Don’t blame dogs, hold owners responsible, animal experts say

This week, a little boy was killed and a schoolmate seriously injured when the two were attacked by dogs in southwest Atlanta. Last month, a 7-year-old Gwinnett County boy’s ear was ripped off by dogs. In 2010, an 8-year-old girl lost her arm following a dog attack in DeKalb County.

Each story is heartbreaking, leaving physical and emotional wounds that may never heal. But every single attack could have been prevented, according to animal experts. And blaming the dog isn’t the answer.

“We need to hold people responsible for being responsible owners,” attorney Jessica Rock said. “And being responsible owners means keeping your animals in a secure location. Part of being a responsible owner is not training your dog to fight or be aggressive.”

Rock and attorney Claudine Wilkins, both former prosecutors, are the founders of Animal Law Source, dedicated to educating others about Georgia law. It’s not just the public that needs more awareness about dog ownership, but also law enforcement officials who need training on the laws in place regarding animals, the two contend.

“The issue here is to have commissioners and lawmakers set aside funding for training in this area,” Wilkins said. “It starts with a dog at large and nobody doing anything about it.”

When the dog attack stories make the headlines, a gut-reaction from many is to focus on the breed involved. Certain types of dogs, such as pit bulls or Doberman Pinschers, are often responsible for causing the most severe injuries. But blaming a particular breed isn’t the answer.

“We cannot be looking at breed type,” renowned trainer Victoria Stilwell said. “It can happen with any breed type or any breed mix. We have to look at the person on the other end of the leash.”

Many dog owners aren’t doing their part to keep their pets happy and healthy to avoid the potential for aggressive behavior.

“Dogs have teeth for a reason: to eat and defend themselves,” Stilwell said. “A dog is aggressive for many different reasons. Dogs don’t attack for no reason.”

Fear or pain are likely culprits to aggression, according to experts. Adequate space could be another culprit. Certain dogs may love human hugs and kisses, but many will not.

For Stilwell, that means keeping her Chihuahua by her side when children other than her own are at her house. Children may want to be close to a pet’s face, though the animal is less than thrilled.

No matter the breed, any dog can bite, trainer Aly Lecznar said. Dogs also tend to be predictable, she said.

“They give us a beautiful range of behavior before they’re aggressive,” Lecznar said. “It’s up to dog owners to learn that aggression.”

Regardless of the breed, owners should take numerous steps, including socialization, to ensure their dogs are unlikely to attack people. Dogs need the opportunity to be around other dogs and people, according to breeders. Learning to speak your dog’s “language” and body language is key, Lecznar said, so that owners recognize behaviors.

“You wouldn’t adopt a Japanese child without learning to speak a little Japanese first,” she said.

When training dogs, positive reinforcement is vital, rather than punishments that injure or stun the animals. In the event your dog bites or attacks someone, homeowners and renters insurance policies may help defer liability costs. But in some serious dog attacks, the dog’s owner has no insurance, Wilkins said.

“Not only does the victim get scarred for life, they are out of luck getting any money from anyone,” she said.

Beyond owners working to keep their dogs safe and follow animal laws, much work is needed from law enforcement to keep communities safe. Funding is needed to train police officers, prosecutors and judges to understand animal laws and know how to apply them, attorneys said.

In this week’s case, dog owner Cameron Tucker was charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct after Logan Braatz was killed and Syari Sanders seriously injured.

“This type of incident is completely preventable,” Rock said. “But it’s important for people to understand what it means to be responsible in owning your animal.”

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