Dogs and the law

When emotion enters the door, good sense often flies out the window


Draft laws that affect animals draw more response to state legislatures than laws that affect people. Campaigns against Greyhound racing, puppy mills, and dove hunting and demands for control of exotic animals, cat licensing, and felony charges in animal abuse cases generate a hullabaloo that echoes in state and federal legislative chambers, leaving legislators to sort out the facts from the feelings – often a gargantuan task.

Animal laws are not always a result of state and federal battles. Squabbles between neighbors often erupt over animals, squabbles that often floweth over into complaints to local governments, and local governments grease the squeaky wheels with some ordinance or other tacked on to the zoning code or the criminal code. These ordinances are often passed out of frustration, with little consideration for the consequences.

Horrible cases of dog attacks bring a flurry of laws to restrict or ban certain breeds or mixes in a frantic attempt to protect the public from dogs perceived as aggressive because of their appearance or because a similar dog committed a hostile action against a person or pet. In Ohio, the only state with breed-specific restrictions in its legal code, any dog that looks like a ‘pit bull’ is considered vicious regardless of its behavior. There is no description of ‘pit bull’ in the law, but the attorney general once said that it was any dog of the bull terrier type. Dog wardens have the authority to identify dogs as pit bulls; if a dog warden says it’s a pit bull, it’s a pit bull unless the owner has strong evidence to the contrary.

Not content with the state vicious dog law, some Ohio dog wardens and city and village council members urge their communities to ban any and all dogs that look remotely like pit bulls. Thus any short-coated, broad-headed, muscular dog is in danger in Ohio, especially if it has cropped ears and brindle fur.

National laws affecting dogs and dog breeders

Under the federal Animal Welfare Act, the US Department of Agriculture regulates commercial breeders, kennels, and brokers who sell dogs through wholesale channels and sets standards for the use of animals in biomedical and product research, circuses, zoos, and other public animal displays. Amendments to the AWA crop up in many sessions of Congress. In 2002, a proposal to allow federal oversight of breeding and socialization practices in regulated kennels was tacked onto the agriculture bill in the Senate but not the House of Representatives, but it was dropped from the final version of the bill.

Currently, the AWA applies only to commercial kennels that sell puppies to pet stores, but a lawsuit by the Doris Day Animal League could result in the addition of all breeders who have more than three intact female dogs to the law. DDAL won a court decision in its favor, but the US Department of Agriculture has filed an appeal. The AWA standards are written for commercial kennel buildings, but if the decision is not overturned, these standards will be applied to homes where puppies are raised as show dogs, working dogs, and performance dogs and for sale directly to the public as pets.

Another national bill approved in recent years to protect research laboratories from trespassing and vandalism of animal rights groups extended the same protection to all animal exhibits, including circuses and dog shows. Interfering with a dog show is now a federal offense. Some states have also passed laws to protect animal events, facilities, and venues from the increase in violence and theft committed by these groups.

State laws

Some states have kennel licensing laws that parallel or exceed the standards set in the federal law, and some states have puppy lemon laws designed to give buyers some recourse if the puppy they acquire is sick.

Some states also place restrictions on breeding, require that animal shelters sterilize all dogs they sell, and prohibit dogs riding in pick-up truck beds. The Connecticut Legislature recently passed a bill to severely restrict the outside housing and tethering of dogs; the governor vetoed the bill on the grounds that it duplicated current anti-cruelty laws and represented “excessive intrusion into people’s lives.” Provisions in the bill limited the amount of time a dog could be tethered outside or kept in an outdoor or indoor pen.

Ohio has no laws setting standards for commercial kennels, and the state’s cruelty law is notoriously weak because it lacks minimum standards for animal care, training for the humane agents who enforce the law, and a requirement for a court order to enter property and seize animals. Dogs must be provided with food, water, and shelter, but they can be kept in filthy, rundown kennels; enclosed in buildings without adequate ventilation; and confined without adequate exercise.

Several attempts to increase protection for animals in Ohio have failed in recent legislative sessions because they raised penalties for animal cruelty to a level equal to or above penalties for domestic violence against humans, shifted the burden of proof from the government to the accused animal owner, failed to provide for humane agent training, and did not exempt traditional and humane animal husbandry practices from the definition of cruelty. The Ohio Legislature is looking at two bills (HB 480 and SB 221) that resolve some of these problems but not others.

