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Legislature may put teeth in dog law
Lawmakers want to hold pet owners liable for harmful attacks
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Hall County Animal Control officer Joey Robinson works with one of the shelter's dogs Friday afternoon to help the animal become more adoptable. State lawmakers are pushing for legislation regarding dog attacks after the highly publicized case of a girl in Atlanta being mauled by a dog.

Sometimes man's best friends have been known to lash out against people or other animals.

If a group of state lawmakers have their way, owners of those dogs may be held responsible for any damages their pets may cause.

State Rep. Gene Maddox, R-Cairo, is sponsoring the bill to clarify the definition of dangerous and vicious dogs, and to consider owners of those animals negligent if the dog causes harm.

"My bill is going to be you as a dog owner, or me as a dog owner, are going to be responsible for the actions and the damage of that particular pet from day one," said Maddox, a retired veterinarian.

The proposed legislation comes after a DeKalb County jury recently found Twyann Vaughn guilty of various charges stemming from a 2010 incident in which her two dogs attacked an 8-year-old girl in front of her Lithonia home. Surgeons had to amputate part of the girl's left arm.

Many counties have local ordinances dealing with dogs considered to be dangerous. Hall County classifies dogs as potentially dangerous if they have the ability to inflict harm to a person or animal on more than one occasion, and without being provoked.

The Hall County Animal Shelter currently labels 15 dogs in the county as potentially dangerous.

Shelter Officer David Jones said most dangerous dogs in the shelter's control are eventually euthanized, primarily because the county assumes liability if the dog is released and causes harm.

"We can evaluate the dog and we can possibly determine that with the right work the dog could turn around," he said. "But we don't have the time to do that."

In most cases, Jones said, the owner is responsible for the dog being considered dangerous because he or she fails to comply with county ordinances. In other cases, the owner adopts an already aggressive breed and places it in an unfit situation or does not understand how to interact with that breed.

Sometimes an owner may even encourage his or her dog to be aggressive, he said.

"There are owners that want to have the baddest dog on the block," Jones said. "They're welcome to that but ... when the owner is not responsible enough to keep that dog under control, that's when we come into play."

"I don't doubt that there are dogs in this county that I do not ever want to meet because they are aggressive, but the owner knows what he has and he's a responsible owner."

Abimbola Oshin, a veterinarian at North Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Buford, said animals attacked by dogs are brought to the emergency care center nearly on a daily basis.

"It's pretty common," he said. "It can be anything from life-threatening to death to minimal. It's the whole gamut."

Although Oshin deals with injuries caused by dogs often, he doesn't fully support the proposed legislation because, "It's a bit more complex than that."

Dog attacks can vary from situation to situation. In some cases, Oshin doesn't think the owner should be held responsible for his or her dog attacking another animal.

"Sometimes it is obviously the aggressive choice and sometimes it may not be," he said.

One breed known to be aggressive are pit bulls. One of the dogs involved in the DeKalb County case was a full-blooded pit bull; the other was a mutt. Maddox did not want his proposed legislation to completely ban a particular breed, so he aims to make the owners more aware and responsible.

"Whatever expense is involved, we feel like this owner ought to be responsible for repaying the person who was damaged," Maddox said.

Through the bill, a dangerous dog would be considered any dog that attacks and kills a domestic animal or livestock or bites a human but doesn't cause severe damage. A vicious dog would be defined as a dog that inflicts serious injuries to a person, including death. Local authorities would be responsible for deciding whether to euthanize the animal or place it in restrictive care.

A vicious dog would be required to be restrained at all times in an escape-proof pen or on a leash no longer than 6 feet, and under the care of a person older than 21. Also, only one vicious dog can be owned by one person, someone without a felony record.

Because a group of hunters opposed some of the language included in the bill, Maddox altered the bill to exempt dogs in certain cases from being labeled as dangerous or potentially dangerous.

That includes dogs trained for hunting that attack an animal as they are trained to. A dog owner is also exempt if the animal or person attacked trespasses onto the owner's property. Also exempt are cases in which a dog is provoked, as well as police canines that bite a perpetrator.

Yet proving whether a dog was provoked could be tough.

"That's going to be a fine-tooth comb that's going to have to be hashed out with local authorities," Maddox said.

The bill must pass through a subcommittee before it can be discussed in the noncivil judiciary committee within the House of Representatives.

Maddox is optimistic the bill will make its way to the General Assembly to be discussed and potentially placed into law.

"We want to put some responsibility on a dog owner, and hopefully as people read and get to know that there is some responsibility there then they will take a little bit more care,' he said.

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