Watertown officials are considering a change to the city’s laws that would deem all pit bulls vicious and place new restrictions on the dogs and their owners.
The Watertown Public Safety Committee is the middle of crafting changes to the city’s vicious dog ordinance following complaints from citizens about a relatively high number of vicious dog activities in the city, committee chairman Mark Kuehl said.
Kuehl said the committee asked the Watertown Police Department to create a report investigating dog attacks on citizens and domestic animals in recent years to help guide the committee members as they addressed the issue.
“We are trying to be considerate of all sides on this, but there is a sizable history of pit bull attacks and other dog attacks on humans and other animals in the city of Watertown,” Kuehl said. “Pit bulls, because of the history in Watertown and nationwide, were deemed to be vicious by nature, and will fall under the requirements if the ordinance is passed by the council,” Kuehl said.
According to the ordinance, a pit bull is defined as a any dog that is an American pit bull terrier, American staffordshire terrier, staffordshire bull terrier or any dog displaying a majority of one or more of the other three breeds.
He added other dogs may be deemed vicious based if they bite humans or other animals and would then be subject to the restrictions in the new ordinance. Those restrictions include posting of signs on a dog owner’s property, making sure outdoor pen areas are secured and muzzling dogs at all times when they are off the owner’s property. Kuehl added the committee is also considering requiring pit bull and vicious dog owners to maintain a minimum amount of $500 of liability insurance.
Kuehl said dog breeds that are not pit bulls that are involved in an incident where they bite a human or another animal would not automatically be deemed vicious because certain exemptions are built into the ordinance. He said for example if a person is trespassing on another’s property or the dog is taunted or provoked before a bite occurs.
University of Wisconsin-Madison adjunct professor and certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell said she and other animal behaviorists do not believe placing restrictions or bans on certain breeds of dogs are effective.
“Certainly the data doesn’t support it at all. There was a recent study done in Europe that looked at thousands and thousands of dogs ... and bully breeds were by no means more statistically likely to be aggressive,” McConnell said.
McConnell, who has written 13 books on animal behavior, said whether or not a dog is a danger to humans is a function of how they are raised and trained. She added, regrettable there are lot of pit bulls who are raised without being socialized or trained, and that can result in dogs being aggressive.
Watertown Police Chief Tim Roets said animal complaints consume a significant amount of the department’s time. In 2012 the department responded to over 700 animal calls, with the majority involving dogs, according to Roets.
“What is of greater concern than the mere number of calls is the increase in vicious dog incidents in the city in which citizens and their pets have been attacked by aggressive dogs,” Roets said. “As recently as last Sunday we responded to a vicious dog that ran out of its yard and attacked another dog being walked by its owner on the other side of the street. Dealing with aggressive dogs is dangerous and poses a significant risk to anyone in contact with them including our police officers.”
There were 1,831 dogs registered with the city in 2012, according to the dog report completed by the police. The most popular dog in the city was the labrador retriever with 315 reported, followed by the shih tzu with 118 and the golden retriever with 113. There were 44 pit bulls registered with the city in 2012.
According to the report, 78 dog bites to humans were reported between Jan. 1, 2010, and Aug. of 2012. Pit bulls were involved in 19 percent of the bites, mix breeds or other were also involved in 18 percent, unknown breeds in 17 percent, labrador retrievers 8 percent and cocker spaniels in 8 percent of the bites.
During that same time period, the police department handed out eight vicious dog citations and issued 10 warnings.
The report also documented four incidents where police officers used forced against dogs in the city including:
— A police officer shot a dog in October of 2007 while responding to a dog at large complaint.
— A police officer used a Tazer against a dog in February of 2009 while responding to an at large complaint for a vicious dog.
— A police officer shot a dog in May of 2009 that was actively attacking another dog.
— Chief Roets shot a dog on July 31, 2012, while responding to a report of a dog at large that was attacking another dog.
Kuehl said after receiving the dog report the committee weighed two different options for dealing with pit bulls: banning them outright or placing restrictions on the breed. The committee choose the second option.
Roets said the big difference is when a pit bull, or similar breed, is in attack mode it is much more dangerous than other smaller less aggressive dogs.
“Our most recent incidents in the news involved pit bulls and last Sunday’s incident also involved a pit bull,” Roets said.
McConnell said there is a bias people have when it comes to pit bulls. She said stories about pit bull attacks often get more news coverage than other types of breeds and often times dogs are mistakenly identified as pit bulls. She added bans on the breed are ineffective and have the potential to cause a lot of pain and suffering.
The committee will review the ordinance Wednesday night and if approved it will be forwarded to the city council. The council will have to approve the ordinance change in two consecutive meetings before the changes would go into effect.
Roets urged citizens to attend the meetings and to contact their alderperson’s to have their opinions heard on the ordinance changes. The meeting will be Wednesday at 5 p.m. in room 2044 in the Municipal Building, 106 Jones St.
“I encourage citizens with opinions regarding this issue to get involved in the discussion by contacting their city council representative or attending our public safety meeting,” Roets said.