One angry outburst from family pets in Virginia can lead to serious consequences - a lesson some pet owners are learning the hard way.
Responding to a growing number of citizen complaints about vicious dogs, the state launched an online registry - which works similarly to the Sex Offenders Registry - to provide pictures, addresses and information about dangerous animals.
This meant policymakers had to reach a consensus on how to protect people from injury while tapping the necessary technology to disseminate information effectively. The Dangerous Dogs Web site went live in July 2007 after the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation mandating the registration of threatening pets and dissemination of that information to the community.
Elaine Lidholm, director of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Office of Communication and Promotions, said public opinion of the new service is divided - with some calling the online registry too harsh, and others contending it's not harsh enough.
"For the entire month of July and into the first two weeks of August, the stream [of comments] was never ending," Lidholm said. The agency didn't track the amount of correspondence collected, but she said the VDACS and the State Veterinarian's Office received daily e-mail or phone calls regarding the registry.
"The 'too far' camp is using words like 'McCarthyism,' 'invasion of privacy' and 'over-stepping our bounds,'" she said. "The 'not far enough' group wants more information and details about the acts committed by the dogs, would like to see more strictures put on the owners, or thinks the law is too lenient in what constitutes a dangerous dog."
Citizens also complained that the list ignored certain regions - something Lidholm attributes to the newness of the site.
"We have had a lot of comments from people complaining that their localities aren't listed yet," she said, "But that is changing as more come online. We've had a few people who simply wrote to say 'Thank you.' One that stands out is a couple who likes to bicycle through Virginia and use the registry to see if there are any dangerous dogs on one of their proposed biking routes."
Developing a Dog Tracker
Creating the registry was an arduous process for the VDACS and the Office of the State Veterinarian, which developed a system and criteria for classifying dogs as candidates for the list. In Virginia, 133 jurisdictions received questionnaires from the two state agencies to determine what features to include and how to ensure fairness.
Any resident of a participating community can file a complaint, but citizens don't upload data directly. After an extensive meeting between the VDACS and the attorney general, it was determined that local animal control sites and other officials representing animal safety would filter any and all information to be posted onto the site.
This tactic is designed to ensure that dogs aren't placed on the list due to a neighborhood feud or some other personal vendetta. By requiring the dogs to be declared dangerous by a local official or court, the state hopes to reduce unnecessary blacklisting and angry feedback from residents.
Dogs can be officially declared dangerous after just one biting incident. Placement on the registry is determined by a number of factors, such as past owner history, known temperament of dog, breed characteristics and number of complaints filed. Temperament history, however, holds the most importance.
Security technology in the form of a tightly monitored Web site ensures only truly menacing dogs appear on the registry. A PIN is supplied to county workers
representing each jurisdiction, and the site is also password protected.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is based in Norfolk, Va., worked closely with the VDACS on the registry.
PETA Spokeswoman Laura Brown said the registry may encourage responsible ownership practices. Requiring pet owners to take more responsibility for their dogs will help reduce the number of dog attacks each year, she said. It also may promote spaying and neutering to control the pet population, and inspire families to consider more thoroughly the life changes caused by bringing an animal into the home.
The registry, however, created at least one unintended consequence. Fearing that their pets might wind up on the registry, some citizens have responded by chaining their dogs, which can trigger the very type of undesirable behavior the registry is meant to prevent.
"Sadly we are seeing an increasing number of chained dog attacks on people, with mainly children being the victims," Brown said. "Chained dogs are deprived of all that is natural to them and are driven mad by confinement."
In fact, Lidholm said many dogs wind up on the registry because of neglect, which results in natural, aggressive instincts coming out strongly in the personality of an otherwise loving family pet.
Once an animal lands on the registry, it's very difficult to get off. Owners must purchase a $100,000 insurance policy; place signs in the windows of their home and attach special tags to the dog's collar.
Owners of pets on the registry must update their residence information and other data annually. Dogs are removed from the registry when they die or their owners move out of state.
However, it seems leaving Virginia won't get owners of dangerous dogs off the hook for long. Other governments - such as various counties in Florida, Pennsylvania and California - are following suit.