Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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Alexandria Animals Score Big Today!

This morning, the City Council in Alexandria, Virginia faced a final vote on two crucial companion animal laws.

The first vote was politically very easy and straightforward — after all, who could possibly disagree that there should be a specific cruelty law to address leaving an animal in a car on a hot day?  The new City Code Section 5-7-58 will punish leaving an animal in a car that is not air-conditioned if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter with a fine, and makes it a jailable offense to leave an animal in a car if the animal suffers heat stress.  The vote took no time, passing 6-0.  There was no debate against the law, and plenty of well-deserved kudos to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and its hard-working animal control officers for taking the initiative on this issue.

The political temperature on the next vote was unknown — whether City Council would pass a law that would say definitively that electronic collars don’t cut it under Alexandria’s leash laws.  (Sound familiar?  Who’s said that before…?)  Plenty of speakers came out in support of proposed amendment to the leash law, and no one spoke against it.

After the testimony, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley started the discussion with the comment that this law — like the previous one — was a “no brainer.”  Donley’s first question to the staff was about the penalty for violating the leash ordinance, which is currently a $100 civil fine.  He then asked if that was the most the City could do under state law, and invited the staff to make a recommendation at a later date to stiffen the penalty.  And a discussion of possible harsher penalties for recidivists followed.  Nicely done, Mr. Vice Mayor!

Councilmember Del Pepper praised the ordinance for giving clear guidance to animal control officers and one more welcome tool for the officers.  Councilmember Rob Kupricka commented that electronic collars pose safety issues for the public and not just the animals, and he hoped the new law would aid the officers in confronting off leash dogs.

A crucial question raised by Pepper was how to get the word out to the citizens of Alexandria that electronic collars would no longer suffice as a “leash.”  Joy Wilson, the Director of Animal Control, responded that she plans to focus on educating the public about why the law changed.  Councilmember Frank Fannon had an excellent suggestion about reaching out through Alexandria’s robust pet care industry to spread the news.

After discussion, the City Council voted — once again, unanimously — in support of the change.  With that vote, the City of Alexandria has made it clear that electronic collars pose a sufficient safety threat to the dogs and the public that they will no longer count as “leashes” or “physical restraint” under the leash laws.

Major kudos to Alexandria’s Animal Control Officers and the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria!  As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, I can’t be more proud!  Thanks for all you do and congratulations on this huge victory for the animals!


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Alexandria, Virginia Steps Up Safety For Companion Animals

Tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, the Alexandria City Council is poised to pass two ordinances aimed at companion animal safety.

The first ordinance is not a new topic for this blog –whether electronic collars qualify as “leashes” under Alexandria’s leash laws. The City Council is addressing this issue head on, and if this ordinance passes, will say unequivocally that a shock collar does not qualify as a leash. This law is a welcome step in the path of countries like Wales, which recently banned electronic collars.

Here is the gist of proposed amendment to Alexandria’s ordinance from the definitions section in Section 5-7-31 (j), with new language in bold and italics:

(j) Run or running at large. Roaming or running off the premises of its owner not under the control of its owner or a responsible person capable of physical restraining the dog and not secured by a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint, which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog. An electronic collar or other similar electronic device does not qualify as a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint.

Similar changes prohibiting electronic collars will carry through to Section 5-7-33.1, addressing dogs running at large, and Section 5-7-35, Alexandria’s leash law. You can see all of the proposed changes and further discussion on the proposed ordinance on the City of Alexandria’s website.

The second ordinance addresses locking animals in hot cars. The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine for confining an animal in a car if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter and the car is not properly air conditioned. The law would also make it a crime punishable by a fine and up to twelve months in jail for leaving an animal unattended if the animal suffers heat stress.

