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Published: Monday, 5/5/2014

STATE OF OHIO

Vicious-dog laws under scrutiny by legislators

Fatal mauling in Dayton sparks debate

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Twenty-seven years ago, the mauling of a Dayton surgeon by two dogs led to a sudden legislative push to automatically brand the pit bull a “vicious dog” by virtue of its existence.

Now, just as a new law that undid that breed-specific legislation and created a whole new system for classifying dogs by behavior is taking hold, another fatal mauling in Dayton has led to a push to review the law.

“In light of this tragedy, it makes sense to look at the thing again,” said state Sen. Bill Beagle (R., Tipp City). With Rep. Roland Winburn (D., Dayton), he recently led a meeting in Dayton with dog wardens, prosecutors, sheriffs, and animal-rights activists to brainstorm potential solutions.

“They say that some legislation takes time to work, but you have different counties identifying dangerous dogs at very different rates,” Mr. Beagle said.

There is no talk of restoring Ohio's breed-specific law that automatically deemed a “pit bull” a dangerous dog.

Klonda Richey, 57, was killed on Feb. 7 outside her home by her neighbors’ two mixed mastiffs, despite repeated complaints made to authorities about the dogs. The dogs were shot to death at the scene. A grand jury will decide whether to criminally charge their owners.

Current law that went into effect in May, 2012, created three classifications of dogs that can trigger certain requirements on the part of their owners — such things as special licensing, signage, neutering, insurance, fencing, restraint, and mandatory microchips.

Failure to follow the law can lead to criminal charges ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.

The three classifications are:

● “Vicious dog,” one that has, without provocation, killed or seriously injured a person. Failure to follow confinement restrictions can climb to a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in jail for the owner, and the mandatory killing of the dog if it kills someone.

● “Dangerous dog,” one that has, without provocation, injured a person, killed another dog, or is a three-time offender as a nuisance dog. Owners can face a third-degree misdemeanor, carrying up to 60 days in jail, and the potential death of the dog.

● “Nuisance dog,” one that has, while off its owner’s property and without provocation, menacingly approached or attempted to bite a person. The highest penalty would be a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum of 30 days in jail.

But the dogs that attacked Ms. Richey had never been classified.

“From my understanding of the facts, the problem with the dogs not being labeled is that they were not observed first hand,” Mr. Beagle said. “There were a lot of complaints about mistreated dogs, wandering dogs, noisy dogs. That’s not the same as ‘This dog bit me’… Sometimes they were trying to help the dog.

“We’re trying to strike a balance to give the authorities the power to take action without opening the flood gates of people misusing a process,” he said.

Among the issues looked at during the recent meeting were greater penalties for problem dog owners, better information sharing between dog wardens and law enforcement, and better training for responding to dog situations.

Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), who sponsored the 2012 law eliminating the breed-specific vicious dog label and creating the new classifications, agreed that reopening the law “is the right thing to do.”

“The woman repeatedly tried to get a restraining order, but nobody had actually seen anything,” she said. “There was no documented proof. I get that. … Whenever we pass legislation, we always have some tweaking to do after the fact.”

Her office has given Mr. Beagle a draft of a proposed amendment that would allow local law enforcement to petition a court to have the owner of a companion animal declared a “problem pet owner.” It could also lead to the impoundment of the animal if it is determined to be for the safety of the public or the animal itself.

Dog laws can be among the hardest to pass in Columbus because emotions can run high on both sides.

“We’re trying to tamp down expectations about what the legislature can do,” Mr. Beagle said. “There is a public outcry for action on somebody’s part. Something happened in Dayton, and we don’t want it to happen again. The situation this woman went through, it’s hard to understand why it went as far as it did.

“On the flip side, we keep running into issues of enforceability,” he said. “Who has the power do to things, and how much weight do you give a complaint versus what officers observe? A lot of behaviors weren’t observed first-hand. If you relax that, will people use the dog [complaint process] to irritate the neighbor?”

Sandusky County Dog Warden John Glass attended the recent meeting in Dayton. He said the classification law had problems before the Dayton incident, including the fact that it doesn’t specify the type of signage warning of dangerous dogs.

It also doesn’t set time limits for owners to comply with the confinement requirements once their dogs are classified. Better communication between local law enforcement and dog wardens could have also helped in the Dayton case where numerous phone complaints had been made, he said.

“The problem with a lot of those complaints, from what I understand, is that they were anonymous,” he said. “The constitution says you have a right to confront your accuser. With anonymous complaints, who do you bring in to testify? If people are willing to sign a complaint, then a dog warden can take action.”

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



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