NEWTON, N.H. — Sarah Cassavaugh had let her 2-year-old German shepherd/Labrador mix Thomas into her backyard at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday and was surprised to see the dog return to the porch very quickly.
"He had an awful gash on his head and was covered with all sorts of cuts," Sarah's husband, Matt Cassavaugh, said. "Saliva was all over him and he was in a bad situation."
Cassavaugh was at work in Newburyport when he got the call telling him about the attack on Thomas. The 105-pound dog was taken to the Bassler Veterinary Hospital in Salisbury for treatment.
"When we anesthetized the dog to suture him, we found that the skin was lifted for about four to six inches down the neck," Dr. Heidi Bassler said. "The toenails were severely abraded and one of them looked like it was ripped out. ... I think the dog was in a big tussle and fought with his claws and his teeth."
Cassavaugh and his wife and two young children have lived on their four-acre property for seven years. While Cassavaugh said he had heard reports of a black bear in the area, Bassler told him the dog's attacker was probably a coyote.
"I'm from Canada and the dog wouldn't have been this lucky if it was a bear," said Bassler, who noted that coyotes are making dens and having pups this time of year.
"The dens are not necessarily in a big cave. It could be under a log or if someone has a woodshed or a pile of wood for their stove. You could be walking back there and not even realize that you are stumbling upon it," she said. "I don't think a coyote would have gone after a big dog like that unless it felt threatened. Maybe that dog happened to stumble by in front of its den."
Bassler said she has never seen a wild animal attack on a dog as large as Thomas.
"I always tell people that it is the little dogs who are the size of cats who typically get injured," Bassler said. "But this was a big, strong dog. Even in warmer weather, coyotes are out there. They are hungry and they are getting their prey and are out and about. You have to be careful in the woods."
Cassavaugh said he has lost several chickens to coyotes in the past but was surprised to hear one might come into the yard to go after his dog.
"In most situations, a coyote would never approach a 105-pound dog," Cassavaugh said. "(Thomas) might have seen the coyote on the way back to his den. Maybe, he startled it close to the den and it felt like it needed to protect its young? But it does seem like it's that time of the year."
Thomas was stabilized and returned home Tuesday.
"He is a nice, gentle dog," Cassavaugh said. "We had the floodlights on and everything this morning. This was a wake-up call to us. We have several children who live in the community and we have a 7-year-old and an almost 2-year-old. It is just one of those things where you take something for granted for a certain amount of time and something like this happens. It's just a matter of people staying alert and realizing coyotes are out there, especially at this time of the year."
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.