Showing posts with label DowneastDogNews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DowneastDogNews. Show all posts

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Legislate by Deed, Not by Breed: Breed-specific legislation and policies pose challenges to dog owners

Published in Downeast Dog News

As the city of Denver reassesses its 20-year-old ban on Pit Bull-type breeds, and begins to question its longstanding official assumption that all dogs of that type are hazardous to people, it’s worth remembering that some dogs are strong and may require particular skills to handle them better. But any dog, even a toy chihuahua, has the potential to be dangerous.

The opposite also holds true—any dog has the potential to be harmless and friendly.

In fact, the heart of the American Kennel Club’s guideline is “Legislate by deed, not by breed.” Rather than restricting certain types of dogs, this approach suggests examining each dog’s behavior individually and responding appropriately. While this may sound like common sense to a responsible dog owner, when motivated by fear and misconception, policy making organizations such as city councils, insurance companies or landlords often turn to breed bans.

Maine law does not specify breeds and even goes so far as to prevent cities and towns from enacting breed bans. It “took months” to devise that legislation, according to Heather Jackson, a dog owner and insurance agent from Augusta, who helped work on the bill more than a decade ago.

Authorities are allowed to deem a dog “dangerous,” and even seek a court order to euthanize it, if it seriously injures or kills a person, but exempts dogs defending their owners’ property, including vehicles, and farm dogs defending livestock. (See sidebar on page 10.)

Apparently, the law has worked pretty well. “No one has really wanted to mess with it since,” said Jackson. And the complaints that have come in have largely been handled without new legislation. One small change to the law was proposed in the most recent legislative session. It would have allowed authorities to classify a dog as “dangerous,” and even euthanize it, if it attacked not just people but domestic animals. The bill died in committee.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape here,” said Ken Marden of Whitefield, a former AKC president, who acts as an advisor to the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs, an umbrella organization for many dog-related interest groups in the state. However, the public perception of dangerous breeds and dangerous dogs, and how it plays out beyond government regulation, is not in such good shape.

“It can be a real problem” for dog owners to get insurance, said David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University School of Law and editor-in-chief of, a Web site that catalogues animal-related laws from around the country. Often, insurers are concerned with breeds, and not whether a dog is trained to defend territory or to cuddle with a newborn.

Some towns around the country require additional coverage for people who have dogs that have been classified as dangerous or that are specific breeds. But that doesn’t mean insurance companies will offer coverage, or that people will be able to afford it if it is available.

And some insurance companies will cancel their policies rather than insure particular types of dogs. “You have people losing insurance just because they have a Pit [Bull],” Favre said.

The AKC Web site does offer links to insurance companies that are not breed-specific, and Jackson said that her insurance company, State Farm, will even offer umbrella liability coverage for dogs with certain bite histories, although owners should be prepared to pay extra for it. Some states have laws preventing insurance companies from canceling insurance for homeowners on the basis of the breed of their dog. Maine considered that in 2005, but it failed.

Sometimes, however, if a tenant can get insurance, that may not be enough. Carlton Winslow, vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association, said that landlords run into insurance problems, too.

“The insurance companies have gotten tougher” over the last 10 years, according to Winslow. They may restrict landlords from renting to tenants with dogs (or specific breeds of dogs) or tenants who smoke. Even apartments with working fireplaces are now harder and more expensive to insure for landlords.

And then there are the landlord’s own policies. Winslow, for example, rents to dog owners only at his single-family properties and not in multi-unit housing. “In a house, the tenant is pretty much responsible for everything,” he said. Multi-family buildings have common areas, and neighbors are placed closer to each other, so there’s more opportunity for problems.

Plus, “some people take great care of their pets and other people do not,” said Winslow, a former dog owner. And housing-fairness laws make it hard to make decisions on a case-by-case basis without risking legal threats.

Other businesses, of course, can’t get by if they restrict dogs too tightly. Robin Bennett, a Virginia-based consultant for off-leash dog daycares and dog daycare section chair of the Pet Care Services Association, which rates daycares and kennels nationwide, said that daycares and kennels have to be more discerning, but they are prepared to make the necessary distinctions, because they are animal professionals, unlike insurance employees and landlords.

