A month ago, a Fort Smith woman described on Facebook an encounter on the street with two large, aggressive dogs who forced her to seek shelter in a nearby residence.
Her post on the community page was quickly flooded with people recalling similar near-misses with dogs on the same corner, dating back to last summer.
The dogs’ owners, Vina Champagne and her son William Hoffmann, are currently fighting for the Town of Fort Smith to return one of their dogs, which was seized and is reported to bite people.
We talked to Champagne about her version of the story – but also to the Town, a person close to the family, and a range of residents who say they felt threatened by the numerous dogs at the residence.
More than a dozen negative encounters with the dogs have been described to Cabin Radio.
We were unable to confirm all of the incidents. Residents who recounted their experiences requested anonymity to avoid antagonizing the owners.
“Those same dogs came after my daughter last summer,” one person wrote. “Luckily there were adults in the area and she was able to get away.
“They’ve displayed aggressive behaviour numerous times, so hopefully something can be done before someone gets hurt.”
Two women said the dogs came after them while they were walking with their babies, while another two added they had been chased while biking past the house.
Others said they had brought their complaints to the bylaw officer and did not wish to relive their encounters.
The Town has been responsive to complaints this fall. Records show three dogs were seized from Champagne on September 6 and returned on September 7 after she paid the fine.
Then, on October 4, two of Hoffmann’s dogs were seized from the same property.
One escaped during the seizure and remains at large, while the other is in the Town’s custody at the Fort Smith Animal Shelter.
Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley told Cabin Radio the dog will not be returned.
“We made the decision [to seize the dogs] to protect the public. The dogs have chased children, women with children in strollers, and grown adults,” she said.
“We don’t want to wait until somebody is seriously mauled or killed.”
The Town had approached Champagne to discuss the issue but “she was unreceptive and threatened Town staff,” Napier-Buckley added.
“The Town has tried all reasonable means to resolve this issue with the owner. In fact, we may have been too lenient; neighbours have taken to walking with bats to ensure their protection.”
The other side
Vina Champagne has a slightly different story.
Although she understands where the complaints are coming from, she is unhappy with how both residents and the Town have handled the situation.
“I guess people were complaining about my dogs. Sometimes they run out and bark at people, I know that,” she conceded.
“Sometimes I’m not home, and my son looks after them and they get out of the house and then they scare people. Of course, they complain.
“But at least let us know, write us a letter,” she said, suggesting people harassed by her dogs should have discussed it with her rather than report incidents to the Town, who she also feels did not communicate clearly with her.
She says she was shocked when the bylaw officer, accompanied by RCMP officers, showed up at her house to seize dogs in September.
Champagne alleges two of the three dogs seized then were nursing mothers, leaving her to bottle-feed their puppies for the one day they were gone.
She also says she was never told why they were taken away, but instead received a letter from the Town stating the fine she owed – which she says totalled over $400.
“They are stealing animals. One hundred years ago, they would have all hung for stealing horses,” she said.
In October – when the Town returned to seize more dogs following continued complaints from the public, according to Napier-Buckley – Hoffmann’s dog, Mr Magoo, was taken.
“He’s not an outdoor dog, he’s not a sleigh dog – he’s just a pet,” said Champagne, contradicting Hoffmann’s earlier statement to CBC that the Town seized working dogs he needs to check his traplines.
Dogs are ‘out of control’
An individual close to the family contacted Cabin Radio to claim Hoffmann, despite his statement, is neither a trapper nor owns a trapline.
They worry Hoffmann’s claims could negatively impact perceptions of people who legitimately use sled dogs to go out on the land.
“All of those dogs need to be seized; something has to be done,” said the individual, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, adding the dogs are “out of control [and] aggressive.”
The last time they visited Champagne, the individual said, they counted 12 adult dogs and six puppies.
The Town has also stated “a minimum of 16 dogs were counted at the residence” when staff last attended.
Champagne herself told Cabin Radio she has five dogs and Hoffmann has four – not including puppies.
Dog control bylaw
Whatever the true number, it would be higher than the two dogs per residence allowed by the relevant Town bylaw – unless the owners had obtained written permission from council to house more.
Neither the mayor nor the protective services officer could confirm if Champagne and Hoffmann have permission to possess more than two dogs on the property.
The bylaw contains an exception allowing dogs licensed under the previous bylaw to be grandfathered in, provided they remain licensed – but TJ Moore, the Town’s protective services officer, confirmed Champagne and Hoffmann’s dogs are not licensed.
He says Champagne and Hoffmann should also have been charged for dog licences when they came to pay the fine for their first three seized dogs, but standard procedure was not followed in that instance.
Meanwhile, the fates of Mr Magoo and the missing dog remain unclear.