Breeding restrictions

While few cities actually restrict dog breeding, these laws surface occasionally, especially on the West Coast. Proponents claim they are necessary to stem the tide of animals entering and dying in shelters. However, these laws don’t work because puppies produced by responsible breeders rarely enter shelters and when they do, they are generally reclaimed by the owners or by the breeders themselves.

Breeding restrictions also ignore the rights of breeders to pursue their legal interests and do nothing to help people keep the pet they have instead of sending it to a shelter when troubles arise. The breeding permits and high intact-dog license fees required by these laws and the accompanying number limits and other requirements often drive good breeders away, leaving puppy buyers with few options for finding well-bred healthy pets and robbing a community of a broad and deep body of knowledge about dog care and training.

Anti-breeding organizations include (but are not limited to):

There’s no question that too many animals die in shelters each year. However, there is no connection between the breeding of a healthy litter of purebred puppies and the death of a stray dog in a shelter. Responsible dog breeders sell their puppies to new homes, take back puppies that buyers cannot keep, are available to answer questions and help new owners train their puppies, and protect the health and well-being of their breeds. They are part of the solution to community dog troubles and should not be taxed and otherwise penalized as if they are part of the problem.

Touting breeder restrictions as all or even part of the solution to pet euthanasia at shelters also ignores the dynamics of dog ownership that often lead to abandonment of adult dogs, including: behavior problems; poor choice of a breed or dog; moving to a place that doesn’t allow animals; community dog number limits; and illness that no longer allows the owner to keep the pet. Some of these conditions can be corrected by education; none of them can be corrected by reducing the number of puppies produced by responsible breeders. Proposing such laws as a cure-all also ignores the responsibility of humane societies to market the dogs in their facilities, teach people how to avoid or correct behavior problems with their dogs, and help people make a good selection of a breed and an individual dog. While most humane organization carry out these responsibilities, some blame breeders instead of developing workable solutions.

Nuisance laws

Most laws affecting dog owners are drafted and approved by local governments. Several types of these laws have become popular.

Neighbors really like nuisance laws that prohibit continuous barking, particularly after dark; require dogs to be under control at all times; and require dog owners to clean up after their pets. These could be called “good neighbor laws,” for they really insist on common courtesy between neighbors.

Well-written and strictly-enforced nuisance laws are a boon to a community.

Breed specific legislation

Next is the group of laws that bans or restricts particular breeds, usually pit bulls (a type of dog, not a single breed) and sometimes Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Akitas, Dobermans, Chow Chows, and a few others. These laws may be passed after one or more attacks by a dog of a particular breed or mix so that city council members can assure citizens they are “doing something” about a voter concern. The attack may or may not be in the community that passed the law.

Ohio’s vicious dog law requires that owners of pit bulls confine their dogs in a pen with a top or in a fenced yard or by chaining, control the dog with a chain link leash or a muzzle when in public, and purchase $100,000 liability insurance. If the pit bull has been debarked, it is confiscated and killed and the owner is subject to felony charges.

Breed bans don’t work. They target all dogs of a breed – the innocent as well as the guilty; are difficult to enforce; and do not end the use of guard dogs by criminals. If pit bulls in their various incarnations are banned, drug dealers and other felons switch to another breed or mix. In the meantime, the ill-tempered terrier mix that bites the hand that feeds it and the poorly-bred purebred that attacks the neighborhood children pose a far greater danger to people than the obedience-trained American Staffordshire Terrier that is a titled obedience dog or a registered therapy dog but cannot step foot inside the city.

Proof that breed bans don’t work is the effort by Ohio dog wardens and politicians to increase the number of breeds that are banned or restricted. In some counties, owners of American Bulldogs, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Argentinean Mastiffs (aka Dogo Argentino), Bull Terriers, Canary Dogs (aka Presa Canarios), Olde English Bulldogges, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, any mix of any of these breeds, and any other breeds or types that conform to the appearance of a pit bull in any way are being told that they own vicious dogs and are being forced to abide by the confinement and insurance restrictions in Ohio law.

Far better than breed-specific bans are laws to control aggressive dogs of any breed or mix and strictly-enforced laws to keep dogs from running loose or causing a neighborhood nuisance.

Number limits

Dog owners in some communities face a limit on the number of pets they can own, but these limits, too, are counterproductive.

