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Royal Oak

February 13, 2013

Commission debates beefing up dog ordinance

Bully breeds take center stage, but officials leery of breed-specific legislation

By Chris Jackett
C & G Staff Writer

ROYAL OAK — Dog attacks in the news are nothing new, but the City Commission would like for those headlines not to feature Royal Oak.

The commission directed city staff to look into potential changes for the local ordinance following a 49-minute discussion at the commission table Feb. 4. Although different commissioners had different ideas about the focus of new rules, all agreed something needed to be done to cut down on instances such as the Dec. 13, 2012, mauling of a rat terrier by two escaped pit bulls.

“It was a good discussion,” City Manager Don Johnson said afterward. “It wasn’t contentious. It was seven people looking at a problem and no one was picking on anyone.”

Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Capello brought the item to the table, noting that, of the 3,600 licensed dogs in Royal Oak, 240 are bully breeds (6.67 percent), but bully breeds — which include both purebred and mixes of American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American bulldogs — are responsible for nearly 50 percent of incidents within the city.

Capello said, of the 32 reported dog bites in the last year, 10 were from bully breeds, six were unknown breeds and other specific breeds only had one or two bites apiece. Additionally, of the 21 vicious dogs reported in the last year, more than 50 percent were pit bull or pit bull mixes.

“Not every pit is a dangerous dog,” Capello said. “Their jaws are like iron. When they clamp those jaws, there is no unclamping them. Even bullets in the head do not always unclamp them.

“Owners need to be aware of the things their dog can do. When we have incidences, typically the perpetrators do not survive.”

Both pit bulls from the December incident were shot on scene because they would not release the rat terrier.

“These cases are not always about bully breeds,” Commissioner Jim Rasor said. “It’s about dogs with problems who are poorly raised. A lot of these dogs are just protecting their owners, in their brains.”

The commission discussed ordinances Farmington Hills and Hazel Park have adopted, the latter of which bans pit bulls unless the owners complete annual paperwork and the former of which has been deemed ineffective by many, officials said. Many Royal Oak commissioners did not want to go the route of breed-specific legislation.

Mayor Jim Ellison proposed several changes, such as defining a “dangerous dog” and limiting one per house, requiring owners to keep those dogs on both a harness and martingale collar, plus a muzzle during walks. He also suggested yearly recertifications and household requirements of a 6-feet-tall fence or enclosed kennel.

Capello added that residents should have an easy avenue for reporting suspected dangerous or vicious dogs.

City Attorney David Gillam said a “vicious dog” is one with a previous incident of violence.

“The current city code prohibits anyone from owning a vicious dog,” Gillam said, noting that a violation is a misdemeanor, which could result in a fine and up to 93 days in jail.

Rasor noted that the City Commission visited the issue of an updated dog ordinance in 2009, but it was dropped because Farmington Hills felt their similar ordinance was ineffective and the Royal Oak commission felt it would be tough to identify specific breeds.

Commissioner David Poulton said the evidence is there and the commission needs to act sooner rather than later, as opposed to having hearings after incidents like in Farmington Hills.

“I don’t want to wait until an incident occurs to decide what’s a vicious dog,” Poulton said. “We see the police reports. We know it’s the bully breeds.”

The commission gave city staff 30 days to research whether breed-specific legislation is helpful, see if Ellison’s dangerous dog ordinance ideas are viable and also to find out whether requiring proof of homeowner’s insurance for owners of all breeds would be useful. City staff was also asked to find out more about Hazel Park’s ordinance. The commission could revisit the issue as soon as the March 4 meeting.

To view the full discussion, visit www.ci.royal-oak.mi.us.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Chris Jackett at cjackett@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1110.