June 19, 2018
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Maine’s dog-control laws should be stricter

By Kathy Pollard, Special to the BDN

In the late fall of 2011, renters and their four American Staffordshire Terriers — also known as pit bulls — moved into a house beside my home. Within a short time there were issues with the dogs being routinely at large — meaning off their property without leashes, identification or owners. It created inordinate stress in our lives and was a significant safety hazard.

Maine’s dog-control laws are not stringent enough to keep people and their pets safe. I believe the laws need to be strengthened in two ways: there should be zero tolerance for people who allow their dogs to roam, and there should be stricter repercussions the first time a dog perpetrates an act of violence. These measures might have prevented what happened to us on Dec. 29, 2011.

My 17-year-old daughter was returning from a walk on a public sidewalk with my Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppy, Cruiser, when two of the neighbor dogs escaped from their house through an open door. One of them, Peaches, ran directly to Cruiser and attacked him without provocation.

I am certain Peaches would have killed Cruiser if we did not succeed in getting her off him. As it was, he sustained serious injuries that required emergency veterinary care and convalescence. Two-and-a-half months elapsed before he could run again without limping. Cruiser is now terrified of strange dogs, an emotional effect of that one violent event.

Later, I learned several disturbing details about Peaches and how Maine’s dog control laws work. Peaches had bitten other dogs in the town in which she previously resided. Just two months before her attack on Cruiser, she bit her owner. A different county’s animal control officer knew some of this history, but the information was not easily accessible to the police and the ACO responding to Peaches’ attack on Cruiser.

Second, how an offense is handled allows for discretionary considerations. Without knowledge of the dog’s past history of violence, the responding police, ACO and I had no way of knowing Peaches’ attack was not an isolated event.

Third, in speaking with my town’s ACO, I learned a dangerous dog’s owner can change its name, making it nearly impossible to track in moves from one location to another. He also told me that although Maine dog statutes allow for an ACO or victim to go to court to have an offending dog declared a dangerous dog, this designation does not automatically result in mandated restrictions that would decrease the likelihood of another violent incident. More commonly, the courts simply levy fines against the dog’s owner.

Finally, a loophole in current statutes prevents victims from pursuing damages against landlords who allow a dangerous dog to reside in their rental property. This encourages landlords to turn a blind eye to conditions that promote a dog’s ability to reoffend.

I recommend the following changes in Maine dog control laws: First, there should be a statewide database where all dogs with a history of inflicting serious injury or death to a domestic animal or person must be registered, along with the particulars of the incident, the consequences and the owner’s information.

Second, the offending dog automatically should receive a dangerous dog designation, and restrictions on its freedom should be mandated. These include muzzling the dog when off its property, walking it on a three-foot leash to ensure better control and building a secure fenced area for the animal to be contained in when outside on its property.

Owners should have to commit to a program of routine canine obedience classes as well. This is appropriate preventative management of a behavioral liability that still allows the dog to continue to enjoy life. If there are documented instances of the dog being at large thereafter, it should be removed from its owner.

Third, a dangerous dog should have a permanent marking on its body, either a tattoo or ear notch, and a microchip. This is not to demonize the dog, but rather to ensure that those who come in contact with it will be alerted to its history, even if it is found without identification tags or the name has been changed. The microchip would provide numbers to access a file about that dog’s history on the statewide database.

Finally, landlords who allow a dangerous dog to reside at their rental property without ensuring appropriate supervision and care of that dog should be equally liable for any damages the dog causes to others.

In the months following the attack, the neighbor dogs were at large so frequently that we knew it was just a matter of time before tragedy struck again. On May 26, we heard shouting and gut-wrenching wailing outside. My neighbor was sobbing, imploring Peaches to stay with him. Then I heard him scream, “I can’t hear her heart beat! Oh, my God, no.” And she was gone.

Peaches had been hit by a vehicle as she tried to cross the busy road at night, having escaped from her house once again.

A very sweet dog when not free to get into trouble, and a victim herself since she came into the world, Peaches’ legacy is a complicated one. For the man who says he rescued her from life as a pit dog in Florida, that legacy is unconditional love. She was there to greet her owner every day without judgment, a toothy smile on her face and a wagging tail.

For the dogs she attacked, Peaches’ legacy is a wake-up call illustrating why Maine law and local leash ordinances need to be changed. If this story inspires better dog control laws, her legacy also will be that of improved safety for all Mainers and their pets. We could name the legislation Peaches Law, a worthy tribute to a dog whose life circumstances were beyond her control.

Kathy Pollard is an artist, naturalist and writer.

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