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Provo sharpening teeth of dog laws

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PROVO — Rather than turn to pit bull-specific restrictions, City Council is contemplating stricter regulations on vicious dogs — regardless of breed — and their owners.

Months ago, complaints of pit bulls running rampant in a neighborhood near 640 South and 1000 East prompted the Provo City Council to research remedies to the situation. Since that time, City Councilwoman Midge Johnson said she's concluded they're dealing with a vicious dog problem, not a breed-specific problem. So the council is drafting an ordinance that turns up the heat on ill-tempered dogs and their owners.

"We're telling people if you have a dog like that you've got to be responsible for him," she said.

Some neighbors are upset the ordinance doesn't specifically mention pit bulls, but Johnson said her research led her to conclude aggressive behavior isn't exclusive to any particular breed.

"You can have a German shepherd that's a vicious animal," she said.

Over the past two years, Provo police have received 93 reports of animal bites, according to a police report. Only nine incidents involved dogs described as pit bulls. Provo Police Captain Jerry Harper noted that people often report problems with pit bulls that aren't actually pit bulls.

Besides, Johnson said, the ordinance may not name pit bulls, but it doesn't exclude them, either.

The proposed ordinance would establish a two-step ranking system for "dangerous dogs" and "at-risk dogs." A canine would merit the dangerous dog classification if it has attacked an person, menaced or killed any domestic animal, or if it was used in the commission of a crime, such as dog fighting or guarding illegal property.

If an animal control officer receives complaints of a dangerous dog, it may be removed from the property. If it is returned, the owner would have to microchip the dog for tracking purposes and lock it in a secure pen. The owner would be required to file photos of the animal with police and provide proof of at least $100,000 in insurance in case the dog injures anyone.

When taken off the property, a dangerous dog would have to be muzzled and kept on a 4-foot leash at all times. When driving, an owner would have to transport his or her dog in a closed, locked crate to prevent children from coming in contact with the animal. Any additional incidents or attacks could result in destruction of the dog.

Under the less stringent "at-risk" category, an animal control officer can deem a dog at risk if it displays threatening or aggressive behavior. The owner of an at-risk dog would have to file photos of the dog with the police, have the dog microchipped and provide insurance that covers injuries caused by the dog.

The owner of an at-risk dog would also be required to provide secure fencing. And when off the property, the owner would have to keep the dog on a 4-foot leash. If the dog displays escalating aggressive behavior, it could be bumped up to dangerous dog.

Harper said he thinks current city ordinances are sufficient to deal with problem dogs, but Johnson doesn't agree.

"It's not sufficient when a neighborhood feels like they can't walk the streets," she said.

City Councilman Steve Turley said he initially thought Johnson was going overboard with her recommendation.

"I thought you were using a sledge hammer to swat a fly," he said, but he's been getting more reports of problem dogs since word spread the council is looking into the issue.

Johnson said the council will revisit the ordinance again before it appears on a City Council meeting agenda. She said she thinks they still need to add more teeth to the measure, but it won't affect responsible dog owners.

"I don't like knee-jerk legislation," she said.

E-mail: jdana@desnews.com