Meadville Tribune

August 10, 2013

SUNDAY ISSUE: Dangerous dogs

By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

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.



Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.



By John Finnerty

CNHI News Service

HARRISBURG — Experts agree that irresponsible owners are at the heart of problems with dangerous dogs, but they are divided about what ought to be done to decrease dog attacks.

On one side, some argue that the state’s dangerous dog law needs to be beefed up with breed-specific legislation. On the other side, there are advocates who say state and local law enforcement just need to do a better job enforcing the law.

The state’s management of the dangerous dog problem is significant not only to those who have the misfortune to cross paths with an overly-aggressive animal. A generally overlooked problem when it comes to dog attacks is that in many cases, the dog owners are poor renters without insurance, said Thomas Newell, a personal injury attorney who specializes in dog attack injuries. As a result, victims and their insurance companies have little recourse to recoup medical costs. In most of those cases, the victims are poor children who received government-funded medical insurance. That means taxpayers end up footing the bill for the medical costs.

On average, each dog bite insurance claim cost $27,272 in Pennsylvania last year, according to insurance industry data. But Newell pointed to cases in which he represented clients in which the medical bills reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dog wardens are already over-worked, with several of them being asked to cover more than one county, Newell said. He believes a good approach would be to force owners of dogs in breeds with a propensity for aggression — Rottweilers and pit bulls — to get liability insurance.

That idea doesn’t sit well with those who have devoted their lives to rescuing pit bulls and trying to reclaim the breed’s image.

Sylvia Hock, who runs AKM Legacy Pit Bull Rescue in Bloomsburg, said that even dogs that have been abused or used in dog-fighting can be reformed into loving animals.

Hock said that when she takes her pit bull to the pet store, people tell her she ought to be ashamed of herself for keeping a dangerous dog while she has children.

“A pit bull is born to please and will do anything you ask of them, this is why they are mainly used as fighting dogs or protectors,” Hock said. “I have ones who come from abused situations and one who was even used as a bait dog.”

Hock said that one strategy that might be worth considering would be to require all owners of pit bulls to get their dogs spayed or neutered after they reach a certain age. Hock said she would support this approach to cope with the dramatic over-population of pit bulls.

“I say this as so many die in shelters, and so many after the age of 1 get dumped off,” she said. “(They are) no longer the cute pit bull puppy they bought months before.”

Daisy Balawejder, founder and president of Hello Bully, a pit bull rescue in Pittsburgh, said she believes Pennsylvania’s dangerous dog laws are sufficient.

Newell and Balawejder agree on the circumstances that are often at play in dog attacks: typically, the dogs have not been neutered, are not family pets and have not been properly socialized.

“That’s a big problem,” she said.

But, if the underlying problem is that the people who own dogs are irresponsible, creating new laws for them to ignore is not a realistic solution, Balawejder said.

Balawejder said that pit bulls are responsible for many dog attacks, but that is a consequence of how popular the breed has become, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods. Her rescue has begun a spay and neuter program to try to tackle some of the overpopulation concerns.

Balawejder said that concerns about pit bulls are aggravated because in cases of dog attacks, there is often confusion about what type of dog is involved and there are cases where the breed is inaccurately described as being a pit bull. She pointed to a recent dog attack in Canonsburg where some reports described the dog as a bulldog and other accounts described him as a pit bull. Regardless of the breed, when the dog attacked a Dachshund, it was the second time the dog had reportedly attacked another dog. It is cases like that, which demonstrate that the system is failing, not because there are not appropriate laws in place, but because people are not using the existing laws, Balaweijder said. The current dangerous dog law covers attacks on other animals as long as the dog is out of its owner’s yard.



Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.



Charts

The state Department of Health does not keep track of how many people seek medical attention due to dog bites each year, an agency spokeswoman said. The insurance industry does though. According to Allstate, Pennsylvania had 165 claims for bites in 2012, the fifth-highest number in the nation.

Insurance companies paid out $4.5 million for dog bites in Pennsylvania, an average of $27,272 per dog bite.

Dog bites by county    2012    2013

Crawford    43    15

Mercer    6    13

Statewide    1,161    633

Source: Department of Agriculture. Note: Data only includes incidents handled by state dog wardens and does not include attacks investigated by local police or local animal control officers.



Pennsylvania Dangerous Dog Registry

A dangerous dog is one that has attacked, inflicted severe injury to, or killed a human being or a domestic animal without provocation while off an owner’s property. A dog is also considered dangerous if it was involved in committing a crime. It is unlawful for an owner or keeper of a dangerous dog to permit the dog to be outside the proper enclosure unless the dog is muzzled and restrained by a substantial chain or leash and under physical restraint of a responsible person. The muzzle shall be made in a manner that will not cause injury to the dog or interfere with its vision or respiration, but shall prevent it from biting any person or animal or from destroying property with its teeth.

Dangerous dogs by county:

Allegheny County: 7 (most in state).

Armstrong: 5

Chester: 5

Lancaster: 5

Northampton: 5

York: 5

Bucks: 5

Delaware: 5

Lehigh: 3

Westmoreland: 3

Butler: 2

Clearfield: 2

Mifflin: 2

Monroe: 2

Counties with one dangerous dog: Adams, Beaver, Berks, Blair, Bradford, Columbia, Cumberland, Dauphin, Erie, Jefferson, Lackawanna, Lycoming, McKean, Montgomery, Perry, Schuylkill, Venango, Warren, Wayne.

Source: State Department of Agriculture.

Note: If a county is not listed above, it has no registered dangerous dogs.