“Sociability,” a term Bennett uses to describe how much a dog expresses interest in humans or other dogs, is something that dog professionals look for. Bennett suggests that owners and trainers be aware of dogs’ warning signals, such as growling, that may signal stress, which can escalate to something more serious. Mostly, look for a dog that will engage with others, and has manners when greeting other dogs. Like many dog pros, Bennett is not a “big proponent of breed bans.”

Screenings for kennels can be less rigorous than those for playgroups, simply because kennels where dogs don’t mix just have to be sure its staff can handle a dog. A playgroup, because dogs mix more freely, requires a more careful screening, according to Bennett. But even then, it’s rarely “good dog, bad dog,” she said; rather it’s “good moment, bad moment.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how many in the public perceive things, which is where lawmakers get caught up in the idea of breed bans. Favre said that there is no evidence to show that any of these kinds of laws, whether breed-specific or not, have actually reduced dog bites.

In fact, Denver’s dog-bite numbers “are not down,” despite the draconian law there, according to Marcy Setter, owner and founder of Understanda-Bull in Massachusetts, who added that most bites in Denver are from German Shepherds, which are not covered in the city’s breed ban.

All the research shows “it’s an owner issue, it’s not a breed issue,” Setter said. “No specific breed is any more dangerous than any other.” Citing an average of 21 dog-bite fatalities annually in the United States, Setter said that there are many other more serious causes of widespread injury, such as walking down the street, and driving. She also said that while parents of newborns often are sent home from the hospital with piles and piles of material detailing how to keep the baby safe, there is almost never any information on dog safety, whether there is a dog in the home or not.

And that may, in the end, be a key issue. “Without understanding basic canine behavior, people immediately think ‘these dogs are aggressive,’” Setter said.

Definition of a “Dangerous Dog” under Maine Law
“Dangerous dog,” under Maine Law, means a dog that bites an individual or a domesticated animal that is not trespassing on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises at the time of the bite, or a dog that causes a reasonable and prudent person who is not on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises and is acting in a reasonable and nonaggressive manner to fear imminent bodily injury by assaulting or threatening to assault that individual or individual’s domestic animal.

“Dangerous dog” does not include a dog certified by the state and used for law enforcement use. “Dangerous dog” does not include a dog that bites or threatens to assault an individual who is on the dog owner’s or keeper’s premises if the dog has no prior history of assault and was provoked by the individual immediately prior to the bite or threatened assault.

For the purposes of this definition, “dog owner’s or keeper’s premises” means the residence or residences, including buildings and land and motor vehicles, belonging to the owner or keeper of the dog.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Summertime blues: The scoop on red tide and blue-green algae

Published in Downeast Dog News

We’re hearing a lot about red tide this year, harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine that cause state officials to close shellfish flats all along the coast. And because of June’s rainfall, several beaches were closed or under advisories for several days because of high levels of bacteria in stormwater runoff. But it turns out that while those conditions carry some minor risks for dogs that play on beaches and in the surf, the real danger is algae floating in freshwater lakes and ponds.

“Red tide” is a term that broadly covers many different kinds of algae with different toxicity levels. In some places around the world, toxic algae can be highly concentrated in seawater and may become airborne in surf spray, poisoning people and animals, including dogs and anything else that breathes along the shore.

News accounts from Florida state that the first reported cases of red tide toxins in dogs of the United States were in 2003 on the Gulf Coast, during a toxic algal bloom that became airborne. So, if you take your dog on a coastal trip, be sure to gather information about the type of red tide that may be found at that area.

The red tide found in Maine—which is actually brown—is not very concentrated, and has never been reported as airborne, according to Michael Sieracki, a senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor. Rather, the danger comes primarily from eating shellfish that have stored up the toxins after they consumed lots and lots of the algae.

