Features February 2004 Issue

Be Alert and Avoid a Potential Dog Attack - Never Ignore an Aggresive Dog

What you should do if you have a run-in with a dangerous dog.

by Pat Miller

At the end of November 2003, a 40-year-old woman in a small ranching community southeast of Denver, Colorado, was killed by a pack of three dogs belonging to a neighbor. What made the gruesome event more shocking was the news that the dogs responsible for the attack were well known for roaming free in the community and threatening the safety of residents. In fact, the pack reportedly had also seriously injured a neighbor of the dead woman the previous April.

Maybe we’re just paying more attention since the infamous fatal mauling of Diane Whipple outside her apartment door in San Francisco. But it seems like we are increasingly hearing about serious and fatal dog attacks where a subsequent investigation determines that the attacking dogs had been an identified problem in their communities for some time.

“I’ve been an expert witness in two fatal dog bite cases, one in Wyoming and one in Kansas,” said Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., a Denver-based, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, in the December 2003 issue of Animal Behavior Associates e-zine. “There were breakdowns in both situations where interventions should have been done, but weren’t. Both were accidents waiting to happen,” Dr. Hetts said.

The news reports on the recent Colorado tragedy contained similar quotes, such as, “The people in the area had their own sort of emergency phone network to warn each other if the dogs were loose before they would go out,” said Fire Chief Dale Goetz.

And, of course, following the death of Diane Whipple in January 2001, dozens of people – including neighbors, postal carriers, delivery persons, and other dog owners from the neighborhood, testified in court about numerous occasions when the two dogs that killed Whipple had threatened them. None of those incidents were reported to animal control or police.

“The Whipple case underscores the community’s obligation to report dangerous dogs to animal control authorities,” said Los Angeles lawyer Kenneth Phillips, a national expert on dog bite law who runs a Web site, www.dogbitelaw.com.

Responsible dog neighborship
There are many reasons a person might tend to look the other way when confronted with a potentially dangerous dog. You may be busy; you may be fearful of the dog’s owner or potential retaliation; you may be friends with the owner and reluctant to cause hard feelings between you; you may worry about being responsible for the dog’s impoundment and possible euthanasia; or you may simply feel that it’s none of your business.

The thing is, it is your business if the dog lives, plays, or wanders in your community. It could be a member of your family – human or animal – that gets killed by the dangerous dog. And even if the next victim is not someone near and dear to you, how would you feel if the dog finally mauls someone and you had done nothing of substance to prevent the attack, even though you recognized that the dog presented a threat?

Loose cannons
The following are suggestions for action if you are aware of a potential problem dog that roams your neighborhood:

1. Talk to the dog’s owner (if the owner is known). Be friendly, nonthreatening, tactful, and educational. Try something like: “You may not realize this, but when your dog roams the neighborhood he acts a little (or a lot) aggressive. He probably is very loving at home, but he chased my son on his scooter and grabbed his pants. I wonder if there’s something you could do to keep him more securely confined to your yard.”

2. Follow up your first visit quickly with another friendly one if the owner seemed receptive to your concerns but the dog continues to roam. This time you might offer some suggestions: “We talked the other day about your dog, and you seemed to understand my concerns, but he’s still getting loose. If you are having a problem keeping him contained, perhaps I can help.” If it’s a confinement problem, you can offer suggestions for keeping the dog at home, such as an overhead runner if there’s no fenced yard, or repairing an aging fence. You can also call the owner and politely ask him to come get the dog every time you see him loose. Document everything you do, for possible future use as evidence if needed.

3. It’s time to call the animal control authorities. If the owner was friendly on the second visit but fails to follow through on your suggestions, there’s probably no point in a third visit; similarly, there is probably no point in a second visit if the owner was not friendly or receptive the first time.

Be prepared to identify yourself; many agencies won’t act on anonymous complaints. Be specific in your information: give the name and address of the owner, a description of the dog, and dates, times, and detailed descriptions of any incidents that have occurred. It’s even better if you have photos or video of the dog acting in a threatening manner. You can also advise them of the owner’s schedule, if you know it, so they don’t make wasted trips to the owner’s home.

Ask the agency how long it might take for them to contact the dog owner, and to let you know when your complaint has been handled, and how.

If the person you speak to at the agency seems receptive to your complaint, you’ll need to wait a reasonable period – a week is good – for the complaint to be handled. Meanwhile, every time you see the dog at large, call them so they can (at least) put the reports on the record, and (better yet) patrol for him if they have adequate staff.

4. Ask to speak to a supervisor if the person you speak to does not seem receptive; tells you the agents don’t go out on such complaints; says your complaint is a low priority and could take several weeks; or if the person seemed receptive but a week goes by and no action has been taken.

Politely explain the situation to the supervisor, emphasizing your concerns about the dog’s potential to injure someone. Try to extract a commitment that the complaint will be handled within a specific time frame.

5. Step up the ladder. If the supervisor appears unsympathetic, or time passes and the complaint still has not been handled, ask to speak to that person’s supervisor. Continue to move up the administrative ladder until you reach the top. For a private, nonprofit humane society the top is likely to be the executive director, then the board of directors. For a municipal agency, it’s probably a director, followed by one or two layers of city or county administration, and then your elected representative – a city councilperson or county commissioner.

Meanwhile, you (or your fellow concerned neighbors) should still file a report every time you see the dog is loose.

