treated with respect and the knowledge they can be extremely unpredictable.

"Some of them have the best lives but sometimes, something triggers them (to be violent). Not all dogs are like that but all dogs can be like that," she said.

Ducharme said she has her parents' half-wolf, half-shepherd dog to thank for saving her life when she was two years old. The dog dragged her into the porch of her parents' home when it was on fire and sat on her until her parents grabbed her.

Ducharme said she would sit down at home with her children to talk about Gracie and reiterate safety with dogs.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time Haylee has lost a schoolmate. A few Christmases ago, a friend was killed in a car accident.

Messages the school is sending home will be "restrained," Kwasnitza said, although he expected parents will be aware from the news about how Gracie died.

The school phoned the parents of all Gracie's classmates as soon as possible Monday.

"It's been a tough day -- the loss of a student is the toughest thing you can experience," Kwasnitza said.

"It's a terrible tragedy. Our hearts go out to everyone involved," said RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel.

The exact cause of death is not being released, Seel said. It's not clear what prompted the attack, she said.

The girl was being supervised by an adult but it doesn't appear anyone witnessed the mauling, Seel said.

"This is just a tragedy all around and you never like to hear about this type of thing. You feel for everyone involved."

Charges are not being ruled out. "We're still in the thick of the investigation," Seel said. -- with files from Geoff Kirbyson and The Canadian Press


Updated on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 6:45 AM CDT:
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Pet or no pet, if it were my pet, they'd be put down. My own dog attacked a friend of my daughter's and we put him down for just a couple of bites.
Wouldn't want to know it could happen again to someone else.

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