While this year’s algal bloom is at “unprecedented levels,” according to Sieracki, it is still not so concentrated that it might harm dogs or people who are simply exposed to seawater. However, Sieracki does caution against letting dogs eat shellfish that might be found around the beach, because it may be contaminated.

Keri Lindberg of Maine Healthy Beaches, a state-run program that monitors water quality on Maine’s ocean beaches, agrees, and adds that even non-red-tide shellfish, especially uncooked—just the way our dogs prefer them—can also harbor dangerous bacteria that can sicken a dog. But she said that dogs are unlikely to get sick from algae unless they “ingest a lot of water” that is particularly contaminated.

Dr. Jennifer Roberts, a veterinarian at Maine Veterinary Referral Center in Scarborough, said that she has not heard of red tide as a problem for animals in Maine, and has not heard much about blue-green algae causing illness in dogs here, but it can be “very toxic,” often particularly hurting a dog’s liver. Roberts urged dog owners whose pets develop gastrointestinal distress to tell their vets not only whether the dog likes to chase the neighborhood squirrels or knock over trash cans, but also if the dog swims in the local ponds. This
information may help a vet identify blue-green algae toxicity as a possible cause of illness.

Dogs have died from blue-green algae poisoning in Lake Champlain in Vermont, which has led to periodic warnings from state health officials there. New Hampshire tests its lakes and issues blue-green algae warnings that mention potential dangers for pets and humans in areas with high levels of contaminants. Maine does track algal blooms, and just last year began tracking their toxicity, but at this time, the state does not issue warnings, according to Roy Bouchard, a biologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Lake Assessment Program.

Bouchard said that toxicity is “something nobody has a real good handle on yet,” and that states that do issue warnings are being “very conservative.” Because blooms can be nontoxic one day and toxic the next, it can be hard to keep track; lab tests require days or weeks to return results. As a result, the warnings are often based on visual observations from which experts draw the conclusion that the conditions make toxicity possible.

Between 38 and 54 lakes across the state have algal blooms “commonly” or “frequently,” according to the Bureau of Land and Water Quality in the Maine DEP, although it is more typical that 11 to 25 lakes are documented as having blooms each year, according to state data.

Bouchard said that he has not heard reports of exposure to blue-green algae toxins in Maine; however, he added that one reason might be that some of the symptoms—in both people and dogs—include vomiting and diarrhea. That could lead people to blame other causes, such as that a dog “got into something.” According to Bouchard, the additional data on toxicity that he began to collect last year may help develop a warning system that may be used as early as next summer, but but not before then.

Meanwhile, and because he cannot track toxicity at every one of Maine’s 5,900 or so lakes and ponds—even with the help of Maine Volunteer Lake Monitors (—Bouchard suggests that people stay away from lakes that are “really green and murky,” especially when algae are concentrated together on the surface, and to be certain that their dogs do not drink from or swim in these bodies of water. Other states also suggest washing a dog’s coat if she has taken a swim in questionable water to prevent her from ingesting algae while cleaning her fur.

Bouchard said that seeing plants in the water is quite normal and can often be a sign of a healthy body of water; the concern should be about algae, “murky fine particles that are free-floating with no obvious structure,” he said.

Roberts suggests using common sense about where you let your dog swim, “If you don’t want your kids playing in a certain area, you shouldn’t let your dog go there either.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yellow Lab Runs, Rides from Maryland to Maine

Published in Downeast Dog News

The trip ended the way its days always did—with a high-five between Sadie and Dan McCrady. But they had to do a few extras for the cameras, as their 22-day, 850-mile journey from Maryland to Maine ended June 13 with twin ceremonies in South Portland and Portland.

Sadie, a 3-year-old purebred yellow Labrador Retriever, attentively listened to the official greetings, including remarks from South Portland Mayor Tom Blake and Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, but perhaps she was just waiting for some more treats.

In South Portland, the city bought her a cake reading “Congratulations Sadie,” made by Scratch Baking Company using their popular dog-biscuit recipe, which she happily shared with the half-dozen other dogs there to celebrate the end of her trip with her bicycling human, McCrady.

