Officials in Saginaw, Michigan have been working on ordinances purportedly aimed at dog owner responsibility. This could be a welcome change. The current version of Saginaw’s “Animals, Birds and Bees” ordinance, Section 94.04, falls within Saginaw’s “public nuisance” laws, and fails to address even the most basic issues, such as a leash law. One proposed ordinance is squarely aimed at owner responsibility, adding long overdue measures to Section 94.04.
First, Saginaw will add a leash law and prohibit tethering in most circumstances. Owners would be required to keep dogs on leash. Dogs could not be chained or tethered outside of the dogs’ “kennel, pen or fenced yard,” unless someone has physical control of a leash. An inanimate object such as a tree, post or building will not cut it. The requirement of physical control indicates that shock collars will not count in Saginaw. This is a great step – with the caveat that the law should be clarified to state that a dog cannot be chained or tethered even if the dog is on the owner’s property.
Second, all dogs would need to be securely confined indoors or in adequately lighted and ventilated kennels. If a dog is confined indoors, the dog would not be able to exit on the dog’s own volition. Presumably, that means no more doggie doors in Saginaw. And, thankfully, no more dogs left outside unattended.
Third, Saginaw residents would be limited to three dogs per household. This three-dog limit would not apply to animal care and control organizations, rescues, registered foster homes, and certain service dog and hunting dog breeders. Commercial breeders and brokers would be required to register with the City Clerk and obtain a business license.
Officials in Saginaw did not stop at overhauling Section 94.04. They are proposing a second ordinance targeting “dangerous dogs.” Unfortunately, this ordinance completely misses the mark and has virtually nothing to do with owner responsibility.
This ordinance will require the owners of “dangerous dogs” to register the dogs, and adhere to leash and confinement standards. The owners will also have to pay a $20 registration fee and obtain and display signs indicating the presence of a dangerous dog on their property. Failure to comply with the ordinance would result in civil fines.
The heart of problem is the proposed definition of a “dangerous dog” as any dog:
- with a propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of” people or companion animals; or
- that attacks, attempts to attack or that, by its actions, gives indication that it is liable to attack a human being or other domestic animal one or more times without provocation; or
- of a breed that appears consistently in the top five (5) of the breeds on credible, analytical listings of “Most Dangerous Dogs” as verified and supplemented by local data and records for Saginaw County, including mixes.
Saginaw has inexplicably chosen to focus on breeds and dogs it believes may attack, rather than on individual dogs with demonstrably aggressive behavior. The current list of “most dangerous dog” breeds in Saginaw include: pit bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Bull Mastiff (Presna Canario) and Alaskan Malamute. Saginaw will purportedly look to “credible,
analytical listings” to update their list annually. Saginaw apparently forgot to look at statistics in the UK showing the three most aggressive dog breeds as Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers!
The simple truth is that focusing on breed will not decrease the number of dog bites. According to a comprehensive 2009 study by the National Canine Research Council, the three predominant factors with dog bites are whether the dog:
- is a resident dog (kept primarily outdoors, used for guarding, protection, fighting or breeding, rather than a pet/family dog);
- is intact; and
- has a reckless, irresponsible owner.
Notice that breed is not one of these factors. With its recent overhaul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Department of Justice (DOJ) agrees that the focus should be on the individual dog and not breed. The ADA already condones the refusal to provide access to a service dog if an individual dog shows specific signs of aggression. But the DOJ unequivocally refuses to bow to jurisdictions with breed bans. This is leading to a nasty battle in Denver, where officials are refusing to exempt service dogs in Denver’s breed ban. At least Saginaw was not so stubborn, exempting service dogs from its dangerous dog ordinance.
Although Virginia’s dangerous dog statute isn’t perfect, it does focus on individual dogs and specific aggressive behavior. To be classified as a dangerous dog, Virginia requires an actual bite. Last year, the General Assembly considered expanding the dangerous dog designation to dogs who “attempt to bite.” Fortunately this bill died quickly in committee. Additionally, Virginia refuses to bow to breed stereotypes, with the following language right in the dangerous dog statute:
No canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous dog or vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed, nor is the ownership of a particular breed of canine or canine crossbreed prohibited.
With Saginaw’s proposed leash, confinement and supervision requirements and a limit on the number of dogs a household can have, Saginaw will accomplish a great deal to increase owner responsibility and decrease the number of resident dogs. If Saginaw wants more effective laws, research shows that focus on the spay/neuter issue rather than breed will go further to reduce the number of dog bites.
Laws requiring leashes and spay/neuter programs are not the only way to get at owner responsibility. Education is also necessary. The more we learn about animal behavior, the better. At last Friday’s Mid-Atlantic Animal Law Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland, one participate raised the issue of humane education in schools. If we could emphasize just three areas, we could do a great deal to better the bond between dogs and owners, and thereby decrease the number of dog bites:
- Learn how to read dogs’ body language. The ASPCA’s website page on canine body language has a quick reference guide for starters.
- Never leave dogs unsupervised with children. So many dog bites are to children. Simple supervision, teaching a child not to approach a dog unless the child asks the owner for permission, and showing the child how to pet the dog appropriate would go far to decrease the number of dog bites. Dogs & Storks has wonderful information about how to prepare the family dog for a new baby, and lots of other helpful information regarding dogs and children.
- Socialize, socialize, socialize. Dr. Ian Dunbar has championed the importance of puppy socialization, and how socialization allows a puppy to become a well-adjusted adult dog. Here’s a great video with Dr. Dunbar on the topic of dog bites and the tie to fear and lack of socialization.
The Saginaw City Council will introduce its proposed ordinances on April 18, and the ordinances are slated to be enacted May 9 and become effective May 19. If Saginaw’s real purpose is to increase owner responsibility and decrease the number of dog bites, I encourage the Council to adopt the ordinance expanding Section 94.04, but ditch its dangerous dog ordinance.