Loose dogs wreak havoc, but penalties are few

“One who owns or keeps in his or her possession a domestic animal and has no knowledge of its vicious, dangerous or destructive habits or tendencies is not legally responsible for injuries or damage caused by such animal.”

— Colorado Jury Instruction concerning “Liability as Respects Domesticated Animals”

Last November, three aggressive pit bulls roaming free in Elbert County surrounded and attacked a 40-year-old woman when she went to a rural barn to care for her horses, then injured two men who tried to help her. The woman died while being airlifted to a hospital.

The owners are soon to be arraigned for negligent homicide, charges that could net them nine years in prison. But authorities debated long over what charges to file, uncertain if they could make any of them stick.

The next month in Pagosa Springs, two pit-bull mixes roaming their neighborhood dragged an 8-year-old boy — who knew the dogs and had petted them — off a porch and mauled him so seriously that he nearly died. A large portion of his skull was ripped off and he sustained 40 puncture wounds, most to his face. He faces myriad reconstructive surgeries.

The mother and son who owned the dogs were charged with harboring dangerous animals. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of owning a dangerous dog causing bodily injury and was sentenced to four months in jail, half of it in a work-release program.

The case against the man, however, was dismissed because it could not be proven beyond doubt that he had known the dogs were dangerous, even though neighbors had complained to his mother about their aggressive behavior.

Leading the state

Despite their reputation as humans’ best friends, a growing number of dogs behave in the opposite fashion – chasing, threatening, mauling and sometimes killing their alleged friends, as well as livestock, pets and wildlife.

And in most non-fatal dog attacks in Colorado, the owners can only be charged with a misdemeanor, and if it’s a “first bite,” they may not be subject to any criminal charge whatsoever.

Frequently, too, the dog has no collar or license and the owners can’t even be identified.

Although no current statistics are available, in 2001 the county had more reported animal bites than Denver County (39 vs. 17) and about one-third of the total animal bites (131) reported in the state. The great majority of bites came from dogs.

Although vagaries in record-keeping might account for some of the startling numbers, it’s clear that free-roaming dogs are a major problem here.

In Montezuma County, sheriff’s deputies and Cortez police regularly investigate instances of dogs biting or menacing pedestrians and delivery people, in larger numbers every year. This month’s “Crime Waves” alone contains six incidents involving dogs acting aggressively toward people or livestock.

And in months prior, local law officers investigated numerous such occurrences:

  • In September, a woman found that two of her breeding llamas, valued at $5,000, had been killed by a dog. The owner of the dog, which was friendly toward humans, could not be located, so the animal was taken to the pound.
  • Last August, a woman reported being bitten on the leg by a neighbor’s small dog while she was taking out the trash. The owner was required to confine the bad-tempered beast for 10 days and get it a rabies shot. No citation was issued.
  • In October, a man collecting cardboard at the Osprey Pack business at the Cortez Industrial Park reported he’d been bitten on the right leg by a brown, boxer-type dog, even though the dog had been friendly in the past. The owner speculated the dog was being “protective.”

The worst injuries, of course, come from pit bulls, Rottweilers, and similar breeds that were bred for aggressive behavior and for their vise-like jaws and tremendously strong physiques.

  • In September, a roofer reported a pit bull roaming in the street had bitten him and caused deep lacerations on his buttocks after it initially acted friendly, then lunged at him as he tried to back away. He wanted to press charges, but neither the dog nor owner could be located.
  • In October, a man trying to rescue a neighbor’s goat from a pit bull was bitten on his left hand. Two goats were mortally wounded, but the dog’s owner denied her dog would do such a thing, even though eyewitnesses and the victim were certain of its identity.
  • In November, a man walking in a Cortez neighborhood was attacked by a Rottweiler that rushed from a yard and bit him twice. He declined to press charges.
  • In January, a woman out for her morning run was bitten on the left leg by a charging shorthair that was not inoculated. The owner was told to confine it for 10 days and get it a rabies shot.

Free-roaming dogs also cause harm on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. In May 2001, three loose dogs mauled a child walking on the street. The grade-school-age child suffered wounds on the arms and legs and was taken to the hospital.

