Owners of dogs deemed to be “dangerous” or “vicious” could face steeper fines for attacks and would have to undergo a more enhanced registration process under proposed revisions to Barrow County’s animal control ordinance, as the county seeks to do more to prevent violent dog attacks like the one that left a Winder teenager severely injured and hospitalized this summer.
Under the proposed changes — presented by county manager Mike Renshaw and animal control director Jaclyn Fryman to the board of commissioners at its Tuesday, Sept. 22 work session — the county would eliminate its animal control board, and the Barrow County Probate Court would have the responsibility of declaring dogs to be “dangerous” or “vicious.” In the absence of an animal control board, that judgment falls to a county’s probate court under state statute, Renshaw said.
According to the listed definitions in the ordinance, a “dangerous” dog would be any dog that causes a “substantial puncture” to a person’s skin by teeth without causing serious injury; aggressively attacks in a manner that “causes a person to reasonably believe that the dog poses an imminent threat” to them or another person; or kills a pet animal while off the owner’s property. A “vicious” dog would be one that “inflicts serious injury on a person or causes serious injury to a person resulting from reasonable attempts to escape from the dog’s attack.”
Once an animal control officer makes the determination, they would then officially notify the dog’s owner of the classification within 72 hours, and the owner would have 15 days to request a hearing in probate court. Otherwise, the classification would stand.
Under the proposed ordinance changes, animals classified as “dangerous” or “vicious” would be required to be spayed or neutered, microchipped at the owner’s expense, and the owner would have to have a liability insurance policy of at least $50,000, though that amount could be raised in the final version of the ordinance that is presented. Currently, only dogs in the “vicious” classification come with a required liability insurance for the owner.
The ordinance changes will require a public hearing and are likely to come back before the BOC at its Oct. 13 voting session.
The county is seeking to beef up the ordinance in the aftermath of a July 31 incident, when 15-year-old Joslyn Stinchcomb was brutally attacked by two at-large pit bulls from a neighboring house while she was walking in her Winder neighborhood, as the dogs severely damaged her trachea and ripped off her scalp. Stinchcomb, who is continuing to recover, has been hospitalized in Atlanta since then and undergone more than a dozen surgeries. She recently has been able to talk softly, according to social media posts from her family members.
Both pit bulls, which escaped through an open door, were euthanized following the attack, and the owner was arrested on a reckless conduct charge and also cited for animal control ordinance violations.
Winder City Council members, at a work session last month, briefly discussed the potential of a dangerous dog ordinance but eventually agreed they would let the county take the lead on stronger provisions to its ordinance.
“I think it’s our duty and responsibility to do as much as we can (to toughen up the ordinance),” Renshaw said. “These changes (being proposed), I think, is an improvement.”
Renshaw said having the classification rulings go through the probate court would be a more effective method than the animal control board, which he called “antiquated,” and he said the county needs to revisit its fines and fees structure with regard to attacks. Currently, owners are fined $1,053 if their dog bites or attacks a person; $340.50 if it kills a domesticated animal on property other than the owner’s or public property or damages said property; $408 if it chases people, bicycles or people in a menacing way; $273 and up for being repeatedly at large; and $138 for failing to keep animals “under control.”
“I think we need to send a message after these types of attacks, and (the fines) need to have a deterring effect,” Renshaw said.
The county has a voluntary owner surrender policy geared toward those having a problem with a dog, and fees ($50 for canine surrender and $125 for a euthanasia request/pick-up) are typically reduced or waived entirely if the animal has a known aggressive bite history, or if the owner is a low-income resident, Fryman said. After animal control staff evaluates each animal, those who exhibit aggressive or fearful behavior are marked to only be available to rescue groups licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture or out-of-state groups that are in accordance with the department’s guidelines, while any animals believed to present an imminent public danger are euthanized, Fryman said.
Having hearings go through the probate court would provide a more “structured environment” for due process, Fryman said.
“Sometimes (in hearings before the animal control board), either party can go off on a tangent, so we want to make sure the point we’re trying to make is not lost in translation,” she said.
Commissioners were generally supportive Tuesday of the proposed revisions.
“We just need to make sure we’re going to enforce it,” commissioner Rolando Alvarez said. “If we have dogs that fall under these parameters, we need to make sure we’re taking all the necessary steps. Sometimes policies like these can be enforced inconsistently. To me, it’s pretty black and white.”
Chairman Pat Graham suggested that the county include alerts in its public notification system if a dangerous or vicious dog gets loose.
In addition to using the required microchips for a more robust tracking and enforcement system, Renshaw said the county could move toward requesting that owners of certain breeds of dogs with a propensity for aggression either voluntarily register their dogs or be required to do so. The City of LaGrange has a registration process for pit bulls within the city, Renshaw said, but has been enforcing more on a voluntary and case-by-case basis.
Software to track licensing and registration that the county is looking into would cost about $3,000 annually, Fryman said.
If the county moves in such a direction, Renshaw said he would recommend expanding the list of breeds beyond just pit bulls to a list of 12-15 breeds and suggested there should be fines attached if an owner knowingly flouts the registration rules.
“I think we need to send that message and not wait until the first bite,” Renshaw said. “I don’t know what (fine amount) number is reasonable, but I think we have to look at it.”