Here is the full language of proposed Section 5-7-58:

Sec. 5-7-58 Confinement of animals in vehicles prohibited.
(a) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle where the outside temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, and the interior of the vehicle is not provided with conditioned air to maintain an internal temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less, shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.
(b) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle so as to cause the animal to suffer from heat stress as diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian, shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The Animal Control Officer or other officer shall have the authority to remove any animal found in an enclosed vehicle that appears to be suffering from heat stress. The animal shall be provided immediate veterinary care. The animal owner or custodian shall be responsible for all expenses incurred during the removal of the animal or its subsequent treatment and impoundment.
(c) In the event that the person responsible for the violation cannot be ascertained, the registered owner of the vehicle, as required by Chapter 6 of Title 46.2 of the Code of Virginia (1950), as amended, shall constitute in evidence a prima facie presumption that such registered owner was the person who committed the violation.
Section 2. That this ordinance shall become effective upon the date and at the time of its final passage.

Again, you can check the City’s website for more information on Section 5-7-58.

As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, it will make me very proud to see both of these ordinances pass tomorrow!  Check here for more information on the Saturday, November 12, 2011 9:30 AM docket.


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Wales Prosecutes its First Shock Collar Case

Back in November, I reported on legislation banning shock collars in Wales. This week, BBC reports that a Welsh prosecutor named David Prosser became the first to successfully prosecute under the new legislation.

When Welsh legislators were first considering the ban, animal welfare groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organizations, including the Kennel Club, came out in support of the ban. These organizations called shock collars “cruel and unnecessary,” and pointed to shock collars’ potential to harm animals.

Others opposed the ban, claiming that the evidence and science did not demonstrate that shock collars harm animals, and arguing that shock collars are effective tools to protect and train animals.

In March 2010, the National Assembly for Wales unanimously passed legislation banning the use of any collar emitting an electronic shock for dogs and cats. A violation of the law is punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine.

After the law came into effect, Petsafe, Ltd, a pet product manufacturer, and the Electronic Collar Manufacturer Association challenged the law. But the High Court in Wales rejected their challenge and upheld the legislation in November 2010.

This week, a Welsh court convicted the first person of violating the shock collar ban. Phillip Pook owns a border collie who is a notorious fence climber and escape artist. Six months before the ban took effect, Pook bought a collar designed to emit an electronic shock if his dog approached a wall on his property. Pook claimed he did not know the law had changed, but the prosecution introduced evidence that Pook was warned about the new law. The court convicted Pook and sentenced him to a fine of £2000 (about $3200).

I’m glad to see a law that bans shock collars not only for training, but also for use with an electronic fence. And I am amazed and comforted to see that the Welsh legislators were unanimous in passing the ban. Currently, the UK and Scotland are considering similar legislation. The BBC reports that there are about 500,000 shock collars in the UK, with about 20,000 of those in Wales.  If you would like to know how local jurisdictions treat shock collars, take a look at this post.


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Missing the Mark: Saginaw’s Misguided Dangerous Dog Ordinance

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:

  1. with a propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of” people or companion animals; or
  2. 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
  3. 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:

  1. is a resident dog (kept primarily outdoors, used for guarding, protection, fighting or breeding, rather than a pet/family dog);
  2. is intact; and
  3. 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:

  1. Learn how to read dogs’ body language.  The ASPCA’s website page on canine body language has a quick reference guide for starters.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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Do I Have To Keep My Dog On Leash?

The legal answer:  probably, and you had best check state and local laws very carefully.  The realistic answer:  even if you can let your dog off leash, ask yourself very candidly whether you should. 

Some states have statewide leash laws, and some allow localities to pass their own form of leash laws.  For a great overview of leash laws across the country, take a look at Michigan State University’s Overview of State Dog Leash Laws on its College of Law Historical and Legal Animal Center site

Here in Virginia, there is no statewide leash law or prohibition of dogs running at large.  But Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503 requires all owners to provide their companion animals with adequate space.  For a tethered dog, the definition of “adequate space” found in Section 3.2-6500 requires the tether to be at least three times the length of the animal, measured from the tip of the dog’s nose to the base of its tail, unless the dog is being walked on leash or is attached to a lead line.

Virginia Code Section 3.2-6538 allows localities to prohibit dogs from running at large, and Section 3.2-6539 allows localities to pass leash laws.  Localities typically prohibit dogs from running at large.   Local leash laws vary greatly – so much so that this will be the topic of another blog post.

