Could dog-control laws avert future tragedy?

A 20-month-old Pasco boy reached for a dropped cookie last week and was bitten to death by an unchained Rottweiler.

"Tragic accident," said a sheriff's official.

It's the same nonjudgmental assessment people used to make when a child died while playing with daddy's gun. Then the law changed to make adults criminally liable for leaving a firearm within kids' reach.

Could dog owners be treated the same way?

Animal experts say acts of dog aggression are often as foreseeable as accidental gun deaths.

"We rarely see a dog bite that we can't explain," says Marti Ryan, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Animal Services.

Comparing dogs to guns might sound far-fetched when 39 percent of American households include four-legged "family members."

But in a landmark case finalized last year, California prosecutor Jim Hammer likened the dog that attacked and killed a 33-year-old woman to a dangerous weapon cocked and ready to explode.

"At least with a gun," he said, "you have to pull the trigger."

The owner, Marjorie Knoller, was convicted and imprisoned on second-degree murder charges after a 2001 incident in which one of her two Presa Canarios, a 140-pound dog named Bane, attacked a neighbor in their apartment building hallway.

Knoller's dogs had allegedly been bred to fight other dogs, but experts say that is only one of the factors that increase the risk that a dog will act aggressively. Keeping a dog on a chain, which prevents the dog from being socialized; failing to neuter it; allowing children unsupervised access; or keeping the dog outside the house for protection or intimidation all can play a role in making dogs potentially violent.

Florida's most recent attack appears to fit the profile.

When he dived for the cookie, Dallas Walters was in the presence of Willie, a year-old, unneutered Rottweiler who had been living at the residence for two months, usually chained to a fence. Willie's food bowl was typically kept out of his reach, according to Dallas' father.

The death became Florida's 36th fatal dog mauling since 1965. In 23 of those cases, the victims were children, and 80 percent of them were left unsupervised with dogs they didn't know, according to Karen Delise of the National Canine Research Council, who tracks fatalities nationally. All but two involved unneutered male dogs. And more than half of the suspect dogs lived outside the home, on chains or in cages.

Fatalities might be rare, but dog bites are not. The Centers for Disease Control says that dogs bit people 333,235 times in 2008. In Florida in 2007 there were 16,890 attacks.

Kenneth Phillips, a Beverly Hills, Calif.,-based plaintiff's attorney who specializes in dog bite cases, says that criminal law is generally difficult to apply in cases of dog aggression in part because of popular notions about dogs.

"The mindset is that dogs are our furry friends, period, end of story," said Phillips.

It's hard to get jurors to convict dog owners for actions their dogs took, unless attorneys can draw a clear connection between the owner's understanding of the dog's risk, the owner's lack of control despite that known risk, and the dog's actions.

In 2003, a Citra man was charged with manslaughter with culpable negligence after his mix-breed Labrador-pit bulls broke free and attacked an 81-year-old in her front yard.

In that case, one of Robert Freeman's pets had already been identified as a "dangerous dog" under Florida law — a formal classification given to dogs that have already aggressively bitten or attacked a human, killed a domestic animal, been used for fighting purposes or viciously chased someone unprovoked in a public place.

Freeman is 3 1/2 years into a 12 1/2-year prison sentence.

More difficult is establishing the legal footing needed to find someone criminally negligent if a dog attacks while on the owner's property, even if evidence suggests the owner had warnings the dog could be dangerous.

Who wants to prosecute a parent, for example, who has already suffered the loss of a child?

In 2006, a San Francisco jury deadlocked over whether to convict Maureen Faibish of felony child endangerment for leaving her 12-year-old son home alone with two pit bulls, one of which had bitten him earlier that day.

The mother said she told her son to stay in the basement while the dogs roamed the house, but she returned to find the developmentally disabled boy dead in the main part of the house.

Hammer and others who watched the case believe Faibish's frenzied emotional state influenced the jury. "You had a woman who had suffered the worst possible loss she could suffer," Hammer said.

In 1994, no one considered bringing charges against the mother of 2-month-old Amarillys Torres of Tampa, who was fatally attacked by the family's Rottweiler while she was sleeping in a baby carrier on top of a king-sized bed.

The dog, normally chained to a water heater outside, got into the house while the baby's mother was in the kitchen.

It was, police said, "a horrible tragedy."

For years, authorities handled unintentional gun-related deaths the same way.

Then in 1989, after a spate of accidental firearm deaths involving children, Florida instituted a law that required gun owners to store firearms in a locked box or a container with a trigger lock if they had reasonable knowledge that a child younger than 15 could get access to the weapons.

Adults can be held criminally negligent — a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years — if the child gains access to the weapon and injures himself or another. The law has been applied sparingly, but its impact was immediate.

The year after the law went into effect saw a 50 percent drop in unintentional firearm deaths.

Could a similar law be applied to dog ownership?

Yes, argues Nova Southeastern University law professor Lynn Epstein. She wrote an article in 2006 titled, "There are no bad dogs, only bad owners."

"The potential for a dog to cause harm is often greatest due to conditions created by the owner," Epstein wrote.

But the answer from prosecutors seems to be no.

What matters to Mike Halkitis, the assistant state attorney who would prosecute the Pasco case were detectives to bring charges, is whether or not the owner was aware of some prior behavior by the dog that foreshadowed an attack.

He would be less impressed to learn that the dog was chained — unless the owner knew that chaining a dog would promote aggression.

"You have to show that they had knowledge of the viciousness of the animal," Halkitis said.

But that misses the point, say animal experts. It's not about the dog. It's about us.

"What we have to recognize is that we're prosecuting the person," says Kenneth Phillips, the California attorney. "It is the behavior of people that causes dog bites, dog maulings and what I call canine homicides."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

By the numbers

37 Percentage of U.S. households owning at least one dog

33 Percentage of U.S. households owning at least one firearm

67 Number of children ages 14 and under who die from unintentional gun shootings annually

33 Number of people nationally of all ages who died from dog attacks in 2007

20 Number of Floridians who died from unintentional firearm discharge in 2008

1 Average number of fatal dog attacks in Florida each year

19 Number of states, including Florida, that have enacted child access prevention laws to hold adults criminally liable for failure to properly store guns

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida Vital Statistics Annual Report 2008, Humane Society of the United States, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, National Canine Research Council

Dog bite risks

Conditions that can increase the likelihood of dog aggression and can lead to attacks:

• A dog is kept on a chain or tether

• Male dogs are unneutered

• Inhumane treatment, including poor nutrition, health or isolating living conditions that prevent a dog from being socialized

• Sudden or threatening actions toward or near the dog that provoke fear in the dog

• Introduction of new people, children or animals into the dog's territory

Sources: DogBiteLaw.com and National Canine Research Council

Could dog-control laws avert future tragedy? 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 11:13pm]

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