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Published: Thursday, 3/11/2010

Dog law should focus on owners, lawyer tells panel

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

An Illinois lawyer for a nonprofit animal-welfare group advised Toledo and Lucas County officials yesterday to target irresponsible dog owners rather than the dogs when drafting a new law.

"You need to prevent these people - these reckless dog owners - from owning a dog because if you take one dog away, they are just going to get another," said Ledy VanKavage.

A lawyer for the Best Friends Animal Society, Ms. VanKavage gave a presentation to a joint meeting of the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee and Toledo City Council's public safety committee.

The advisory committee agreed last month at the request of Mayor Mike Bell to examine and suggest changes to Toledo's vicious dog law, which puts additional restrictions on "pit bulls" and "pit-bull"- mixed dogs in the city.

Ms. VanKavage said states and municipalities over the years have in the past targeted German shepherds, then Rottweilers, then Dobermans, and now "pit bulls."

She advised the city to avoid canine profiling, to prohibit or limit dog owners from chaining their dogs outside, and to consider higher licensing fees for dogs that are not spayed or neutered.

Steve Serchuk, chairman of the dog warden advisory committee, said their proposed legislation for the city would deal with reckless owners and chaining.

"Chaining is one of the influences that makes a dog more aggressive," he said. "We are going to get substandard owners. We are going to get those reckless owners. We are going to fine them, and we are going to have criminal charges for them."

Mr. Serchuk said the panel would not consider higher licensing fees for dogs that are not spayed or neutered.

Toledo Councilman D. Michael Collins, chairman of the public safety committee, agreed that irresponsible dog owners should be targeted in the law but said it would be difficult to enforce a law that prohibits people from owning a dog should they be found guilty on a dog-related charge.

A January opinion by Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michael Goulding found the law's restrictions conflict with home-rule doctrine, as its requirements go beyond state law. The city since has instructed the county dog warden to stop enforcing the vicious-dogs law while city attorneys appeal the judge's ruling for its interpretation of home-rule doctrine.

Steve Herwat, Toledo's deputy mayor of operations, asked the panel to review the law, though he said the city is confident it will win its appeal. The fallback option would be to pass a local ordinance that would parrot the state law on vicious dogs.

Toledo's vicious-dogs law restricts city residents to just one "pit bull" or "pit-bull"-mix and requires owners to have their animal leashed and muzzled when off their property. Violation is a misdemeanor offense.

Judge Goulding noted in his opinion that while Ohio law singles out "pit bulls" as inherently vicious, it does not set muzzling or ownership number restrictions as does the city law, or lump certain mixed-breed dogs with "pit bulls."

A "pit bull" is a generic descriptive term for a dog trained to fight and may refer to multiple breeds, including the American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American "pit bull" terrier.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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