But because there were no animal-control laws in Towaoc, the dogs’ owners faced no criminal charges. Instead, they were told to tie their animals up.

However, the tribe recently employed an animal-control officer to improve the situation.

‘First bite free’

Clearly, the problem is prevalent, yet little is done about it.

Dogs that kill livestock – a common occurrence – can legally be shot if caught in the act by the livestock owner. In addition, the dogs’ owners can be liable for paying for the dead animals.

But penalties for menacing humans are more uncertain. Owners of canines that threaten or attack people can get a vicious-dog citation, but often receive a mere warning and an order for a 10-day confinement, even when dogs have bitten people or injured or killed other animals.

The reason is what is commonly known as the “first-bite-free law,” the generally understood maxim that vicious-dog owners face few penalties the first time their animals bite someone because it’s difficult to prove that they knew the dogs were dangerous.

“It’s an old common-law rule that says you don’t have a vicious dog unless you’ve been notified that the dog’s vicious by law enforcement or other means of notification,” said state Rep. Mark Larson (R-Cortez). “That’s the implication of ‘first bite free.’”

The Pagosa Springs mauling incident so outraged Larson that he introduced legislation this year that would have allowed felony charges to be brought in cases where “serious bodily injury or death” results from a first attack.

The bill, however, was killed by his fellow Republicans, who didn’t even allow it to come to a vote on the House floor.

Larson said he decided legislation was needed after being told by a prosecutor why the 26-year-old man in the Pagosa Springs case, who allegedly trained the dogs to be very aggressive, couldn’t be charged with a crime.

“He trained this dog to kill, kill, kill; he put that arm wrap on, fed cats to the dog,” Larson said.

But the owner, who lived with his mother, allegedly hadn’t been formally notified of the dogs’ viciousness, even though his mother had. Therefore, he was deemed not culpable under the law.

“All I was trying to do was close that loophole,“ Larson said. “In my mind if a dog had a propensity to do that, the owner knew it. Most of the dog owners and breeders I’ve talked to up in Denver said, ‘You’re absolutely right,’ but the committee didn’t want to hear that.”

Nor did the state’s association of district attorneys support the bill, he added.

Running in packs

Montezuma County Sheriff Joey Chavez said he favors stiffer laws against owners of vicious dogs.

“I support what Mark was attempting to do there – it was for the welfare of this community because there are so many people out there with vicious dogs who just let them run at large,” Chavez said. “I think the penalty (should be) somewhat stricter on serious injury – because a lot of people know what their dog’s capable of doing,” and would then be more motivated to keep them confined.

As things stand now, he explained, some residents allow their dogs to run free all day.

“There’s no ordinance or law against dogs in the county running at large unless it’s a vicious dog,” he said, which means owners can be charged only after an incident occurs. Chavez said the problem is widespread.

“A lot of times these dogs end up packing together and chasing livestock and doing damage,” he said, “and the more people we get moving into our community and the county, the more pets they have, and the bigger problem it creates.”

Another factor, too, is people simply abandoning dogs. “They become strays and begin to roam,” he said.

Although passing a county ordinance, which would be up to the county commission, might help get the situation under control, Chavez said, its effectiveness would depend on how much money was available to enforce it.

“It’s probably the right thing to have in the county,” he said.

“The only thing is when you create more laws, you impact your law-enforcement agency, and it’s going to take more manpower to go out and work that area of law enforcement.”

In the early ’90s the sheriff’s office had an animal-control officer who rounded up strays, but this proved illegal and made the office responsible for any costs associated with confining the beasts.

“We discovered we couldn’t impound dogs running at large,” Chavez said

“If a stray dog came onto someone’s property, (the property owner) could take it to the shelter, but technically we couldn’t take the dog, because if somebody says, ‘Hey, you took my dog,” we would end up using taxpayers’ dollars to pay kennel fees and all that.

“Technically, we were violating the law because we were stealing someone’s dog.”

The county’s animal-control position was later cut for lack of funding.

Picking non-alpha dogs

In Cortez, which does have an ordinance against dogs running at large or even being off-leash when accompanied by the owner, roaming dogs haven’t been eliminated, according to Lari Ann Pope, the city’s animal-control officer. However, by reporting dogs at large residents can at least keep the problem to a minimum.

