Legal Concerns
   "He's my best friend!  What am I going to do?" came the tearful voice on the phone. Her dog had just been involved in the death of the neighbor's tiny Yorkshire Terrier puppy, and she had been emotionally traumatized by an obnoxious deputy animal control officer.  He had, on the spot, branded her dog as vicious, and demanded that she relinquish him immediately or buy a heavy leather leash and muzzle, and house the dog in a covered chain link pen.

    It was a day that had started out nice and ended up in a nightmare.  We both feared for her dog, and she was contemplating finding him a home where he'd be anonymous and safe, as difficult as it would be to part with him.  I told her to hold off on that, as such a home would be difficult, if not impossible, to find, and I knew how she was suffering.

     Although the puppy's owner had allowed it to roam at large, thereby failing to protect it, it was determined that the body was on the owner's side of the property line, so my friend lost her case in court and was fined for breaking the leash law.  Not that she had allowed her dog to run loose, but when she put him out that day, he spotted the pup, which was in his yard at the time, and made a beeline for it and broke his cable.  She also had to pay for the cost of the puppy, a reported $800!  In addition to all of that was the cost of her lawyer.

     I had supplied my friend with a written account, explaining why the dog was innocent of a malicious crime.  It was a case of a large energetic dog trying to play with a furry little chew toy.  When she showed this to the dog warden, he agreed that the dog wasn't vicious and tore up his "rap she
et." The covered pen was no longer necessary, but she did go to great expense to have her back yard fenced with chain link.

     Alas, this wasn't the end of her troubles.  This dog, although not aggressive, had what William Campbell calls, an active defense reflex.  It is Mother Nature's way of protecting her creatures in the wild.  A dog reacts to a perceived threat by fight, flight, or freezing.  If his first reaction involves his teeth, we could say that he bites first and asks questions later.  In the jungle, it could save his life.  But this is an undesirable trait in the family pet, and could be bred out by responsible breeders.  Unfortunately, we don't have many of those.  So when my friend's young granddaughter tripped over the sleeping dog, his reflex action was to protect himself, and the child suffered a bite that required stitches.

     The girl's mother was irate, and my friend was told that if she didn't get rid of the dog, she'd never see her grandchildren again.  If that wasn't enough, her insurance company, being called upon again, this time for medical expenses, cancelled her homeowner's policy.  No other company would insure her as long as the dog was there. Now she was thinking of having the dog put down because maybe he was vicious after all, and might hurt someone even worse the next time.  I won't divulge how we solved this problem, but the story has a happy ending and the dog lived out his natural lifetime.

     This was the second time I had been involved with this type of case.  The first involved a Rottweiler, a breed that is on the black list of many insurance companies.  So when this dog got excited and yanked on his leash, while being held by a friend of the owner, and she landed on the ground sustaining a back injury, that's all it took.  The concerned policy-holder insisted on paying the medical expenses, but made the mistake of calling upon the insurance company to foot the bill.  Fortunately, she was able, after much frantic searching, to find another company that would insure
her home.

Another distress call came from a woman whose dog had nipped a neighbor boy, and her insurance coverage was to be cancelled unless she got rid of the dog.  She was distraught, to say the least.  The incident had occurred when the family arrived home in their car, and everyone piled out, including the dog.  Just at that moment, the boy rode by on his bike.  The dog, being of a herding breed, took out after him; he kicked at the dog; the dog grabbed at his foot.  The boy's mother insisted he be taken to the emergency room by ambulance; the paramedics refused when they saw how minor the injury was.  The enraged mother reported the "crime" to the police, who told the dog owner she should report it to her insurance company.  Big mistake.

This led me to post to a dog rescue newsgroup on the web, to gather information about this sort of thing.  I got a lot of responses, which I sent on to the dog's owner, but I didn't hear from her again, so I don't know how it all came out.  It does illustrate how easily we can get into trouble with our dogs, and the importance of obedience training.  But such training isn't worth much if it doesn't establish in the dog's mind, who is the head honcho.

     My friend had taken her dog to classes, but two things were working against her:  an ineffective training method, and genetics.  The Rottweiler mentioned above, had been brought to ABC for classes, but he and his owner were a definite mismatch; he being a large dominant dog, and she being unable to master him.  I was unable to persuade her to have him neutered, which didn't help matters, especially when she used him to sire puppies.  Some time later, she called me for advice, after he had savagely bitten her in the face for trying to get into her own bed!

Dogs are fast becoming a liability in this country, and this is easily verified by law enforcement, and your insurance company.  I cannot stress too highly, the importance of a proper dominance/submission relationship, but that isn't the whole story.  The sad fact is that most dog bites and other offenses could be avoided if the raising of dogs was left to the professionals.  Most people who raise dogs for profit, are not professionals; they just want you to think they are.

     A responsible pro researches bloodlines, attempts to eliminate health problems and bad temperaments, knows the workings of the dog's psychological development, and the importance of socialization.  A pro doesn't breed a dog with an active defense reflex, nor one that is afraid of its own shadow, nor one that is highly dominant.  Such animals will not only pass undesirable traits onto their offspring genetically, but by example, as well.

     If you value your dog, be aware that his perception of things is not like yours.  He's an animal; he has big teeth; he's hardwired to protect himself.  Learn all you can about dog behavior, obey the leash law, and love him for what he is.  Hopefully, you will both enjoy a long and happy relationship.

              This article appeared in the Marshall Chronicle, Marshall, MI, March 2004
~ ABC Dog School ~
Copyright 2004 Carole J Sulser
Ohio Absolute Liability