A surge of concern was reborn for Nelson County residents upset with the lack of responsibility for dogs running at large in the county after a dog attacked a toddler in May, and now Nelson County and Virginia residents alike may have a chance to see a step toward change.
The Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters and the Virginia Animal Control Association has been asked to consider changing the dangerous dog statutes in Virginia. A public meeting will be held on August 20 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Henrico. According to Sharon Adams, chair of the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters, the meeting is being held to not only hear from as many people as possible, but also to review the wording itself in the dangerous dog statue.
"The idea is to do what is rarely done in these cases and that’s to let the public weigh in," Adams said.
Adams said they want to hear from victims, but anyone is welcome to attend. Adams said a major issue is that no-kill shelters are required to ask about bite history when taking in a dog, as well as releasing that information to prospective adopters, and over time it's become contentious.
"That’s the conflict, public safety and animal adoption. It’s about trying to find the balance. That’s what this conversation's about," Adams said.
According to the Virginia state code, a dangerous dog is “a canine or canine crossbreed that has bitten, attacked, or inflicted injury on a companion animal that is a dog or cat or killed a companion animal that is a dog or cat.” A vicious dog is “a canine or canine crossbreed that has killed a person, inflicted serious injury to a person, or continued to exhibit the behavior that resulted in a previous finding by a court.”
Nelson County Animal Control investigates any calls about aggressive dogs in the county. According to Steve Carter, county administrator, if they find a dog has inflicted harm on another person or animal, they can file a charge that will then go to court.
If the matter goes to court and the judge finds the dog to be dangerous, the judge may order restitution to be paid for damage done during the attack and expenses for confining the animal by the law enforcement or animal control until the verdict is rendered. The owner must register the dog as “dangerous” within 30 days of the verdict and must have an identifying tag on the dog’s collar at all times. Every year, the registration of “dangerous dog” must be renewed until the dog has died.
If a dog is deemed “vicious” through the same means, restitution may be ordered to be paid and the dog must be euthanized.
The county currently has no leash law or dogs-at-large ordinance in place. Dogs can run off their owner's property, as long as they have the mandatory vaccines up to date, with no consequences to the owner.
"A number of recent attacks in the county has forced this issue to the forefront," Schuyler resident Barbara Bond said.
James and Barbara Bond are avid runners who run along the roads and through neighborhoods where they live. The Bonds said they have had problems with aggressive dogs in the county for years.
"You shouldn't have to be bitten for something to be done," James said.
James said there have been multiple times he has been chased or threatened by dogs in the area. Barbara has been bitten twice while out in Schuyler.
"I consider an attack to not necessarily include a dog bite. I consider growls, snarls, et cetera, as an attack, but that's up for debate. I have been bitten twice," Barbara said.
Between 2013 and 2018, four dogs have been deemed dangerous in Nelson County Circuit Court.
Between 2015 and 2018, 1,900 calls came to the Nelson County Animal Control Department regarding concern over dogs in the county, ranging from dogs chasing cars, barking too much, chasing other animals, or showing signs of aggression toward people or other pets. From the end April through the end of May of this year, nine calls have been made to Nelson County Animal Control specifically regarding aggressive dogs.
However, due to the lack of laws regarding dogs in the county, animal control can’t take action unless a person or another pet is actually attacked. Of those nine calls, two were regarding the same incident. That incident, along with another unrelated incident, have been investigated and the cases have been closed. The dogs in question were returned to the owners after being deemed not dangerous and the matter did not go to court. Two calls are still being investigated. One dog was euthanized at the scene of the attack and tested negative for rabies. One call call was regarding an aggressive dog attacking and possibly killing neighborhood cats. However, there were no witnesses to the attacks and a dog was never found. One call was an after hours complaint and advice was given and one call had no additional information attached to the call log.
"Kevin Wright and his staff have just been outstanding in stepping up and addressing these concerns to extent we can. It’s a gray area sometimes," Carter said.
Carter said although the Nelson County Board of Supervisors has determined in the past there is no need for a "dogs at large" ordinance, the Nelson County Commonwealth's Attorney office has stepped up to offer legal advice in regards to possible dangerous or vicious dogs.
"[Erik] Laub and [Daniel] Rutherford reiterated that the Commonwealth's Attorney office is now at the forefront and most proactive with assisting with cases that can get complicated. We want to be as good with investigation and documentation of these cases as we can," Carter said.
The Thomas Jefferson Health Department, which covers the city of Charlottesville and Nelson, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, and Louisa counties, said between April 30 and May 30, the health department received two animal exposure reports in Nelson County relating to dog attacks.
“Of those two, only one was sent off for testing,” Michele Napper, interim office services supervisor senior and district rabies program manager, said.
Napper said the animal that had been tested was euthanized at the scene of the incident and tested negative for rabies. In that particular case — the most recent to be brought to the public's attention — Nelson County Sheriff David Hill euthanized the dog after it attacked his daughter, according to a sheriff's office Facebook post. The other dog was kept in confinement and monitored for 10 days before it was deemed healthy by animal control and, according to Animal Control, released back to the owner.
Barbara said during their 23 years in the county, residents have gone to the board of supervisors a number of times regarding the issue of dogs running at large, and said last year they got close to passing an ordinance.
In 2018, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing to discuss implementing a county ordinance, which would make it unlawful for a dog owner or dog custodians to allow dogs to run off property. The proposal stated any dog running unlawfully off property can be captured and impounded by animal control. The ordinance did make an exception for hunting dogs accompanied by owners. Hunters, however, still came out to speak against implementing the ordinance because, according to Barbara, they feared it would be a "slippery slope."
At the beginning of June this year, East District Board of Supervisors representative Jesse Rutherford said he was in favor of an ordinance for dogs running at large that would fine repeat offenders.
"I'm not in favor of criminal charges," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said bonafide hunting dogs were not targeted in the proposed ordinance heard in 2018 and one argument people have with the ordinance is whether or not Animal Control can effectively enforce it.
North District representative and Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors Tommy Harvey said passing a county-wide regulation is a mixed bag.
"For the ones that have a problem, yes it’s a major problem. But are you going to put everyone in the county up against something?" Harvey said.
James said he and other residents aren't necessarily looking for a leash law and are not trying to restrict hunting dogs, but want some enforcement for irresponsible dog owners.
"We want a dangerous dog or a dog at large ordinance. This would pinpoint people after one complaint is made. There would be some law or ordinance that would require restraint," James said "We want people who are irresponsible held accountable."
The meeting regarding Virginia's Dangerous Dog Statute on Aug. 20 will be held at Gayton Library, 10600 Gayton Road, in Henrico. Adams said the public is welcome, but must RSVP before Aug. 20 because space is limited. Adams said they will draft changes to the existing statute in September and then it goes to the General Assembly for review.
"We are making a good faith effort to hear from as many people as possible," Adams said.