Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dangerous Dog Laws

This is a difficult topic for me, as for many dog lovers and owners, as we do not always accept that there are dogs that should be labeled ‘dangerous’.  I fully believe that naming a dangerous dog should on an individual basis, and that breed-specific legislation, or ‘breedism’ is wrong wrong wrong.  I see different breeds of dogs all day long, and I know how to read the individual body language that keeps me from being bitten multiple times a day.  And I have owned a dog that is one of the most recognized biters in veterinary medicine - a chihuahua.  (I have also owned a pit bull, who was terrified of said chihuahua).  But I don’t want this post to get into breedism, because that is not what I’m addressing at this time.  I would like to talk about the laws that exist to help humans, in the case of a dangerous dog.

First, many people don’t really think about dangerous dog laws as existing, or at least as existing as relates to their every day life.  They think of some terrible situation that they see on the news, generally of catastrophic proportion.  And they are right - those instances are absolutely cases where these laws are important.  But it is also important to use these laws to protect the every day situation.  Many of my clients tell me of neighborhood dogs or dog park dogs that ‘everyone knows’ they need to avoid.   But no one has reported this dog.  And because there is no report, each incident of aggression goes un-noted in the public record, and thus there is no action that can be taken with repeat occurrences. 

Let me back up a second.  Dogs play; they roughhouse, they growl and grab skin with their teeth as a normal occurrence during interaction.  That is not what I’m talk about.  I’m talking about the dog that causes a fight, and when the fight is broken up it turns on the humans breaking up the fight.  I’m talking about the unprovoked attacks through a storm door when you are walking your dog down the street.  I’m talking about the dog that comes out of nowhere and knocks down a skateboarder or a biker.

In most of these situations, there is a human involved in the mix.  (While a true stray dog is rare, if no owner can be identified and they are causing a problem, Animal Control should already be brought in to address them.)  So who is responsible, in the majority of cases of repeat incidents of dog bites?  The owner of the dog.  Which is where the dangerous dog laws come in to play - the owner receives a citation or warning, which can then lead to a fine, which can eventually lead to the dog being taken away from the owner.  A legal, documented trail can lead to the prevention of these dogs from causing harm to other dogs, to people, and to themselves.

I have many clients that own dogs who are considered ‘dog aggressive’, ‘fear aggressive’, ‘approach slowly’, etc.  And there are steps that can be taken to address all of these categories and more - there are behaviorists and trainers, there are over the counter treatments for anxiety as well as prescription medications.  But the biggest thing that my clients who own these dogs have in their favor?  Awareness.  They don’t bring their ‘dog aggressive’ dog to the park, or if they do it’s at a low traffic time and they are aware of any other dog that approaches.  Owners of ‘fear aggressive’ dogs don’t take them for a walk when school is letting out (kids can be *terrifying*!), and they know that these dogs will be more on edge on garbage day.  And they don’t leave the front door open, with just a screen between their dog and the neighborhood.  These owners are not the people that dangerous dog laws are targeting, because these owners are aware of their dog, working with their dog, and they keep them away from situations that would get them into trouble.  

So, what do we do when a one-sided dog fight occurs? Or a person is bitten or attacked by a dog?  Call 911.  I know it may sound extreme, but the police are the first line of the record keeping process.  You *have* to file a police report.  If it is a first time offense, it is possible that the only thing that will happen is that the report will be filed.  But if it is a known dangerous dog, the fines and citations will begin, and hopefully the owner of the dog will take measures to prevent further incidents from happening.  Even if you do not have a person or address attached to the dog, file the report.  And, while I hate to say this, not every police officer believes that this is their responsibility; they may brush you off, or say there really isn’t anything they can do, or to call Animal Control.  They are wrong, and you should insist on having the police report filed.  

I realize that the last thing anyone wants to do after going through a traumatic experience, either for their dog or for themselves, is to sit around to wait for a cop and then fill out paperwork.  But it is so important to have documentation, so that repeat offenses will stop happening.  What you or your dog are going through at that moment could have happened a dozen times before - if everyone had reported it, you might not be in that situation, and you have the chance to help prevent it from happening again.

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