6. It’s time to go to the media if you reach the top of the animal control administration and still haven’t gotten resolution. Let administrators know that you’re going public with your concerns; this may spur them into action. Sometimes a well-placed call or articulate letter to a local television station or newspaper reporter can pressure a lazy or ineffective agency into taking action.

7. Ensure your own safety until you start to see some fruits of your labors. A neighborhood watch system that alerts the community when the dangerous dog is loose is a good idea.

Also consider the very real possibility that you may need to defend yourself from a serious attack. This could involve the carrying and/or strategic placement of mace sprays, golf clubs, or other weapons, in easily accessible places so that one is always within reach if needed. While we would never advocate abusing an animal, there may come a time when physical violence against a dog is required to save a life.

If all goes well, the dog’s owners will be forced to become more responsible for their dog, or lose the privilege of owning him. Yes, the dog may be impounded and even euthanized if his owners refuse to take appropriate steps to confine him, but that’s their responsibility and guilt, not yours.

Dangerous dogs on leash
Of course, not all dangerous dogs are roaming free. Take the infamous Presa Canarios in San Francisco, for example, who terrorized many people in their community while on leash and ostensibly under the owner’s control. What do you do if you are walking down the street and a dog lunges aggressively toward you? Or if you and your dog are at a dog park and you see a dog whose behavior is threatening the safety of other park users?

You need to file a report with the appropriate authorities – the police, sheriff, animal control department, or whatever agency handles dangerous dog reports in your community.

To file a report, you’ll need to give authorities as much information as possible about the event, the problem dog, and his owner. You can politely ask the owner for his name and address, but depending on the circumstances, you may not get it.

In these situations, unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s probably not realistic to expect even the most efficient animal control or police officer to arrive in time to apprehend the culprit, even if you immediately call to report it.

In these and other “dog-with-owner” scenarios there’s a good chance that you are near either the dog owner’s home or his car. Try following discreetly at a distance and getting a license plate number, or a street address when the offenders arrive at their destination. If you have a camera handy, take a picture to provide for positive identification of the dog and his handler later.

You can also ask other witnesses if they are familiar with the dog and owner; the culprits may be well-known for previous misdeeds. While you’re at it, get those witnesses’ names and contact information, and add this information when you call the appropriate authorities to file a report.

Even if you are unable to provide the identity of the dog and person in question, call the appropriate authorities and give them a complete description of the offending parties. The officials may recognize the offenders from your description or photo. If not, they may be able to identify the dog and handler later if there are future incidents.

Be a legal Beagle
You may be told that there are no laws to address your concerns. If so, you’ll need to either do some legal research yourself, or ask an attorney for help. First, ask the animal control agency to send you a copy of the local animal control ordinance. Read it for yourself, to see if you agree that existing law offers no relief from the threat of dangerous animals.

If you believe that it does have relevant provisions, make an appointment with your district attorney, and ask for his interpretation of the local ordinance. If he agrees with you, get his opinion in writing and ask him to notify animal control that the law provides for them to deal with the dangerous dog, and encourage them to do so.

If you agree that the ordinance is too weak, or your D.A. tells you it doesn’t apply to your local dangerous dog, ask about any dangerous dog laws at the state level that could be enforced locally. If authorities in Colorado had filed charges against the owner of the loose dogs after their April attack, using the stronger state dangerous dog law rather than the weaker county ordinance, one death might have been prevented.

If you find an applicable state law, take it back through the chain of command, D.A. opinion in hand, and ask that it be enforced. Again, ask the D.A. to urge the appropriate agency to enforce it as well.

If there are no existing laws that deal effectively with dangerous dogs, it’s time to work with local authorities to create effective but fair animal control ordinances. Many jurisdictions have incorporated a definition for “potentially dangerous” to address dogs who present a threat but haven’t actually bitten, as well as a “dangerous dog” category for dogs who have committed more serious acts.

Kansas City is currently considering such a law, the provisions of which would require dogs deemed “potentially dangerous” to wear an orange collar and be muzzled and leashed when outside, and require their owners to carry added liability insurance.

A danger to other dogs
Make sure your ordinance language includes dogs who threaten and/or attack other animals, not just humans. Some communities’ existing laws address only dogs who attack people or livestock.

If your local or state laws don’t address dogs who attack other animal companions, start lobbying in your community for a new ordinance. Leave petitions to be signed at places where responsible dog owners congregate, such as groomers, veterinarians’ offices, and dog parks. Educate lawmakers to the fact that an aggressive dog poses an unacceptable risk to human and animal lives in the community.

If your community has laws providing for the control of dangerous dogs but the animal services department is not staffed or funded adequately to enable the officers to enforce the laws effectively, it’s time to mount a campaign to pressure your elected officials to make animal control a higher priority at budget time. The media can help here, too, if you feel that your requests and demands are falling on deaf ears.

Don’t do nothing
Please make a commitment to do something the next time you see a canine accident waiting to happen. If not all of the suggestions and strategies listed above appeal to you, select the ones that do, and enlist the assistance of family, friends, and neighbors to implement them. Some people need someone else to take the lead and help motivate them to become involved. If you do it, you, and those who join forces with you, will all sleep better at night, knowing that you are working to make your community safer for your loved ones.

 

Also With This Article
"What You Can Do..."
"What Does a Dangerous Dog Look Like?"
"A 'Must-Have' Book: Dog Law."

-Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, and past president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She is also the author of "The Power of Positive Dog Training" and the just-released book "Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog." See "Resources" for contact and purchasing information.

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