Placer County spurred to put more bite in dog leash laws

This is the first in a "It's a Pet's World" four-part series on pets and pet ownership in Placer County
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A North Auburn great-grandmother’s dog-attack horror story is spurring Placer County officials to look at a revamp of current leash laws. Delta Wilson-Ricky, 76, saw her poodle Lucky die in her arms when an unleashed pitbull bounded from the county’s North Park, jumped up and chomped into her pet with full force in an attack last month. Mike Winters, Placer County Animal Services manager, said concerns about animals running at large are becoming more prevalent and the county is taking a closer look at what regulations it now has and what possible changes can be made. In unincorporated areas of the county, dogs have to be onleash or under the control of their owners. Because of the vagaries of the term “under control” it’s possible that the county code provisions on animals at large could be tightened to require dogs be onleash off its owner’s property at all times, he said. The animal services division is working with the county’s Animal Services Advisory Committee before making any change in regulations that would go to the Board of Supervisors for approval, Winters said. Marilyn Jasper, a Loomis resident on the advisory committee, said Friday that she’s an avid dog lover and is in favor of a mandatory leash law. “People will claim they have their dogs under control through voice control or hand signals but when we’re coming down a trail, members of the public and dog owners don’t know that for sure,” Jasper said. “For the greater good there has to be a leash law.” Jasper said she knows people who have spent thousands of dollars on training to control their dogs without a leash. “But that’s like saying that you’re a safe driver so you should be able to drive 100 mph on the freeway,” Jasper said. Even the best-trained dog has been known to take off to chase wildlife, she said. “It’s not a ‘trust me’ situation,” Jasper said. “The other part of bringing in new regulations is that we need enforcement.” The county abides by state regulations when a dog attacks another dog or human. With a single attack, a dog can be declared potentially dangerous after a hearing before a county-appointed hearing officer. Potentially dangerous dogs can be ordered confined and only walked with a muzzle during a three-year probationary period. If another attack occurs within 36 months, it can be declared a vicious dog and euthanized. Over the past year, the county has held six hearings, all to do with potentially dangerous dogs, Winters said. Winters said the county is comparing its regulations to other jurisdictions to determine what it may be able to introduce. “We want to have as much authority as we can to place restrictions and ensure the public is as safe as possible,” Winters said. Placer County and law enforcement can also impose fines on dog owners. Running a dog in a county park without a leash is a misdemeanor that includes a potential fine of up to $1,000. And if a dog bites while offleash – even on its own property – injured parties can pursue the matter in civil court. “There’s no free bite,” Auburn attorney Barry Zimmerman said. Zimmerman has handled dozens of dog-bite cases since establishing his practice in Auburn 17 years ago. “It’s a tight statute,” Zimmerman said. “It’s one of the toughest civil laws. The reality in Placer County is that we’re in a rural area where it’s not uncommon to have unfenced yards and an energized community where people like to walk and run.” Zimmerman ensures that his own fence is sound and his dog is controlled and on a leash when he takes it for a walk. Many people don’t take those precautions and end up in court as defendants in a civil suit that could potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. The liability doesn’t end with the dog owner. Zimmerman said a landlord who knows a tenant’s dog is potentially dangerous can also be held accountable in court. “I’ve had cases with family dogs, golden retrievers, pit bulls, Rottweilers – the reality is you have people coming onto property and they get bit all the time – but there’s no free bite,” Zimmerman said. For Wilson-Ricky, the last few weeks since the death of Lucky have been emotionally challenging. She compares the pet’s death to the loss of a child. But Wilson-Ricky said she’s heartened by county efforts to perhaps prevent more attacks similar to the one she went through. In the meantime, she said she’s shopping for some type of club as personal protection against another dog attack when she goes on her twice-daily walks in her neighborhood. “I was personally attacked and my dog was killed,” Wilson-Ricky said. “The only thing I want is for people in our town and our country to be safe in their own homes and parks. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should be able to walk freely and not be afraid.” -------------------------------------------------When dogs attack: Five recent incidents June 2011 – An offleash pitbull runs from a North Auburn park and fatally attacks a poodle held in the arms of its 76-year-old owner, Delta Wilson-Ricky. The grieving owner calls on the Board of Supervisors to “put more teeth” in county regulations. May 2010 – A 91-year-old Auburn resident suffered serious hand injuries as he fought off a vicious dog attack in his backyard using a gardening trowel. The pitbull-Rottweiler cross escaped from a neighbor’s yard and was later shot by Auburn Police when it continued to be aggressive and a stun gun failed to bring it down at a nearby mobilehome park. September 2009 – Four pitbulls loose from a nearby yard attacked an 18-year-old youth in Downtown Auburn. The victim suffered from 20 puncture wounds and required more than 30 stitches to sew up deep wounds. Three of the four dogs were declared vicious and euthanized. The fourth was removed and housed at a Southern California rescue center. April 2008 – An off-leash pitbull ran at a horse and rider as they were on a training ride for the Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance ride. The horse suffered a gash in the stomach area before the equine landed some solid blows with its hooves. April 2008 – A boxer-pitbull mix attacked a horse and rider on an Auburn State Recreation Area trail. The dog bit into and latched onto the horse’s face before it was thrown into a tree. Riderless, the horse ran onto Foresthill Road, disrupting traffic for three miles. The dog’s male owner scooped up the dog and escaped. A $4,700 reward was raised in Auburn but no suspect was ever apprehended. Source: Journal reports