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Published: 2/9/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

House axes 25-year-old 'pit bull' law

Breed no longer will be singled out as 'vicious'

BY JIM PROVANCE AND TANYA IRWIN
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle, with a 'pit bull,' said the law will affect the pound in a lot of ways. Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle, with a 'pit bull,' said the law will affect the pound in a lot of ways.
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COLUMBUS -- A bill eliminating a 25-year-old Ohio law automatically declaring the "pit bull" to be an inherently vicious dog was overwhelmingly approved by the state House Wednesday and is headed for Gov. John Kasich's signature.

The chamber voted 67-30 to give final approval to House Bill 14 and send it on to the governor, whose office had worked on amendments to the bill in its final stages.

"Today, we have an opportunity to finally be the last state to eliminate our discrimination of breed-specific dogs," said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), the bill's sponsor. "We can join the other 49 states and virtually every other country in the world in eliminating our breed-specific language."

Ohio's law was enacted in 1987 and no other state has passed such a law or any other discrimination against a "pit bull." But some individual communities nationwide do have regulations regarding dog ownership.

Current Ohio law defines a "vicious dog" as one that, without provocation, has seriously injured a person, killed another dog, or belongs to the general breed of "pit bull."

Such a designation triggers additional liability insurance, restraint, and other requirements, and increases the chances that a "pit bull" could be euthanized if it is picked up on the street.

In addition to dropping any reference to a specific breed of dog from the law, House Bill 14 would redefine current designations of "vicious" and "dangerous" dog, create a third lesser category of "nuisance" dog, create a process for dog owners to appeal law enforcement's labeling of their dogs, and place the burden to prove the classification by clear and convincing evidence on the dog warden.

Ohio's dog law -- and the movement to rework it -- has attracted attention from across the nation.

PROPOSED NEW DOG CLASSIFICATIONS:

Vicious dog: Has, without provocation, seriously injured a person.

Dangerous dog: Has, without provocation, injured a person, killed another dog, or is a three-time offender as a nuisance dog.

Nuisance dog: Has, while off its owner's property and without provocation, menacingly approached or attempted to bite a person.

'A great win'

Ed Thomason, vice president of the American Staffordshire Terrier Club of America, said the change in law is "a great win."

"Within the American Staffordshire Terrier Club, we are very excited to have won Ohio back," Mr. Thomason said. "We have a lot of members in Ohio who I'm sure are breathing a sigh of relief tonight. Today, we can celebrate."

One problem with breed specific legislation is that many dogs are mislabeled as "pit bulls" when they are actually some other breed with similar physical characteristics, Mr. Thomason said. "Breed specific legislation doesn't work for any kind of dog laws," he said. "It only gets [irresponsible owners] to move to another breed."

Michael Davis, president of the National American Pit Bull Terrier Association, said he was happy to hear that Ohio would no longer would be trying to enforce what he called an ineffective law.

"If breed specific legislation worked, you would no longer have dogfighting," he said. He equated breed specific laws to racial "profiling," which is the use of an individual's race or ethnicity by law enforcement as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement.

Judge behavior

"If 'pit bulls' were so bad, animal shelter and pound workers would have to wear Kevlar suits because so many of the dogs they deal with are 'pit bulls,' " Mr. Davis said. "No dog comes like Rin Tin Tin or Lassie. You have to teach them."

Supporters of the new law have argued that the current rule puts law enforcement in the position of judging a dog by its appearance rather than by its behavior. No one spoke in opposition to the bill on the floor, but it drew "no" votes from a broad spectrum of Democratic, Republican, urban, suburban, and rural lawmakers.

The sole negative vote from northwest Ohio came from Rep. Bruce Goodwin (R., Defiance), who objected to increases in fees for dog tag replacements and certificate of dog ownership transfers from 25 cents to $5. Those increases were one reason the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association agreed to get on board after years of opposing similar bills.

"My other objection is I am not convinced that a 'pit bull' is a safe animal to have around," Mr. Goodwin said. "I understand all the arguments from all these organizations, but I still have a fear that a 'pit bull' has a characteristic that we need to protect our kids from…

"The 'pit bull' has the distinction or characteristic that, when they grab on, they don't let go," Mr. Goodwin said. "You can say all you want about all these other breeds, but 'pit bulls' are the choice for drug dealers and other bad folks for a reason."