McCrady dreamed up the idea last year, as a project to occupy his time in retirement. “I wanted to do something a little bit adventurous and a little challenging,” he said. Because Sadie had become a constant companion since McCrady and his wife adopted her after his retirement three years ago, there was “no question that whatever I did, it would be with her,” he said.

McCrady decided they would bicycle a part of the East Coast Greenway, a trail-in-progress whose full length is planned to stretch from Key West, Florida, to Calais, Maine, combining hard-surface off-road trails with a few segments of low-traffic roads. McCrady figured he would attract some attention for the trail and raise some money to support its development—he has rounded up $5,200 so far.

McCrady planned to take the Greenway’s route from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, to Maine, which he had visited many times because his wife’s sister and her husband live in South Portland. He arranged lodging with the help of Greenway supporters, many of whom offered to host the traveling pair.

The biggest bike trip McCrady made before this one lasted three days and covered 200 miles, and didn’t involve towing a trailer—or a canine companion. “This is the only time he’s done anything like this,” said his wife, Eileen, who came up from Maryland to join her sister and other family members and friends to greet McCrady and Sadie at the end of the trip.

It was a first for Sadie, too. McCrady gave her more food to handle her increased activity level—she ran an average of 10 miles a day, and once ran 25 miles in a day—and weighed her every week to make sure she was doing well. Her weight didn’t fluctuate more than half a pound either direction during the trip, McCrady said.

McCrady wasn’t sure how Sadie’s paws would hold up—“I even carried little boots,” he said—but she had no trouble. Sadie also had never blogged before, but learned quickly, posting daily during the trip at

The pair averaged 55 miles a day. Whenever Sadie wasn’t running, she relaxed in her “limousine,” a Track’r dog-carrying bike trailer donated by Solvit Products. The one Sadie used was the largest model, capable of carrying 125 lbs., according to McCrady. Because Sadie is a fit 75 lbs., McCrady was able to stow some clothing under the floor of the trailer, giving her a softer ride and him some extra cargo capacity.

The trailer itself hitches and unhitches in only 30 seconds, and is fully enclosed, but with plenty of screened windows for Sadie to look and sniff through. When not in use, it folds down to be 6 inches thick and the size of a “small suitcase,” McCrady said.

During training rides, McCrady sent some feedback off to Solvit; they incorporated some of his ideas into their designs, and sent him a revised trailer for the actual journey. He still has an additional tip for the company—their guidelines suggest the dog should enter and exit through the zippered door in the rear of the trailer, but that didn’t seem safe to McCrady, who feared Sadie might manage to get out into traffic. Instead, he had Sadie jump through the opening directly behind the bicycle’s rear tire. As an additional precaution, “I’ve taught her she never goes in or out unless the bike’s at a full stop,” he said.

The celebrations began in South Portland’s Bug Light Park, where the mayor’s proclamation included formal recognition that a “dog’s need for exercise can help encourage dog owners’ increased physical activity.” That was cheered by local dog enthusiasts, including the South Portland Dog Owners Group (SoPoDOG), represented by its president, Crystal Goodrich, and several human and dog members.

SoPoDOG gave Sadie a taste of Maine lobster—in biscuit form—and a stuffed lobster dog toy, to complement the Maryland blue crab dog toy she had been given at the trip’s beginning in Annapolis.

Then they boarded a water taxi, which is part of the official route of the East Coast Greenway, and took Sadie’s first boat ride, crossing Portland Harbor to the water taxi dock next to Flatbread Company. Sadie took that in stride as well, lying calmly on the boat’s deck. “She’s a very mellow dog,” McCrady said.

During the walk and the ride up to East End Beach, where Sadie graciously accepted gifts from and Planet Dog, McCrady contemplated his next retirement project. “I think I’d like to get involved in some hiking,” he said, mentioning doing pieces of the Appalachian Trail.

That may not come as such welcome news for Sadie, because her owner’s plan already includes the assumption that she “can carry her own food and water.”