For now, one good example of how a Virginia locality has chosen to handle leash laws is found in Alexandria.  Alexandria’s City Code Section 5-7-32 prohibits dogs running at large.  Section 5-7-33 prohibits dog owners from allowing their dogs to run at large, and allows the City Manager to charge the owner fees to cover the cost of capturing a dog at large. 

Section 5-7-33.1 clarifies that dogs are not to run at large even in public parks, unless the park is designated as an off-leash dog exercise area.  To learn more about Alexandria’s dog parks and the applicable rules and regulations, take a look at this Dog Owner’s Guide to Enjoying the Parks of Alexandria.  Be warned — not all “off-leash” dog parks are fully enclosed. 

Section 5-7-35 requires dogs to be under “physical restraint” when off of the owner’s property.  “Physical restraint” requires “a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog.”  [Check out this post if you are curious about whether an electronic collar qualifies as “physical restraint.”]  The only exceptions to this physical restraint requirement are on private property with the permission of the property owner, or in a designated dog exercise area.

In 2010, Alexandria expanded on its leash laws by passing an anti-tethering ordinance.   That ordinance prohibits a dog from being tethered for longer than three hours a day, or longer than a twelve hours a day if on an acceptable running cable line or trolley system.

Even if you could let your dog run off leash, you should realistically ask yourself whether you should.  Leash laws exist for very good reasons, not the least of which is safety – yours, your dog’s and others’.  Even if your dog is friendly, your dog may come across a fearful, reactive or aggressive dog.  It is unfair to put the owner and the dog in such a position.  Telling the owner not to worry because your dog is friendly won’t change anything.  If your dog gets into a confrontation and the other dog initiates aggressive behavior, if your dog bites the other dog or an intervening person, you will be the one facing dangerous dog proceedings.

It takes only a second for something tragic to happen.  Consider this dog, who was off leash and shot by law enforcement when he approached an officer and his K-9 dog. While the officer may have been able to take steps short of shooting the dog in this case, it would have never happened had the owner kept his dog on leash.


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How Can I Tell A “Good” Trainer From a “Bad” One?

Regina Collins wanted a place where she could take Chance, her bouncy 12-week old “doodle” puppy for boarding and training.  So she dropped Chance off with Garrett Ridley at Ridley K9 Academy in Placerville, California. 

Ridley’s website claims that he has been mentored by two different trainers with different philosophies, and says that he “has had extensive experience training with positive/reward based dog training methods and old school compulsion dog training methods.  He quickly recognized the benefit of both methods and the fact that one without the other usually ended with an unbalanced dog.”

According to reports, when Collins went to pick up Chance, Chance wouldn’t come to her.  When Collins asked Ridley what he had done to her dog, Ridley reportedly told her not to touch Chance because he was “in trouble.”

Alarmed, Collins took Chance to the vet.  Her vet found Chance covered in urine, dehydrated and with eyes that were hemorrhaging.  A video of Chance can be found on Station KCRA’s website.  In the video, Chance’s eyes look eerily like injuries from “shaken baby” cases I have seen in my public defender days.  Chance’s vet said that the injuries are consistent with having been restrained by the neck with high pressure.

Collins filed an official complaint, and El Dorado County Animal Services is currently investigating Ridley for crimes against animals.  The investigation has also lead to a finding that Ridley did not have a proper license for a commercial animal establishment.

The debate over positive reinforcement versus force-based training has been raging for quite a while.  To me – a mere dog lover with no training background other than trying to keep up with Sophie, my skittish Shepherd mix – the answer is quite easy.  Positive reinforcement builds the bond between you and your dog.  Force and compulsion rips the bond apart – if a true bond had even formed in the first place. 

But I am lucky.  Before I ever knew about the debate, my local shelter steered me to a wonderful trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods.  Had I not had that guidance, I can’t say I would have found the right trainer and training methods.  Nor could I possibly say that Sophie is “unbalanced” because I failed to use force based methods to “counteract” her positive reinforcement training.

Within the animal behavior and dog training profession, there is a ton of information and science to support the use of positive reinforcement.  But that information does not always trickle down to the average person, who has to wade through flashy TV programs, books and advertisements that may promise “tried and true methods” and quick results.  The risk is particularly great in Collins’ and Chance’s situation, with a board and train program.