Pope noted that dogs don’t normally rush up to people and bite them. She called the Elbert County and Pagosa Springs incidents “freakish.”

“Most of the time, dogs bite when their perceived territory is threatened,” she said. “In my opinion, most of the time when they are off their own territory, they are less likely to bite.”

Alpha dogs, those that would be leaders of packs, are more likely to bite, although usually just when cornered or approached. “Fear biting is also an issue,” she added, along with dogs biting when they’re injured and in pain.

Pit bulls, prized by some owners for their aggressive tendencies, are becoming an increasing problem in Cortez and the surrounding area.

“What I’ve seen lately is a huge influx of people interested in having and breeding them,” Pope said. “I feel there are a lot of people who breed the aggressive to the most aggressive, possibly raising them as fighting dogs,” although organized dog-fighting is illegal nationwide.

Still, she added, all breeds share the blame. “We still have a wide variety of animals doing the biting,” she said, and it often involves dogs biting members of their own families, particularly children.

With its pack mentality, she explained, a dog may see itself as “dominant over the children, so if a child comes near the dog’s food when it’s eating, it may just reach out and snap.”

Pope said families who don’t want aggressive dogs can take precautions.

“From 8 weeks of age there are certain signs you look for,” she said, “and those are one that’s not fearful, not hiding in the corner, plus you don’t want one that’s overly aggressive toward its litter mates.”

Another test is cradling a puppy in your arms on its back.

“They should lie there relaxed,” she said. “If you have an 8-week-old puppy that won’t let you do that, you can be sure this animal is fearful, or it’s going to be one of the more alpha dogs.”

Adult dogs can be tested for compatibility as well. Pope said Mary Carter, manager of the Cortez Animal Shelter, has been trained to assess a dog’s traits.

It is also important to socialize dogs at a young age, Pope stressed, having them meet lots of other people.

Fines for killing wildlife

But many owners take pride in owning “macho” dogs, apparently believing that increases their own status or manhood. Others let their canines run free because they want them to be unfettered — not realizing that even good-natured dogs can form packs and act like the wolves with whom they share ancestry.

When dogs attack wildlife, which they commonly do, the penalties sometimes can be more severe than if they chase people.

Dogs running at large in the county, which is two-thirds public land, regularly harass and destroy wild animals, said Robin Olterman, district wildlife ranger with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

“It’s illegal for dogs to chase wildlife, and any officer can shoot the dog – no questions asked,” Olterman said. “We don’t do that too often in my district. Most of the time I feel like it’s the owner’s problem — the dog is usually following its instincts.

“I really try to find out who owns the dog and contact him,” she said. “I really hate to destroy a dog when it’s the owner’s problem.” Penalties range from a written warning to fines. The fine for a dog harassing wildlife is $274. In addition, Colorado big-game animals are valued at $500 for a deer, $700 for an elk and $1,000 for a bighorn sheep. That means pet owners could be billed for any wildlife injured or killed by their dog.

Complaints about dogs harassing wildlife have increased steadily as more people have moved into the county.

“The number of homes outside (Cortez) has increased – people are buying these little ranchettes so their dogs can run free,” Olterman said.

She said she receives around 10 calls a year concerning dogs pursuing or killing wildlife, but believes the number of actual incidents is much higher.

“The specific problem of dogs chasing wildlife probably doesn’t get reported nearly as often as it happens, because people don’t know to call us.”

Locally, people wanting to report such incidents can call the DOW’s Durango office at 247-0855.

Whether humans will receive stronger legal protection from dangerous dogs remains uncertain. Larson said another bill still alive in the legislature would take away the “first-bite free” protection in civil cases, since an insurance company has already used that concept to deny a dog-bite victim’s claim. His bill for stiffer criminal penalties for dogs biting humans might be revived and added to that, he said, but gave it only a 1-in-4 chance.

“I think if legislators will listen again to the testimony of some of the breeders, they would recognize that a dangerous dog is a dangerous dog, and owners cannot turn a blind eye to behavior that makes the dog dangerous,” Larson said.

“Just because they haven’t had notification, they know if they have a dangerous dog, and they should be held criminally liable if that dog goes out and creates serious bodily injury or death.”

From April 2004.