Does your dog bite? Council to study ordinances to stiffen penalties against owners

By Bonnie Culverhouse

Recent reports of dog attacks have prompted members of the Minden City Council to take a look at ordinances designed to keep safe residents, as well as canines.

District E Councilman Andy Pendergrass told fellow council members and officials during a November workshop that one of his constituents lived the dog attack nightmare.

“She just wanted to come here today and talk about ordinances and what we might do to change them,” Pendergrass said.

Kristen Utphall, of the 1100 block of Claiborne Avenue, told council members that in early October two of three pit bulls from her neighbor’s residence, apparently chewed through their wooden fence and entered her yard.

“I thought they’d gone back to their yard, so I went to the neighbor’s house and rang their doorbell to let them know their dogs were out,” Utphall said. “Two of the dogs circled around, pinned me on the front porch and attacked me.”

Police were called and Utphall was transported by ambulance to Minden Medical Center where she received 38 stitches in her left arm and chest.

“Both dogs lunged for my throat, and thank God I am a taller person,” she said. “If a shorter person or one of my kids rang that doorbell …”

No charges were filed against the dogs’ owners.

State ordinance 102.16 reads a dog may be seized if an officer is arresting the owner. Also, a dog determined to be vicious by the court would be humanely euthanized if it poses an immediate threat to public health and safety. (State Revised Statute 3:2773 defines vicious dogs.)

However, it may be up to city ordinance to ensure there are parameters the owners should keep that will avoid state law from coming into play.

Sec. 14-51 of the City of Minden’s code of ordinances reads Pit Bull and Rottweiler dogs specifically should be kept “effectively yarded” and controlled at all times when not accompanied by their owners and securely leashed and muzzled when out in public.

Confinements are specified as chain link fencing at least six feet in height and no closer than five feet from any property line and no closer than 20 feet from any neighboring home.

Owners of these specific breeds are required to obtain a license from the City of Minden Animal Control Department in order to own or keep more than three such adult (one year or older) dogs.

“I’m not villainizing the breed of dog by any means,” Utphall explained, “but these dogs were raised to be guard dogs and attack dogs, and that’s exactly what they did. When you have a dog you have weaponized in that manner, there has to be some way of ordaining that they are properly contained.”

Utphall said the emergency room physician told her family her wounds were Level 5 of 6 on *Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale. Level 5 reads the dog is “extremely dangerous and mutilates.” Euthanasia is recommended because “the quality of life is so poor for dogs that have to live out their lives in solitary confinement.”

Around the time of Utphall’s attack, Minden Animal Control was placed under authority of the police department.

Police Chief Jared McIver asked the council to research ordinances that may supersede state law.

“Our ordinances refer to state law for penalties,” McIver pointed out. “It would be good if we could look at stiffening our penalties.”

His plans are for officers to arrest owners on serious charges and to train animal control officers to write citations for less severe charges.

McIver said he is working with City Attorney Jimbo Yocom to produce a letter giving dog owners a time line to replace fencing.

“If you are going to weaponize a dog, you are going to have to take every precaution necessary unless someone is trying to break into that house,” he said. “The dogs were doing what they were trained to do, but the owners didn’t do what they should have done.”

Local veterinarian Joe Scroggs agrees with the chief, concerning the dogs’ training.

“There are certain dog breeds that have gained a bad reputation over the years,” Dr. Scroggs said. “These dogs are blamed for being aggressive, temperamental or simply mean. Chows, Rottweilers and Pit Bulls are a few examples of these breeds. With that being said, I honestly believe the main reason these dogs often bite is due to the way they have been handled and treated.”

Scroggs said even the smallest dogs can be vicious. But the larger breeds may seem more dangerous because of muscle mass, agility and jaw strength.

“I have seen the most ferocious Chihuahua in the exam room that needs to be muzzled, and then walk to the next room with the sweetest Pit Bull that wants nothing more than to lick you,” he said. “I never like to categorize dog breeds based on what I suspect their temperament will be. Unfortunately, we judge most of the breeds that have a bad reputation before we give them a chance to show us their real character and demeanor. I am not saying not to be cautious when encountering a dog that you do not know.”

McIver said changing the ordinances are a good place to start.

“We’re going to enforce whatever y’all give us,” the chief told council members. “But we really need to get on this pretty quick.”

After Utphall addressed the council, all those present said they had received calls of dog attacks in their districts.

*Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale is published by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Greenville, South Carolina.