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New law has big impact on dog wardens

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

For five straight years beginning in 2004, Ohio did not have a single dog declared to be dangerous or vicious.

That wasn't because dogs and their owners suddenly woke up, smacked themselves on the head and said, "Why not be nice?"

Instead, it was the result of an Ohio Supreme Court ruling.

"In a landmark 4-3 decision ... the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a statute penalizing owners of dangerous dogs who fail to buy liability insurance and properly confine their animals was unconstitutional," according to the website of the American Kennel Club. "The court held that the law violated a dog owner's right to due process because it did not provide owners with an opportunity to appeal a dangerous-dog determination at an administrative hearing.

"The ruling affirmed that since the statute imposed significant restrictions and expenses on a person's property, in this case, their dogs, owners have a constitutional right to be heard and to defend their property.

"This decision is likely to have a significant impact on all Ohio dog owners as city and state officials consider revisions to the state's dangerous-dog law in order to close this constitutional loophole."

It definitely had an impact, said David Shellhouse, field supervisor for Franklin County Animal Care and Control.

Shellhouse was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of Block Watch coordinators from the Northland area.

While House Bill 14, which took effect May 22 last year, was intended to bring more specificity to laws regarding designations of troublesome dogs and does provide owners the opportunity for appeals, some areas of the measure may still need to be tweaked, Shellhouse told the Block Watch officials.

Many aspects of the new law still are being explored, he said, and the Franklin County department -- the largest and busiest in the state -- is leading the way.

Shellhouse has been with the department since 1992 and has been the liaison to Franklin County Environmental Court for cases Animal Care and Control generates for the past 14 years. He said his agency fields the most calls, files the most cases and has the most employees of any dog warden in Ohio.

It is the only one to have someone on hand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, he added.

"We have an officer on duty taking calls all night," Shellhouse said. "We've got people out there on Christmas Day."

The new law under which the state's dog wardens now operate allows charges to be filed against an owner based on witness statements, he said.

Previously, agency enforcement personnel had to see something themselves in order to take action, but now taking witness statements and collecting physical evidence has nearly quadrupled the time investigations can take, Shellhouse said.

These investigations can lead to one of three possible designations for a dog: nuisance, dangerous or vicious.

Under the new law, a nuisance dog is one that, while off premises and without any provocation, has approached someone in a "menacing fashion," meaning the person had reasonable cause to fear harm.

A dangerous dog is an animal that injures a person, kills another dog or has been the subject of three convictions for running loose, again without being provoked. This can be not only off the owner or keeper's property but also within a residence.

The injury need not have been the result of a bite but can happen if a person falls or otherwise is hurt fleeing a would-be attacking animal, Shellhouse said. A variety of insurance, registration and restraint requirements kick in with such a designation.

A vicious dog has seriously injured or killed a person.

"For the most part, every dog that's been found to be vicious has been euthanized," Shellhouse said.

Only 13 dogs have been declared vicious since May 2012 in Franklin County, statistics he provided show. Of these, seven were pit bulls, one a mixed-breed, one a German shepherd and four were Cane Corsos, an Italian breed that looks like a more-athletic mastiff.

The law that took effect last May repeals the state's automatic designation of pit bulls as vicious animals, Shellhouse said. Ohio had been the only state to do so, according to the AKC website.

Pit bulls now are considered to be the same as Chihuahuas and cocker spaniels, Shellhouse said.

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