The disadvantages of number limits are:

Laws that criminalize pet ownership based on numbers alone have been declared unconstitutional in some states because they do not address the need to control nuisances or provide for the health and safety of residents. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the state’s highest court, has declared such a law unconstitutional in that state, citing a precedent in Kadash v City of Williamsport:

“What is not an infringement upon public safety and is not a nuisance cannot be made one by legislative fiat and then prohibited....

“Even legitimate legislative goals cannot be pursued by means which stifle fundamental personal liberty when the goals can otherwise be more reasonably achieved.”

A pet limit is difficult to enforce without increased presence of animal control or police agencies and often leads to a decrease in pet licensing to prevent cross-referencing of license records. If the law is enforced only upon complaint, it becomes just another law for people to circumvent and further erodes confidence in legislative bodies.

Numbers have no relationship to nuisances. A person with one dog that runs loose or barks all night is a greater nuisance than a person with a dozen dogs that are quiet, clean, and kept at home.

Limiting people to four dogs (or fewer) puts an unreasonable strain on people who raise show dogs, compete in performance trials, participate in canine rescue operations, foster dogs for service dog organizations, etc. and can lead to those responsible dog owners leaving the community.

A number limit causes dog deaths by forcing people to give up dogs they own, thus causing crowding in local shelters; denying people the opportunity to buy an additional dog from a shelter or a rescue; and adversely impacting rescue groups and foster homes that help find new homes for dogs whose owners cannot keep them.

Alternatives to number limits are:

Animal hoarding

Each year, several cases of animal collecting capture national attention when authorities remove dozens of dogs or cats from a filthy house or kennel. Often the animals are malnourished, sick, or unsocialized and the owner is unaware that they are in poor condition. Frequently, the original complaint is to the health department because of odor coming from the property.

Hoarding cases involve the psychological well-being of the animal owner as well as the animals themselves, but more and more they are being used as an excuse to impose a pet limit on a local community.

Many people who breed dogs or compete in dog sports own more than five dogs. They may have a retired dog or two or three, a performance dog or two, and a young dog or two coming along. If they compete in several different sports or breed an occasional litter and are unable to find homes for all of the puppies, their numbers may increase to 10 or more. These people are dog fanciers, not hoarders; the two are not connected and should not be linked in an attempt to further regulate dog owners in a community.


A new type of law is popping up in many cities. Based on the stated desire by some groups to eliminate pet ownership, it replaces property rights in animals with ‘guardianship,’ a concept that allows government authorities and appointed agents to confiscate dogs without compensation.

Proponents of the law claim that ‘owners’ consider pets as expendable as toasters or old cars but ‘guardians’ will treat animals with more care and concern. There is no evidence to support either contention: if reports about the dollars spent on dog food, supplies, vet care, and incidentals are any indication, most people already treat their pets like family members. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that a change in language will produce a change in attitude in owners who already neglect their dogs, allow them to break animal control laws, or fail to control nuisance barking or harassment.

Dog ownership is a basic constitutional right, but guardianship is bestowed by the government and can be revoked for violation of specious policies or regulations. In most states, animals can be removed from owners if serious neglect or cruelty has been proven. Revocation of guardianship is easier; a humane agency might simply interpret animal cruelty law by enlarging the definition of mutilation to include customary animal husbandry practices, determining arbitrarily that a dog isn’t receiving adequate exercise or nourishment, or deciding that a particular person is incapable of providing for more than a particular number of dogs.

Ownership protects dogs from theft and allows dog owners to seek compensation from those who harm their pets. It allows breeders to sell the puppies they carefully produced and nurtured, authorizes both breeders and buyers to enter into legally-binding contracts without government interference, and permits people to sell or give pets to new homes.


Dogs and dog owners face more discrimination than ever before in American society. While we pay lip service to the dog as man’s best friend, we allow fear and politics to determine the parameters of dog ownership. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on premium foods, veterinary care, toys, kennels, pet sitters, training classes, and more even while limiting the number and type of dogs an owner can house. We use dogs to aid in catching criminals, search for victims of crimes and natural disasters, help handicapped humans, and provide emotional support even while barring dogs from communities if they exceed a certain weight.

This schizophrenic attitude will be cured only when owners live up to their responsibilities to obey nuisance laws, keep their dogs at home, and train their dogs to have good manners at home and abroad. These steps will decrease the number of dog bites, the surrender of dogs to shelters for bad behaviors, the nuisance calls, and the plethora of restrictive laws that are making things worse, not better.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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