COLUMBUS -- Ohio’s distinction as the sole state in the nation to automatically label the “pit bull” a vicious dog may be about to come to an end.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted Tuesday to send the bill to the full Senate. It could reach the Senate floor as soon as next week.
Current law defines a “vicious dog” as one that, without provocation, has seriously injured a person, has killed another dog, or is of the general breed known as “pit bull.” Among numerous other changes, the bill drops the reference to “pit bull” from that definition.
Robin Lawson of Shreve, a volunteer tester of therapy dogs and their handlers, told the committee that she was surprised by the results of a DNA test of her own Rosie, a trained therapy dog that bears the strong jawed, muscular features often associated with the American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier, breeds commonly referred to as “pit bulls.”
“I wanted to find out what kind of dogs are in Rosie’s genetic makeup, so I chose to use the most extensive and accurate test on the market,’’ she said. “I was sure I knew what the results would be. When I got the results, I was totally wrong. I learned my lesson about being able to identify a dog’s breed by appearance alone.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 69-29 last spring. It has faced some opposition from lawmakers from urban areas who have had problems with “pit bulls” being used to guard drug dens and for dog fighting.
Prior attempts to simply drop references to the “pit bull” from Ohio’s 25-year-old vicious dog law ran into a wall with county dog wardens.
But this time the bill’s broader approach of redefining dog classifications, creating a legal process for dog owners to challenge those classifications, and hiking registration and other fees have brought the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association on board.
Support for the law among dog wardens has not been unanimous, however.
House Bill 14 would limit “vicious dog” strictly to one that has seriously injured a person. It is expected that such an animal would be confiscated and euthanized.
The bill also redefines the lesser classification of “dangerous dog” to apply to one that, without provocation, has caused some injury to a person, killed another dog, or is a three-time offender under a new minimum classification of “nuisance dog.”
A nuisance dog would be one that, without provocation and while off the premises of its keeper, has chased, menacingly approached, or attempted to bite a person.
Supporters of the bill argue that this would put problem dogs on the radar screen of dog wardens earlier. But opponents say that, in the case of the “pit bull,” the dog will likely have already injured someone before it is upgraded to “dangerous dog” and the owners are forced to obtain liability insurance.
Owners of dangerous dogs must have proof of such coverage; register with the county auditor at a cost of $50; affix a tag identifying the dog as dangerous; notify the local dog warden whenever the animal gets loose, bites a person or another animal while off the owner’s property or a nontrespasser on the owner’s property, and notify the dog warden of the transfer of ownership or death of the dog.
Before sending the bill to the floor, the committee amended it to make it clear that the burden of proof when classifying a dog is on the dog warden, not the dog owner.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), also made a last-minute change at the request of Gov. John Kasich’s office, which is preparing legislation to reduce what it sees as barriers to those convicted of crimes putting their lives back together after paying their dues.
“One of the concerns that they had brought up with this bill was the fact that there was a 10-year prohibition for felons’ possession of [certain dogs],” he said. “This reduces that collateral sanction down to three after release.”
Another amendment was designed to make it clear that this prohibition would not apply to prison inmates involved in dog-training programs.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.