Meadville Tribune

State News

August 10, 2013

SUNDAY ISSUE: Dangerous dogs

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s much-ballyhooed 2009 revision to the dog law, which principally focused on cracking down on puppy mills, also included language spelling out how dogs can be deemed dangerous by district magistrates. But, investigators in the state Auditor General’s Office found, in practice, only a tiny fraction of the dogs involved in dog attacks in Pennsylvania end up on the dangerous dog registry.

Owners of dangerous dogs are supposed to pay a $500 annual fee and have conspicuous warning signs posted at their homes. Registered dangerous dog owners are required to have least $50,000 in liability insurance to cover any damage the dogs might cause. The law also indicates that the state has the right to conduct follow-up inspections to see if the dogs are being kept in appropriate enclosures. However, the law does not mandate those inspections.

Auditors found that almost one-quarter of the owners of state-registered dangerous dogs failed to get an annual license required as a condition of keeping the animals and that the dog law enforcement bureau had done nothing to crack down on the scofflaws.

“Department officials admitted to us that they have been lax in enforcing the dangerous dog requirements of the law,” according to the auditor’s report. “Furthermore, department officials admitted that its list of dangerous dogs is likely incomplete since it contains only 65 dogs statewide.”

Data provided by the Department of Agriculture shows state dog wardens responded to 1,100 dog attacks last year.

Thomas Newell, a personal injury attorney who specializes in dog bites, said the number of reports to state dog wardens are only the tip of the iceberg. Many dog attacks are investigated by police or local authorities. Pennsylvania does not require police to report dog bite complaints to the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.

Newell said that the stringent requirements for keeping dangerous dogs, plus the penalties if a registered dangerous dog ever attacks again, deter almost all owners from seeking to get animals placed on the registry.

Because of that, many dogs involved in attacks are euthanized, but the record-keeping about exactly how each case is resolved is not compiled by the state Department of Agriculture, said a spokeswoman.

State dog wardens contacted by the newspaper said that as state employees, they are barred from speaking to the media and referred questions to the Department of Agriculture offices in Harrisburg.

“Every situation is investigated. It’s case-by-case. We look at every case — (and consider) the extent of injuries and circumstances,” Agriculture spokeswoman Samantha Krepps said.

Asked to explain how the agency determines which of the dogs that bit people last year were truly dangerous, Krepps said dog law enforcement staff follow the state’s dangerous dog law, which says “if a dog attacks a person, the person (or anyone acting on his/her behalf), the state dog warden or a police officer may file a complaint with a magisterial district justice charging the owner or keeper with harboring a dangerous dog.”

But district judges contacted by the newspaper said they rarely get dog bite complaints and that most problems are resolved by the dog warden before they get to court.

District Justice Jeff Mensch, who serves western Union County, said he gets about one dog bite complaint a year. Mensch said he doesn’t think he has ever been asked to designate a dog as dangerous for the state registry. Data provided by the state confirms that — Union County is one of the 37 counties in Pennsylvania with zero dogs on the dangerous dog registry. There were 21 dog bites in Union County reported to the dog warden in 2012 and eight already this year, Department of Agriculture data shows.

There were 113 dog bites reported in Northumberland County in 2012, the second-highest total reported by any county. The data is skewed because the Department of Agriculture had virtually no reports of dog bites from the cities, with just one dog bite reported in Allegheny County and only two dog bites reported in Philadelphia.

Better record-keeping of all reports of dog bites, regardless of what agency receives the complaint, would help document what animals are known to be dangerous, Newell said. Currently, many complaints, particularly in cities, go to local police officers who feel they are too busy dealing with conventional crime to want to get bogged down in trying to prove that a dog is dangerous, Newell said.

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