Boulder takes a bite out of bad dog behavior

Matthew James adopted Major, an American Pit Bull Terrier, from a Los Angeles shelter in 2006. When he moved to Denver later that year, he knew very little about the city's pit bull ban.

"I wasn't sure how strict it was," he says. "Then I got here and learned they were real serious about it, that they would confiscate your dog and everything." But James had already signed a lease on a house and was still looking for a job, and "I didn't have that many options financially," he recalls.

So, like many other pit bulls in Denver, Major went underground. James kept his dog inside and away from windows during the day and only took him for walks at night, usually in the back alley. The only time Major could run was when James would drive them out of Denver to dog parks in Lakewood and Wheat Ridge. "I was always worried about cops showing up and taking him away from me or neighbors seeing him and maybe reporting him," says James. "It was a pretty paranoid state. He was like a fugitive."

After getting a job at an advertising firm, James decided to ditch the Mile High City for Boulder, which has no pit bull ban. He moved into a pet-friendly apartment and discovered that six other people in the building owned pit bulls, too. "And three of them said they'd also moved out of Denver because of the ban," he says.

Boulder officials say they have no reliable count of how many dogs there are in the city, let alone pit bulls. In 2008, Boulder's animal-control division recorded 207 dog bites; 9 were reported to have come from pit bulls. The numbers were similar in the three years prior. And Boulder hasn't had a fatal dog attack in at least thirty years. Because what it does have is a muscular dangerous-dog law and a unique bite-diversion program that teaches owners how to control aggressive behavior in their dogs in order to prevent future bites.

Boulder contracts its animal-control services with the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, which folds the duties into its shelter operations at 2323 55th Street. The nonprofit has six employees who are commissioned as officers to enforce the city's aggressive-animal ordinance. "If an animal bites, claws, scratches, attempts to bite or approaches somebody in a manner of attack, or bites or injures another animal, it is deemed aggressive," says Boulder Animal Care and Control manager Janee Teague. In Boulder, animal-control officers can ticket the owner of a dog that behaves in an overtly threatening manner; in Denver, a dog must cause injury before an owner can be cited. But more tickets aren't the goal of Boulder's program. In fact, in many circumstances, an animal-control officer will agree to drop the citation if the owner agrees to have the dog evaluated by Humane Society training personnel. The trainer and the owner then discuss the dog's history and past behavior.

"History is a good predictor of the future. So there's a lot of conversation and observing the dog behaviorally," says Lindsay Wood, the Humane Society training director. "What's the recurring problem with this dog? Is it aggressive toward people or other dogs? Is it a dog that bites when they're in possession of something? Is it fear-related? We're watching the dog and how it would interact with me or the guardian or another dog we bring in."

The evaluation costs the owner $90, about the equivalent of a court fine for an aggressive-dog ticket. An owner also has the option of signing up for additional training classes at the shelter geared toward a dog's particular negative behavior, such as the Grumpy Growlers class.

"I think it's a wonderful alternative that we have," says Teague. "As officers, we're given a lot of different discretion that we have to use. It's not always the best method to use just punitive damage like a summons. The bite diversion allows us to be a little more proactive and community-oriented. We can say, 'Look, this is a bite that we believe that with a little modification could be remedied and this situation will not happen again.'"

Still, certain incidents are so egregious that they necessitate the court process, Teague notes. But in the two years that she's been director, only one pit bull had been labeled too aggressive by a judge. "It was the dog's third bite, and the bites were increasing in severity," she says. And after going through the training, the owners did not follow through to control their pit bull's behavior: "They let the dog out the front door and it bit again, a severe bite." The dog was ordered euthanized.

During those same two years, Denver euthanized 558 pit bulls — whether the dogs bit anyone or not.

An aggressive-dog ordinance is far more effective than a breed ban, Teague says. "It's more of an owner-type issue and the way that the animal is being raised, handled and controlled rather than being a breed issue," she explains. "I've seen double the amount of nice pit bulls than I have the amount of mean pit bulls. If a situation does occur, that owner needs to be held accountable, as opposed to just eliminating a certain breed — because in my opinion, you're creating a whole other issue. Now you're having to enforce that ban, and so that's where a lot of your resources are going to end up rather than going to education and a more proactive approach."

James and Major approve of that approach.

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Jared Jacang Maher