Outside of the profession, there is currently very little regulation over dog trainers.  But this is going to change.  In fact, it has already started.  Just last year, Iowa began requiring kennel licenses for dog trainers and groomers.  Don’t get me wrong – regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  But this economic climate could cause states and localities to regulate for the wrong reasons – most notably, sheer need of revenue.   And officials may not bring in the most knowledgeable professionals to provide guidance. 

Here’s a case in point.  When Wisconsin finally passed a puppy mill bill, it stated that breeders would need to adhere to standards that were “to be determined.”  In her blog post Could Breeders and Rescues Work Together?, Dr. Patricia McConnell expressed concern that trainers and behaviorists were not brought into the committee to decide those standards.  It is amazing to me that Dr. McConnell,  one of the few certified applied animal behaviorists and a top-notch expert in animal behavior and dog training, is sitting right there in Wisconsin, and no one asked her opinion on such crucial legislation.

Within the profession, there are many different associations for dog trainers, one of the most notable being the Association of Pet Dog TrainersAPDT’s Code of Professional Conduct requires “dog-friendly training,” but doesn’t go the extra step to define “dog friendly training,” much less to require positive reinforcement and prohibit force-based training.  That said, APDT is a very well-established organization focusing on continuing education for trainers.  This is evident just by looking at the incredibly impressive line-up of speakers at last year’s APDT conference.  As to certifications and accreditation programs, APDT’s website lists seven different certifications that will support APDT “Professional Member” classification.

If you want to find the right kind of trainer, what are you to do?  The doctrine of caveat emptor means it is your obligation to educate yourself and research the trainers you are considering. 

Comb the trainers’ website and promotional materials to see how they explain their training methods and philosophy.  Talk to them personally to get that explanation directly from the horse’s mouth.  Read up on the types of accreditation and certifications trainers can have, and check the trainer’s certifications and education.  Also look at which associations and organizations the trainer belongs to.  Ask for recommendations from previous clients, and follow up with the clients to see what they have to say.  Find out what kind of equipment the trainer recommends, and if the owner resorts to things like shock collars, choke or prong collars and invisible fences.  And check up on their business credentials.  Are they insured?  Do they have a business license?  This last simple question alone could have steered Collins away from Ridley.  [If you have a pet related business or you are a client considering one, here’s a quick checklist for you to start with.]

There is a lingering question of whether the dog training industry needs standardization and regulation.  If this is to happen, I would like to see humane standards built in, and have those standards come from within the animal behavior and dog training profession itself.  And I hope to see those standards reaching the public in a way that helps to guide the average person to the right kind of trainer and methods.

I also hope, if Ridley caused those injuries to Chance, that the authorities bring him to justice.  Which brings me to one more tool that would be helpful to weed out “bad” trainers — animal abuser registries like the one started last year in Suffolk County, New York.


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Happy New Year! Looking Back at 10 Posts from 2010

As we ring in 2011, here’s a quick recap of 10 facts and lessons from last year’s posts:

  1. Although federal law only requires labeling of fur garments, Virginia law actually prohibits garments made of dog or cat fur.
  2. The ADA definition of “service animal” is changing to limit service animals to basically only dogs.
  3. The videos involved in the US v. Stevens First Amendment case involved depictions of dog fighting, not animal crush videos.
  4. The American Veterinary Medical Association just changed the veterinarian’s oath to include animal welfare and the prevention of animal suffering.
  5. The Lynchburg Fire Department honored a search and rescue dog it recently lost by distributing pet oxygen masks on rescue vehicles.
  6. An appellate court in Wales just upheld legislation banning shock collars.
  7. Suffolk County, New York was the first jurisdiction to establish a public Animal Abuser Registry.
  8. Many home owner insurance carriers charge higher premiums or even exclude coverage for animal liability if the household contains a dog such as a pit bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Husky, Chow or Akita.
  9. Many Northern Virginia jurisdictions limit each household to three dogs, and require a kennel license for more than three dogs.
  10. A California Court of Appeals decision determined that the “exigent circumstances” exception the warrant requirement can include protection of the life of an animal.

May 2011 be peaceful, positive and prosperous for you and your loved ones!