By Amber Galaviz
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – You may have your own definition of what constitutes a dangerous dog. But Virginia law lays out a clear legal definition of what a dangerous dog is, and there are four in Richmond.
“ ‘Dangerous dog’ means a canine or canine crossbreed that has bitten, attacked, or inflicted injury on a person or companion animal that is a dog or cat, or killed a companion animal that is a dog or cat,” the law states.
In 2006, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring all dogs deemed dangerous by local animal control authorities to be entered into an online database. Local officials must provide various information about each pet, including its name and the owner’s name and address.
Anyone can look up the information on the website of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. There are more than 400 dogs in the database, from Snickers in Virginia Beach and Blondie in Richmond to Wolf in Powhatan and several named Bear.
The database lists each dog’s breed (primary and secondary) and its color and markings. It also contains information from the court trial that caused the dog to be declared dangerous, such as: “ ‘Bear’ attacked ‘Roco’ while both were on leash, causing serious injury (broke right rear leg) which required surgery.”
Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the department, says there is still controversy over the registry.
“About half of the people are saying this doesn’t go far enough. The other half is saying the state has overstepped its bounds,” Lidholm said. “The opinions are divided, and they’re diametrically opposed.”
More than 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 800,000 bites require medical attention; half of them result in a trip to the emergency room. About 12 Americans die each year due to dog attacks.
Some states have dealt with the problem by banning specific breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls. Virginia took a different approach – focusing on the dog’s behavior, not its breed.
Virginia’s law explicitly states, “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.”
The American Kennel Club, the American Humane Society and other pet-friendly organizations support that position.
Adam Goldfarb, a spokesman for the American Humane Society, said his organization likes the way the Virginia Dangerous Dogs Registry is set up.
“The dogs aren’t on here randomly or because of their breed,” Goldfarb said. “They’re on here because they either attacked someone or the owner showed themselves to be irresponsible. It’s fair to inform community residents where the dangerous dogs are.”
The American Kennel Club also supports the Virginia law because it offers a dog a “fair process” before deciding whether to add the animal to the registry.
Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, said more than 100 localities across the country have banned certain breeds, most commonly pit bulls.
While three of the four “dangerous dogs” in Richmond are pit bulls (the other is a lab), it would be unfair to condemn an entire breed, according to Ring Dog Rescue, a Henrico County-based dedicated to adopting out “bully” breeds.
“The problem is people listen to the media and don’t educate themselves,” said Tonya Murray, the director and co-founder of Ring Dog Rescue. “Breeds are not bad; individuals are, just like any other animal. Let’s punish the deed, not the breed.”
In Virginia, after a dog has been registered as dangerous, its owners must take steps to protect neighbors from possible attacks. The requirements include posting signs, confining the animal in a proper enclosure and outfitting the pet with a special tag. (The tag and registration process cost $150 the first year and $85 for an annual renewal.)
Owners of dogs deemed dangerous must maintain a minimum of $100,000 in liability insurance for the animals and must provide proof every year that the policy has been renewed. The animal must wear a muzzle if not on the owner’s property.
For dogs that end up on the Dangerous Dogs Registry, it can sometimes seem unfair.
Jennifer Daly of Newport News had to register her dog, Ginger, after a scuffle with another dog.
“Another little dog was walking in front of the house at the time, and Ginger took off after her like a squirrel,” Daly said.
Ginger is a female Australian cattle dog mix. It now has a record of being dangerous.
“Being a fairly young dog, with her having that label now, we can’t take her to school and we can’t take her anywhere to get trained,” Daly said. “Now, she’s just sort of a labeled dog. There’s no chance of parole. Life is a long sentence.”
On the Web
You can search the Virginia Dangerous Dogs Registry at http://www.vi.virginia.gov/vdacs_dd/public/cgi-bin/public.cgi
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has posted an explanation about the registry at http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/animals/dogs.shtml
An interactive map showing the number of “dangerous dogs” in each county and city is at http://tinyurl.com/dangerous-dogs-by-va-county
A list showing number of dangerous dogs in each locality is at http://tinyurl.com/dangerous-dogs-list