Pit bulls as service animals: Denver quietly changes its policy

For more than two decades, Denver has tenaciously defended its pit bull ban. Years of lawsuits, protests and bad press have done nothing to unmoor Denver's political leadership from their conviction that this particular breed of dog is far too dangerous to allow within city limits.

No exceptions... until now.

A recent motion filed in federal court reveals that the city's animal control division has quietly decided it will no longer enforce the anti-pit bull law in cases where the dogs are being utilized a service animal for a disabled person. On April 5, Director of Animal Care and Control Doug Kelley issued an order changing the division's official policy. From now on, animal control officers "will not immediately impound a pit bull that is identified as a service animal by the owner."

In the past, animal control employees were required to confiscate any dog they suspected was more than 50 percent pit bull. This prompted an ongoing class-action lawsuit from a group of disabled people who use pit bulls as service animals and argue that Denver's blanket breed ban violates their civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Their case got a huge boost from new federal rules that say local governments cannot use breed-specific laws to prevent a disabled person from accessing a service dog of their choosing.

A pit bull puppy.
A pit bull puppy.

This prompted months of oftentimes combative statements from city council members and Mayoral candidates defending Denver's anti-pit bull law from what they characterized as federal bullying. A bill that would have provided a service animal exemption into the city's breed ban ordinance was shot down in committee. Aurora, which also has a breed ban law, is struggling with the service animal issue, too.

It appears that Kelly's behind-the-scenes policy change is an effort to shield elected officials from having to vote on the pit bull issue while at the same time making the city right with the ADA and potential future litigation.

If an animal control officer encounters a pit bull that is being used as a service animal under the new procedure, they can ask two questions: 1) If the animal is required because of a disability, and, 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Animal control can still seize and impound the pit bull if it displays aggressive behavior, "such as attacking and/or biting another person."

At first glance, this new policy appears simple. But, like everything involving the pit bull ban, Kelly's attempt at compromise will likely lead to unintended consequences.

The document appears to establish a whole new set of proceedings for determining if particular pit bulls are up to snuff as service animals. It allows authorities to open an investigation to "verify or disaffirm an owner, keeper, or possessor's claim that their pit bull is qualified as a service animal." Officials are instructed to examine pit bull's past behavior, if it is socialized to "tolerate strange sights, sounds, odors," and if it can "ignore food on the floor or dropped in the dog's vicinity while working outside the home."

There is no nationwide standard for training and certifying service animals. The City and County of Denver doesn't test or license service dogs, so why would it establish a quiz for pit bulls? What will these tests look like? If a dog fails, can owners appeal? How are Denver's animal control employees qualified to judge service-animal training? These are all questions that disabled rights advocates will certainly be asking.

Regardless, Kelley's policy change is striking for longtime observers of Denver's controversial breed ban. For the first time in 22 years, a city official is acknowledging in writing that behavior and training are the most important factors in determining if a dog is inherently dangerous or capable of caring for the most vulnerable in our society. Breed, not so much.

Page down to read the policy-change document.


Pit Bulls as Service Dogs: Denver Policy Change

More from our News archive: "Leaked: photos of pit bulls killed due to Denver ban."

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