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Dangers From Dogs Open To Dispute

Incidents Are Judged On Case-by-Case Basis

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page PW01

They might snarl, drool, bark or even bite, but dogs are innocent until proved guilty in Northern Virginia.

Two recent fatal dog attacks, in Spotsylvania and Orange counties, are graphic reminders that the neighborhood pooch that seems bloodthirsty sometimes is, and that the one that has never been a problem can sometimes be one. But animal control officers across the region say that licensed pets have rights.

For the most part, local ordinances in the region match state laws on when a dog can officially be declared "dangerous" and what limits can be put on the animal, and Virginia forbids localities from going further than the state does without permission. Spotsylvania County supervisors said this week that they want to consider exceeding state law by banning specific breeds, or at least requiring owners of dangerous dogs to carry more liability insurance.

Almost all Northern Virginia jurisdictions -- Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Spotsylvania counties -- require dogs to be on leashes when they are off their owners' property. Stafford allows dogs to be off leashes in rural areas from October to March, which is generally hunting season.

There are exceptions, such as if a dog is receiving obedience training or playing in a dog park.

Animal control officers said owners whose dogs run loose often will be warned before receiving a ticket for the Class 4 misdemeanor, which typically carries a maximum fine of about $250.

The rest of the gamut of bad-dog behavior is determined by a judge. Stafford has an animal law against "destructive or annoying" dogs, a standing that is determined in court based on evidence brought by animal control officials.

The same general process pertains across Northern Virginia in dealing with dogs that hurt people or other animals. A dangerous dog is defined in state code as one that has "bitten, attacked or inflicted injury on a person or companion animal, or killed a companion animal."

Anyone who is bitten by a dog should call animal control officials, said Laura Danis, spokeswoman for the Department of Animal Care and Control in Loudoun County, where medical officials are required to report animal bites to the county even if the victim does not. As is the statewide norm, animal control officials in Loudoun then investigate and work with prosecutors to determine whether they should go before a judge and ask that the dog be legally declared dangerous.

Once a dog has that classification, limits are imposed, such as requiring it to have double restraints -- to be penned behind two fences or chained behind a fence -- and to wear a muzzle whenever it leaves its owner's property. Owners of such dogs in most places are required to carry liability insurance of about $50,000.

But the fact that a dog has bitten someone doesn't mean it will necessarily be declared a dangerous dog, officials said.

"It depends on the severity of the bite, and whether a person was pulling on the dog's ears or something," Danis said.

Mike Null, chief animal control officer in Stafford, said that if a dog bites someone in the owner's home, it is very unlikely it would be declared dangerous. In most cases, that would be treated as a civil matter, Null said.

"If a neighbor gets bit and doesn't want to press charges, the animal control officer likely won't go forward," said Mary Mulrenan, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County police.

It can also depend on what evidence officers gather. In Spotsylvania, residents said they had complained about roaming pit bulls killing small pets and causing destruction for months before the animals killed Dorothy Sullivan, 82, and her small dog. Animal Control Officer William Tydings said his staff members were never able to prove which dogs did the damage.

In the Orange County attack, a 4-year-old boy was killed last Sunday by his family's Rottweiler-German shepherd mix.

Owners of a dangerous dog who don't comply with limitations ordered by a judge can be fined and the dog can be quarantined. If the dog continues to display the same behavior, it can be declared vicious. Then state law requires that the animal be euthanized.

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