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House bill attacks biting dogs, not breeds

Ohio proposal has support of wardens, animal-rights groups

  • Jean-Keating

    Jean Keating

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Jean Keating

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COLUMBUS -- Dog wardens and animal-rights supporters joined forces Wednesday to promote a bill they said will provide tools to battle dogs that bite, rather than automatically declare a dog vicious because of its breed.

A House committee Wednesday rewrote a bill that started out as just the removal of the "pit bull" from state law as the only breed inherently deemed vicious. The bill now includes three classifications of dogs -- vicious, dangerous, and nuisance -- that its supporters say will make it easier for wardens to criminally go after owners for their dogs' behavior.

"It's just like two-legged folks," said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Towsnship), the bill's sponsor. "We're not assigned as one thing or the other until we've actually done something." She said she expects the bill to clear the full House before the General Assembly recesses for the summer before the end of June. That would shift the focus to the Senate, where a "pit bull" bill died last session.

As rewritten, the bill creates a classification of "nuisance dog," one that, without provocation and while off its owners' property, chases, menaces, threatens, or attempts to bite any person. Each violation could lead to a misdemeanor citation against the owner, creating a record.

The current definition of "dangerous dog" would be changed to one that has caused some injury to a person, killed another dog, or racked up three violations as a nuisance dog, regardless of whether there's ever been a bite. This would trigger requirements that the owner register that dog, purchase liability insurance for it, and affix a special tag to its collar.

The owner would have to notify the dog warden if the dog gets loose, bites someone or attacks an animal while off its property, or is sold, given away, or dies. As a condition for registering the dog, the owner must, among other things, prove that the animal has been microchipped for identification.

Since 1987, state law has defined a vicious dog as one that, without provocation, has killed or seriously injured a person, has killed another dog, or is of the general breed known as a "pit bull."

The bill drops the last two categories and defines "serious injury" to include one that carries risk of death, permanent incapacity, permanent and temporarily serious disfigurement, or prolonged pain and suffering. A dog warden said Wednesday that a dog that meets these criteria would most likely be euthanized.

Violations involving dangerous dogs would face misdemeanor charges while those involving vicious dogs could face felony charges.

The bill, if passed, would not overturn dog enforcement ordinances enacted in home-rule cities such as Toledo.

To make her point that "pit bulls" are not inherently vicious, Jean Keating, co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, brought into the hearing room a 1 1/2-year-old American Staffordshire terrier named Wendy that is being trained as a service dog for an 8-year-old child.

She said the training is in Michigan, because "current law doesn't allow me to take the leash and hand it over to a child and let go," she said.

Even with these changes, Rep. W. Carlton Weddington (D., Columbus), a committee member, said he isn't convinced that this addresses the problem of dogs commonly referred to as "pit bulls" that are being used as guard dogs for drug dens.

"If a dog reaches a status of vicious … then I don't want you to put a collar on it," he said. "I don't want that dog around at all. I'm concerned that we're going to put another restriction on that dog, knowing that that dog is what we said it was. It's vicious. It's dangerous. If it's already committed a crime such as killing a person at worse or an animal, then I don't want it to be in the neighborhood."

Some members of the committee found the classifications complex.

Rep. Danny Bubp (R., West Union) described being attacked and severely bitten by a German shepherd while he was running in a rural area of his district. The owners had the dog euthanized.

"I don't know where that dog that came across the road and attacked me would be in there," he said.

At one point, the Ohio Dog Wardens Association had opposed attempts to remove the "pit bull" as the only breed inherently considered vicious under state law. It now supports the bill and said it sees it as an opportunity to address constitutional holes poked into current law by the courts due to due-process issues.

"Is this going to help every single bite? No," said Matt Granito, association president and Geauga County dog warden. "But what I think it's going to do is every owner of a dog will be on record. … If this dog bites someone, you could end up losing your dog and going to jail. It puts the onus on the owner. Protect yourself and protect the public."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.

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