HARRISBURG — 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.