Recently, the City of Newton experienced its sixth dog attack incident involving “pit bulls” in the past 12 months. And as is typical in these situations, there has been a strong public outcry.
“Something needs to be done about this!” many of you have exclaimed. We heartily agree. And, for its part, the Newton City Council has already been hard at work behind the scenes to find a solution.
The biggest question they face, however, is what should be done. The issue of vicious dogs — and “pit bulls” in general — is complex, to say the least.
Several weeks ago, councilors reviewed the city’s vicious dog ordinances and discovered several serious flaws. Not the least of which was the “three strikes rule,” which allowed a dog to act out against humans and other animals twice — as long as no human was bitten — before being labeled “vicious.”
The City Council is expected to address at least that part of the issue at its next regular meeting, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 21. But that part of the issue only addresses labeling a particular animal as vicious sooner.
Police Chief Jeff Hoebelheinrich noted that one option may be to require the owners of vicious dogs to carry pet liability insurance. Most homeowner and renter insurance policies do not cover dog bites — especially when an “aggressive breed” is involved — which can lead to mountains of problems for both the dog owner and the victims when tragedy does strike.
“But that doesn’t stop the attacks,” Hoebelheinrich said. “It only deals with the aftermath.”
He noted a couple of Iowa cities have banned ownership of “pit bull breeds” within their corporate limits. He said another option may be to declare all “pit bulls” vicious dogs.
That would require owners to have those dogs muzzled whenever they are out in public, and it would add very stringent construction requirements for outdoor kennels and fencing. But City Administrator Bob Knabel pointed out the great difficulty that can arise from determining what dogs would fall into those categories.
“It would be a very difficult discussion if it went that way,” he said. “There are several different breeds — not to mention mixed breeds — that could potentially be considered pit bulls.”
And an honest assessment of the dog bite calls taken in the past 12 months would show that while “pit bulls” are involved in the largest percentage of incidents, they are not involved in the majority of them. Hoebelheinrich also pointed out that breed alone is not a factor in dog attack incidents.
“Not every owner of pit bulls is a bad person. And, there are a lot of good dog owners out there,” he said. “A good dog owner is going to take care of his or her dog, regardless of the breed.”
Both Hoebelheinrich and Knabel said the City Council could look at increasing the fine structure associated with dog violations. Such violations are considered municipal infractions, which have fine ranges for first, second and all subsequent offenses.
The police chief said how much the fine would be is at the discretion of a judge. But the city administrator said the fine structure for municipal infractions themselves could be amended to create a separate structure for dog ordinance violations.
Knabel also pointed out, however, that the City Council currently has some varied opinions about how to address the issue. So, as much as it is incumbent upon dog owners to be responsible, and vital for the City Council to take action, it is up to the rest of us to make our voices heard on this very important issue.
Call your councilors and tell them what you think. Or, if you can, attend the Jan. 21 meeting and speak up.
This editorial represents the views of the Newton Daily News Editorial Board.