Will save dogs

Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) said the bill should prevent dogs that look like a "pit bull" from being impounded and killed.

"When this bill becomes law, dogs of all breeds, including 'pit bulls,' can and still will be considered vicious or dangerous if they demonstrate certain propensities…," Mr. Szollosi said. "It's time -- we've seen it in Toledo -- to eliminate the breed-specific designation because dogs should be deemed vicious based on their conduct as opposed to an oftentimes inaccurate stereotype associated with a particular breed."

Former Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon called the proposed new law "absolutely ridiculous" and "a step backwards." He said it would be "impossible to enforce. And that's exactly what vicious dog owners want."

Mr. Skeldon became the county's dog warden in 1987 and was instrumental in helping to craft the so-called breed-specific law in which "pit bulls" were named as inherently dangerous.

In the years previous to the law, there were several "pit bull" attacks in Ohio that led to deaths, but after the law the number declined significantly, he said.

"It was a very successful law. And now that law is gone largely because of your editor," Mr. Skeldon said, referring to John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade. "It shows an amazing reach of power."

"If The Blade influenced this change, I am personally proud,'' Mr. Block said. "The statute was used as the excuse for killing a lot of gentle dogs because they were arbitrarily called 'pit bulls.' "

"Pit bulls" are the "dog of choice" for gang members and drug dealers, Mr. Skeldon said, and naming them specifically as a dangerous dog gave police officers a way to question their owners.

"Locally, Toledo has a real problem with gangs, and [police] used to use that law to help control the streets of Toledo," he said. "It used to be if someone was out walking two or three 'pit bulls,' they were inviting the police to shake them down. Now, they can walk 10 'pit bulls' and the police can't stop them because they don't have probable cause. You can hide drugs, but it's pretty hard to hide a 'pit bull.' "

If signed into law, House Bill 14 would not wipe out existing dog ordinances in home-rule communities.

John Dinon, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society, applauded the vote.

"We feel that this is not only more fair to the dogs, but also makes our state safer since the new law gives dog wardens tools to go after dangerous dogs of all breeds," he said.

Removing "pit bulls" from the law would seem to open the door to allowing the Lucas County Dog Warden to directly adopt out the breed. Currently, the pound transfers "pit bulls" that have passed behavior temperament testing to the Toledo Area Humane Society.

In 2011, they transferred 91 "pit bulls," which were either adopted out through the humane society or transferred to the Lucas County Pit Crew, which specializes in the breed.

The pound recently changed its policy of only transferring "pit bulls" to groups that have shelter facilities and now will work directly with rescue groups such as the Pit Crew, which rely on private foster homes to house the dogs until they are adopted.

About 40 percent of the dogs the pound takes in are "pit bulls," and 44 percent of all on-the-road intakes are "pit bulls."

Adoptions uncertain

When asked if they would stop killing adoptable "pit bulls" because of the Statehouse action, Lucas County Board of Commissioners Chairman Pete Gerken and Lucas County Dog Warden Julie Lyle hedged their answers.

They said they could not specify when the pound will start adopting out "pit bulls" directly to the public, instead of transferring them to the Humane Society.

"More than likely changes will appear by the time the bill goes into law" 90 days after the governor signs it, Ms. Lyle said. "It's a policy we are looking at and working on, but I don't have anything to announce right now."

Ms. Lyle said the law will affect the pound's operations in a lot of ways beyond the potential direct adoption of "pit bulls."

"It's going to affect the way we cite people, what we cite for," she says. "I think the new law is going to be a good thing. It's going to result in the residents of Lucas County being safer."

Under the new law, deputy dog wardens will be able to declare dogs as dangerous in three different categories, despite their breed. "Right now we don't have that ability because there's no due process in the current law," Ms. Lyle said.

Mr. Gerken said the board would meet with Ms. Lyle this week to work on the dog warden's policy regarding "pit bulls." The county will follow the law once it goes into effect, but he pointed out that there's nothing in the law that states the pound must put "pit bulls" up for adoption.

"We have been moving 'pit bulls' more quickly out of the pound through rescue groups and the humane society," he said. "The rescue groups are one of the best ways to do that" because the pound has set up criteria that they must meet before they take a 'pit bull,' he said. "But we haven't ruled anything out."

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



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